The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), a primary funder of the On the Move Partnership, describes knowledge mobilization as a means of “ensuring that all citizens benefit from publicly funded research. It can take many forms, but the essential objective is to allow research knowledge to flow both within the academic world, and between academic researchers and the wider community. By moving research knowledge into society, knowledge mobilization increases its intellectual, economic, social and cultural impact” (SSHRC website).
On the Move’s researchers strive to share their research in innovative ways. In this brief interview, Sara Dorow, Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Alberta and lead researcher with the Alberta Field Component, discusses sharing her research from a previous SSHRC-funded research project with a team of playwrights from Architect Theatre, and academic-artistic collaboration as an effective, creative way to share research knowledge.
Q: You shared an anonymized set of diverse interviews from your research in Fort McMurray with a group of playwrights who were developing a play called “Highway 63: The Fort Mac Show,” which has since been performed across Canada. How did this collaboration come about? Could you tell me a little bit about those interviews and that research project? Did that project also look at employment-related geographical mobility (E-RGM)?
Sara Dorow: If memory serves, this collaboration began when I met some of the members of the theatre group – also affiliated with the University of Alberta – during a research field trip to Fort McMurray. They were doing immersive, intensive research to prepare for sketching out the play. I was impressed that they wanted to understand the complexities of different human experiences and positions in the oil sands region, and realized that a select variety of interviews from the dozens I had already collected might serve them well.
In 2007 I had started a project called Social Landscapes of Fort McMurray, exploring the impacts of oil sands development on ideas and practices of “community” in Fort McMurray, including relationships to place. I had interviews and sketch maps from dozens of people, ranging from second generation oil sands workers to newly arrived immigrants. While E-RGM was not the focus of that project, doing research in this mega-resource development zone in northern Alberta inevitably and consistently bumps into questions of mobile work, complex transit and rapid turnover.
Q: Academics/social scientists and playwrights aren’t necessarily obvious colleagues – would you consider this type of academic-artistic collaboration a good fit? This collaboration could be considered an example of innovative knowledge mobilization – any thoughts on this and on how academic research/social science might benefit from such innovative KM?
Sara Dorow: When I met members of the theatre group, I think I almost immediately thought about seeking an ethical and meaningful way to share some of the interviews I had done because I had so much rich data. I knew that there was no way I could even fully do it justice in my own writing, i.e., analyze and synthesize all the stories I had been privileged to gather. In addition, it is incumbent on us as academics to find creative ways to share research findings. In this case, I just sort of stumbled into an opportunity to do so. (At other times, I have actively sought alternative venues, such as the website on which we have exhibited some of the sketch maps gathered in the same project, mappingmcmurray.com.) It was not, then, a planned collaboration, but a short-term partnership that arose fairly organically.
There are so many very good examples of social scientists setting up conscious collaborative projects with scientists, artists, etc. Perhaps this is because in many ways the goals are not that different – to discover and express ideas. (After all, research happens in many types of organizations and vocations – so really, this was a collaboration between artist-practitioner researchers and a sociological researcher.) And perhaps more and more, there is a desire to express ideas outside of the usual academic venues. Well, there is also pressure to do so, and not always for great reasons. But ultimately, it makes sense for academic researchers to be actively open to collaborative possibilities and alternative venues of dissemination.