Soon, you will find here our Engaged Vocabularies. On this page, we theorize a set of critical concepts that are central to our project. Our aim is to unsettle and demystify taken for granted terminology, and contribute new critical vocabularies, which centre refugee experiences and connect existing academic, practitioner, and community knowledges. As well, we define a set of contextual vocabularies, which, while particular to the Netherlands, South Africa, and/or the United States, may resonate widely and help to enrich understandings, approaches, and practices elsewhere.
The engaged vocabularies included in this list so far are:
- (Critically) Engaged scholarship
- Democratic research methodologies
- Capacity building (Infrastructure)
- Sociological imagination
- Narratives of Change
Scholars that identify as ‘engaged’ generally have a social justice orientation. This means that they shape their research in relation to identified community needs, address existing societal problems and use academic knowledge and resources to produce sustainable, beneficial, valuable and relevant outcomes for both communities and universities. Engaged scholars often unsettle existing boundaries, not only between academia and society but also within academia itself. They take for example multi-inter-transdisciplinary approaches or integrate teaching, research, and service (Beaulieu et al., 2018).
Our project investigates challenges and opportunities of a specific kind of engaged scholarship, namely ‘critically’ engaged scholarship. Critically engaged scholars argue that transformative research requires critical reflection on and transformation of dominant exclusive structures that permeate not only society, but also academia, knowledge production and research relationships as such. In other words, critical engagement necessitates researchers to, first, reflect on the historical development of their own thinking and, second, to stay open to and dialogically engage with ideas that emerge from communities themselves (Meekosha et al., 2013).
Thus, societal transformation as well as co-creation of various sources of knowledge, combining intellectually committed grassroots scholarship with theoretical explorations, are the core pillars of critically engaged scholarship. The assumption is that this type of scholarship can play a role in unsettling normalized structures of societal exclusion. In the combination of their critical engagement and co-creation with societal stakeholders and their access to academic knowledge, these scholars have the capacity to make invisible power structures visible and specify new conditions for change, as well as to share responsibility in the process of change (Medina 2014).
Beaulieu, M., Breton, M., & Brousselle, A. (2018). Conceptualizing 20 years of engaged scholarship: A scoping review. PloS one, 13(2), e0193201.
Medina, J. (2014). Communicative Democracy and Solidarity Across Racial and Sexual Differences. In U. M. Vieten (Ed.), Revisiting Iris Marion Young on Normalisation, Inclusion and Democracy (pp. 33–48). https://doi.org/10.1057/9781137440976_3
Meekosha, H., Shuttleworth, R., & Soldatic, K. (2013). Disability and Critical Sociology: Expanding the Boundaries of Critical Social Inquiry. Critical Sociology, 39(3): 319–323.
‘Democratic research methodologies’ refers to research designs that aim to democratize knowledge production. Democratization in the context of research essentially necessitates the use of democratic research methods, such as participatory or co-creative methods (see the entry ‘co-creation’). However, considering subtle, invisible and taken-for-granted forms of exclusion, ‘real’ democratization in the context of research furthermore entails a thorough critical reflection on power during knowledge production. This requires scholars to reflect on (among others) how their own positionality, power relations between themselves and participants, as well as the research approach affect knowledge production (Caretta and Riaño, 2016; Edwards and Brannelly, 2017; Kajner, 2013; Saltmarsh et al., 2009).
Democratic research methodologies then can be used as an umbrella term referring to research designs that advocate for radical changes to traditional research ontologies, epistemologies, methodologies and knowledge use (Edwards and Brannelly, 2017). Examples can be found in inclusive, participatory, collaborative, co-creative, co-productive, dialogic, indigenous, critical race, decolonial, postcolonial and feminist research. The assumption is that such a democratic approach disrupt ‘both the academy and the wider social system because it challenges the binary logic underlying exclusionary and oppressive practices’ (Kajner, 2013: 9). This, arguably, enables the production of knowledge that has more transformative potential to challenge and unsettle dominant exclusive structures (Caretta and Riaño, 2016; Edwards and Brannelly, 2017; Kajner, 2013; Saltmarsh et al., 2009).
Caretta, MA and Riaño, Y (2016) Feminist participatory methodologies in geography: creating spaces of inclusion. Qualitative Research, 16(3): 258–266.
Edwards, R and Brannelly, T (2017) Approaches to democratising qualitative research methods. Qualitative Research, 17(3): 271–277.
Kajner, T. (2013). Beyond the binary: Scholarship, Engagement, and Social Transformation. In: Shultz, L and Kajner, T (eds.) Engaged Scholarship: The Politics of Engagement and Disengagement. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers, pp. 9–20.
