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Talking about Theory and Practice

Silvio Waisbord's picture

I attended the conference of the International Studies Association in New Orleans. Its theme “Theory versus Policy? Connecting Scholars and Practitioners” is surely relevant to anyone interested in aid, communication/media, and governance. The question prods us to think about whether the two professional communities are inevitably opposed, and if not, then, how collaboration is possible.

In an ideal world, scholars and practitioners may not necessarily hold hands and sing kumbaya, but they could find common ground based on mutual respect and recognition. In reality, however, my experience tells me that something completely different happens. Even theorists and aid practitioners working on related issues and holding similar normative ideals, rarely see it eye to eye. Despite sporadic goodwill, encounters tend to be filled with tensions. If (sotto voce) dismissive words are not heard, participants loudly speak about different concerns. “Wait, there is a huge literature on that issue” warn academics when they hear simplistic arguments. “That works in theory, not in practice” practitioners respond and rattle off experiences that disprove theories. One’s theoretical excursus makes the other yawn. One’s case analysis meets indifference in the other. One asks about conceptual clarify and rigor, the other begs for simple concepts to use.

You get the picture. Different needs, languages, aspirations. Yes, there are many academics-qua-consultants who ably swim in both waters, and practitioners curious about new research findings and groundbreaking ideas. Yet they are the exception. How often do academics sift through “best practices” and “lessons learned” reports to get a glimpse at what donors and implementers have learned? How many aid professionals keep up with recent conceptual developments?

In my mind, the main obstacle for more synergy and collaboration is that professional motivations inside academe and the aid industry are completely different. Their institutions pursue different goals, uphold different rules and norms, and deliver different organizational rewards. One cares about theory-building, testing hypotheses, advancing knowledge, publishing. The other needs to work with stakeholders, navigate bureaucracies, roll out programs effectively, monitor accountability and expediency, and deliver client satisfaction.

Considering these antithetical motivations, can’t we all get along? Probably if we talk to each other frequently and respect different needs. More than hostility between both professional cultures, I think that the conversation doesn’t happen enough. “Versus,” as in the conference’s theme, assumes engagement. Yet it is hard to know whether there is an irreconcilable differences and even antagonism when the conversation rarely takes place. It does not happen in academic conferences like the one I attended. If my impressionistic sample of panelists and attendees is representative, the participants were mostly affiliated with academic institutions. Expectedly, they cared about what scholars are concerned about: theory building, conceptual arguments, research methodologies. I didn’t see or hear any practitioners in the seven panels I attended. Not one. Thus, it’s hard to determine if there’s opposition if only one party is at the table. Likewise, few academics typically attend meetings organized by donors and contractors. I am not saying the conversation never happens – I am sure all readers can think of examples. The point is that collaborative exchanges and discussions do not happen frequently.

Given that this “blog” platform brings together both practitioners and academics, it is worth asking several questions. How scholars and practitioners may be better connected? Do we need to ask similar questions? What are our complementary needs? How to overcome the “ships that pass in the night” mindset? What examples illustrate fruitful collaboration either through joint participation in common efforts or informal borrowing and enriching each other’s ideas? What basic conditions are needed for both to be sitting at the same table?

Photo Credit: Flickr user lumaxart


Submitted by Jag on
The main obstacles that you talk about exist in all spheres of activity. But in many spheres of human enterprise "scholars" work with "practitioners". Both sides have worked out ways to co-exist and benefit from each other --- engineers work with scientists; doctors work with molecular biologists; social workers work with psychiatrists, etc. And all of these efforts result in goods and services that make a tangible difference Maybe the aid industry needs to spend time learning from these experiences. And maybe the aid industry needs to get greater clarity on the benefits that it provides or wants to provide.

Submitted by Anonymous on
Don't think it's as extreme as you present it. Sure, academics and development practitioners do inhabit different worlds, but there are many efforts to bridge that gap. DFID for instance, insists that all of the research it funds devotes at least 10% of their budget to communication and ensuring research uptake. This challenges the academics to interact with development practitioners. Similarly, development practitioners are encouraged (by donors mostly) to consider the wider relevance of their interventions, to document the lessons learned and to share their experience more widely. Then there are approaches to research such as the 'networked research' pioneered by theInternational Forum for Rural Transport and Development (IFRTD) (see that is fundamentally about researchers and practitioners working in partnership. Other readers may present other examples... I'd like to raise a warning flag: will the need to bridge the gap between theory and practice in someway lead to undervalueing theory and knowledge in a less applied form i.e. the knowing for the knowing sake on the one hand, and displace the value of contextual experience (that cannot be generalised or replicated) on the other?

Thank you Silvio for an interesting post which is the subject of much discussion in the media development community. You have taken a fairhanded approach that does not place blame on either side. As a practitioner and someone who came very close to a career in academia, I appreciate your discussion of the incentives that each side faces. I think scholars are not necessarily always well-rewarded for getting involved in practical media development work and as practitioners, usually implementing donor-funded programs, we have immediate imperatives driven by the need to show the results of our activities, but we have limited budgets and time. I think you are right that increased fora for interaction is necessary. Another issue is the absence of common terminology. We are not necessarily versed in communication theory - nor do many of us know who Habermas is! I presented at an academic conference a couple of years ago and I found the academics hard to follow and comments indicated many looked at me as offering simplistic ideas lacking theoretical rigor. We were speaking two different languages We cannot force the two sides to agree on a common language, nor should we. I also do not necessarily think the examples offered by JAG mean it is as achievable as implied nor is their need to lay the burden on the practitioners in the "aid industry." I come back again to your incentives comment - molecular biologists have an incentive to work with doctors, scientists have an incentive to work with engineers. But I also know of scholars in fields related to media development where too much work with practitioners is not valued for tenure decisions. The incentive is turned on its head. Perhaps we rather need to consider the computer/software field for a solution. Developers speak their own language and the clients do not necessarily understand the language. The best solutions seem to arise when there exists the intermediary person who can speak both "languages." They understand what programmers are talking about and understand the clients needs, expressed in non-technical language. It is the success of their intepretation that leads to successful outcomes. These people do exist in academia and the practitioner community. I think this "middle ground" could stand more cultivating. We have worked with some excellent individuals who do exist in this middle ground and have helped us with our monitoring and evaluation. Thanks for an interesting post.

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