Complex power dynamics are evident in many of the contexts I work in. For example, research projects which bring together health professionals and patients; community drama projects; and teaching. Challenging those dynamics is an important part of collaboration. One of the reasons that I like creative projects, is that art can sometimes help to address those dynamics and ‘level the playing field’.
I’ve just come back from the International Collaboration for Participatory Health Research (ICPHR) conference in Ireland, where this topic came up a lot. The ICPHR are an international network of people doing participatory research. Put in very simple terms, participatory research is about communities working together to look at the problems which affect them and take action. There’s a more detailed definition on the ICPHR website.
Limerick was a lovely backdrop to the conference
The conference has pushed me to think more about power dynamics. What do I actually mean when I talk about ‘levelling the playing field’?
It isn’t about trying to make everyone the same, or even trying to make everyone agree. It’s about valuing difference, and being open to challenge and disruption. It’s about recognising that different ways of working will work for different people. The way things are facilitated has an impact on people’s ability and willingness to contribute. When collaborating, we need to think honestly about or own ways of working. We need to consider our values, and interrogate why we think and act the way we do. Participatory researchers try to create environments where that is possible.
OK, so I realise that is a fairly romantic, idealist view! Facilitating even one meeting which fulfils all of that is challenging, let alone a full project. At the conference I was also challenged to think honestly about the context I work in, and the negative impact that may have on my ability to create truly equal partnerships.
For example, I try to approach every project with integrity. I want to do research that makes a difference to people, I want to make ethical theatre that raises important issues. However I also need to pay my mortgage. I have an ego and want to progress in my career, which requires a degree of self-promotion. I work at a university, where winning grants and writing academic publications is valued. I can’t pretend those factors don’t exist. In fact, that would be dishonest.
Thanks to ICPHR members for encouraging me to think more deeply about this issue. I’m sure the conference will inspire some more posts over the next few weeks!
I’d love to know what other people think about this. How do power dynamics impact your work? What should / could we do to address them?
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