Foundational Essays

These essays provide a foundation for how we work in the Institute for Culture and Society. Each essay interrogates a basic concept that is central to the common approach that we take to research. The overall approach we call 'engaged research'.

Often concepts such as 'engaged research' or 'capacity-building' are left undefined or given assumed instrumental meanings. By comparison, in these essays we have sought to define, elaborate, and draw out both practical and ethical principles that can arguably make our work 'good work'. They are exploratory essays and open to change. They will be rewritten over time as we learn more and try out the ideas in the world.

Named authors (Paul James, Ien Ang, Brett Neilson, Louise Crabtree, Stephen Healy and Katherine Gibson) write each of the essays, but the ethos and substance of the essays comes out of considerable collaboration and consultation. All of the essays are intended to fit together as an integrated whole.

Engaged Research

Engaged research is committed to making a positive difference in the world. It is engaged ethically and reciprocally with others. If our aim is to carry out innovative interdisciplinary research into continuities and transformations in culture and society in a way that contributes to understanding and shaping contemporary local and global life, then doing this well is difficult. Good engaged research involves being reflexively engaged both in the practical world of activities and things, and in the analytical world exploring the conditions and limits of knowledge practices. In these terms, just as we seek to relate to the practices of other people, we also seek to hone the craft and ethics of our own scholarly practices.

Read the Engaged Research Essay(opens in a new window)(PDF,1.3MB).  

Platform Research

Platform research is a style of engaged research. If engaged research aims to make a positive difference to the world through collaboration with others, platform research provides a conceptual and technical model that allows such engagement to happen. In current use a platform is an object, system or process that is built upon to practical effect. A platform provides the basis for practice of some kind. In political terms, a platform is the name given to a declaration of principles. In the computing world, its most common definition is as an operating system or an application that connects users. Platform research combines a practical orientation to interpretative inquiry and concept production with digital methods of organisation and orchestration. It is at once an analytical technique and a means of coordinating researchers from different disciplines and locations around collectively designed empirical investigations. Platforms bring bodies and brains into relation.

Read the Platform Research Essay(opens in a new window)(PDF,52KB).  

Navigating Cultural Complexity

The world today is more complex than ever. Processes of economic globalisation, technological change and environmental crisis have made the world we live in an exceptionally precarious place. In this world, problems are proliferating at various scales, and the solutions for many of these problems seem increasingly beyond our reach. What role can the humanities and social sciences play in such a world? In this essay I will argue that the key contribution of the humanities and social sciences today is to demonstrate that contemporary problems resist simplistic solutions. Instead, in order to address our current problems, we need to take seriously social complexity, including cultural complexity. 

Read the Navigating Cultural Complexity Essay(opens in a new window)([PDF,1.3MB).  

Creating Human Capacity

What are the core capacities that make for a flourishing life? It is an incredibly difficult question to answer. The reason why we have taken this question on as an Institute is that universities always talk of the importance of capacity building. Our own research office treats capacities as one of its key three themes, along with futures and impact. In this essay, we broaden out the question of capacities to ask what capacities do we need to produce a good life, what capacities are needed for positive human development. By beginning with this broad question it allows us to then return to the narrower concept of capacity building as part of our engaged research agenda.

Read the Creating Human Capacity Essay(opens in a new window)(PDF,706KB). 

Commoning Social Life

From our atmosphere to the open ocean, from our languages to the rule of law, use without ownership underpins human experience. It is critical to our continued survival beyond the Anthropocene. These resources and properties are ineluctably shared because they are not wholly appropriable; they are used as part of a commons because they cannot be entirely exchanged. They are held in common because they cannot be completely enclosed. This essay is concerned with the use of and care for the commons as an object of inquiry, a practice of all social life, and as the operative condition of intellectual production. The essay continues the ‘Foundational Essays’ series developed by the Institute for Culture and Society on basic concepts and approaches in social enquiry and practice. In the Institute, we treat ‘commoning’ as a key concept of our collective project.

Read the Commoning Social Life Essay(opens in a new window)(PDF,1.6MB).  

Unsettling Research Impact

Impact unsettles. Bringing into question the logic of intentionality, impact measurement registers the consequence of research in the world. However, we need to unsettle the current tendency for discussions of impact to become reduced to the one question: ‘How can we measure the impact of our research?’. The Institute for Culture and Society prides itself on the engaged nature of its research, and therefore the question of what is good impact quickly comes into contention in a comprehensive way. 

Read the Unsettling Research Impact Essay(opens in a new window)(PDF,1MB).  

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