Collaborative and innovative research approaches
In this series of blogs, there has been acknowledgement of the gaps in what is known about mediation, and some ideas for involving end-users and stakeholders in research projects. This final blog in the series considers innovative and cost-effective approaches and methods, in particular for empirical studies of what happens during, say, mediation.
In all research fields, it is important to have a theoretical framework whose philosophical structure supports the explanation and interpretation of data. One recently devised framework with the potential to support mediation and DR research is agential realism. Although, at first glance, a complex set of concepts, it proposes a completely different approach to the complexities of social interaction and human behaviour, and is being used increasingly to investigate them – and providing valuable and unexpected results.
Agential realism is not concerned with causation (ie cause and effect) or concepts of right and wrong. It focuses on what “is”, accepts that everything is in a perpetual state of “intra-action” with everything else, and that this constant intra-action defines existence. Everything (including space and time) is constantly and cooperatively exchanging with and influencing everything else. Thus, researchers cannot be objective because everything within a research project is necessarily influencing everything else. The research methods and instruments are as much a part of the study as are the participants and the researchers.
This theoretical approach cannot focus on single points of influence (ie power) nor can it consider isolated points of view or perceptions – it focuses on the entangled, inseparable engagements of everything with everything, accepting all viewpoints and intra-actions, and observing how they build on, with and through each other. This has clear application in mediation research where it is highly likely that what happens during mediation is influenced in various ways by all participants as well as by additional influences brought to the mediation by each participant.
The approach of agential realism accommodates collaborative research approaches such as participatory action research and participatory ethnography. The participatory approach emphasises the importance of social accountability to end-users (such as practitioners and disputants) and other stakeholders (such as program administrators and policy-makers), as well as ensuring transparency and accessibility in research reporting.
Participatory action research
In participatory action research, study participants are co-researchers and contribute to defining the purpose of a study, its design, its methods, the interpretation of data and the reporting of the study. For example, if a study were seeking to explore the role and influence of repeat players in, say, mediation, the research team could include people who are themselves repeat players and could provide insights into their role.
Ethnographic approaches have long been applied in anthropological and sociological research and are typified by the researcher being an embedded observer of a social setting or a social group. A recent, and illuminating, ethnographic study of what happens during mediation involved the researcher being an embedded observer of commercial mediations in London, during a twelve-month period.
In participatory ethnography, the researcher does not seek to be an “objective” observer. Rather, the researcher becomes part of the community being observed and participates in the complete social context and its setting, becoming part of its norms, power differentials and complex social dynamics. Ultimately, the participating community, or social group, contributes to the whole research project (ie purpose, design, methods, interpretation and reporting).
Ethnography does not have to be limited to a single long-term investigation – studies can be short and targeted, and can include multiple sites or groups for comparative studies. Online interactions such as blogs and social media lend themselves to ethnographic research – there is now software designed specifically to assist textual analysis of so-called micro-posts such as Twitter – analysis of blogs and microposts has been used in other fields to track research trends and developments. Artificial intelligence can also be harnessed to assist in ethnographic observations and in analysis of verbal and nonverbal communications.
Textual and attitudinal analysis
A separate area of research is the examination and analysis of the language used to express final terms of agreement, with researchers seeking to explore, for example, how the words and phrases of the terms of agreement reflect various levels of “self-determination”. For example, one such analysis suggested that a formalised and legalistic agreement style might reflect reduced disputant participation in the writing of the agreement. Analysis of agreements might provide insight into different and unexpected aspects of influence at the conclusion of a mediation. When such analysis includes different contexts, it might also provide useful comparative data.
Any of these approaches could be applied to explore attitudes to conflict across different cultural and socio-economic settings, in itself providing important baseline information likely to contribute to the ongoing development of affective approaches to managing and resolving conflicts and disputes.
In summary, to gain more insight into what happens during mediation, and to fill the knowledge gaps about how and why the process works, it is important to develop collaborative and inclusive approaches that include end-users and stakeholders. There is also much to learn from developments in other research fields, and from experimenting with innovative ideas and methods.
Adrian, L., and S. Mykland, ‘Unwrapping Court-Connected Mediation Agreements’ in A. Nylund, A. K. Ervasti, and L. Adrian (eds), Nordic Mediation Research (Springer Open, 2018).
Barad, K., Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning (Duke University Press, USA, 2007).
De Girolamo, D., The Fugitive Identity of Mediation: Negotiation, Shift Changes and Allusionary Action (Routledge, UK, 2013).