Engaging in knowledge co-creation involves cultivating knowledge through the inclusion of multiple sources of knowledge (including experiential knowledges/lived experiences, professional knowledges, and academic knowledges), while also reflecting on how these different types of knowledges interact. Following the tradition of participatory action research (Greenwood & Levin 2006) and interactive research (Svensson et al., 2007), co-creative methods involve people from the social phenomena under study to participate actively in research that envisions social change. Participants take part in the process of knowledge production in ways that increase their agency, include their understanding of their own experience, and strengthen their ability to reflect on the relevance of the knowledge produced for their lives. In this way, not only the outcome but also the process of knowledge production contributes to social change, because the collaborative nature of the process deepens the impact of engaged scholarship in the lives of participants. Participants might contribute to the research project in various ways, for instance by becoming co-researchers, by producing written narratives as research products, or by reflecting on the relevance of specific theoretical constructs to capture their experiences. In our project, the use of co-creation builds on the assumption that the social sciences have a role in enlarging the societal and academic imagination by connecting local, historical, and analytical knowledge to enable actual inclusion of disadvantaged groups (see the entry ‘sociological imagination’). Co-creative processes have the potential to impact the lives of refugee participants, but also to enhance the reflection of stakeholders that are in positions of power. The research process provides a reflective space to transform inclusionary intentions towards practices that make a real difference in the lives of refugees. Narratives of change (see entry ‘narratives of change’) have an important role in prompting this reflection.
Greenwood, D. J., & Levin, M. (2006). Introduction to action research: Social research for social change: SAGE publications.
Svensson, L., Ellström, P.-E., & Brulin, G. (2007). Introduction–on interactive research. International Journal of Action Research, 3(3), 233-249.
Corazonar (Arias, 2012; Santos, 2018) is a wordplay between the Spanish words pensar (think), corazón (heart) and corazonada (hunch), and thus, can be translated as ‘thinking with the heart’. Originally coined by Gustavo Esteva, and deeply connected with the idea of sentipensar (feeling-thinking) coined by Orlando Fals Borda, the concept is present in several indigenous and Afro-descendent communities in the Americas. Corazonar connects the intellectual labour of academia with emotions, such as bravery and empathy, that motivate the researcher to address injustice. From this perspective, emotions do not involve a lack of control or direction, instead, they provide energy and inspiration to leave behind passivity to favour engagement with the social struggle of those we aim to understand as researchers. Opposite to the idea of the university as an ivory tower, where the production of knowledge is somehow separated or disconnected from society, corazonar embodies a way of being-with members of society through reciprocity, sharing and communion.
Arias, P. G. (2010). Corazonar el sentido de las epistemologías dominantes desde las sabidurías insurgentes para construir sentidos otros de la existencia. Calle 14: Revista de investigación en el campo del arte, 4(5), 80-95.
de Sousa Santos, B. (2018). 5. Bodies, Knowledges, and Corazonar. In The End of the Cognitive Empire (pp. 87-104). Duke University Press.
Capacity building as a concept has dominantly been used in development work focused on the empowerment of marginalized communities and individuals. Our definition of capacity building is a critique of this dominant approach and refers instead to a capacity that facilitates questioning of the status quo. This means building necessary reflection and inclusive competence for all stakeholders involved with social justice. It is essential that stakeholders reflect on the taken-for-granted assumptions about marginalized groups to make the inclusionary efforts of policies and organizations effective in practice. There is often a lack of connection between societal initiatives, governmental actors, academic research and the lived experiences of individuals in the margins of society, which risks the ineffective repetition of actions and endeavors in both practice and research. It is therefore vital to give shape to infrastructures that can connect societal actions, research and lived experiences. Such horizontal learning/reflective infrastructure will connect existing knowledge and perspectives from a variety of positions. This kind of capacity building toward inclusion thus refers to the urgent need to improve the reflective capacity of relevant stakeholders with the resources to make a difference (including academia) by connecting them with the perspectives of the groups in the margins.
An example is the co-creation infrastructure (Refugee Academy) we initiated in 2017 at the VU in the Netherlands to enable such learning/reflective spaces that include a variety of societal stakeholders, academics and refugees themselves. Most existing academic research and societal initiatives fail to grasp the subtle yet sustainable forms of exclusion that exist side-by-side with inclusive efforts. Such studies lack the experimental and innovative spirit to go beyond the obvious and produce groundbreaking trajectories of inclusion. Documenting and analyzing refugees’ narratives about their struggles along their path of inclusion is the first essential step. But engaging with those narratives within capacity-building initiatives such as the Refugee Academy is the next crucial step to including stakeholders in identifying sources of exclusion in organizations and to stipulating conditions for change toward inclusion (see entry ‘narrative of change’). Engaging with refugees’ narratives is essential to bring the policies, the research and the initiatives for change closer to the life-worlds of refugees and to co-generate sustainable structures of resistance toward the normalizing power of exclusion. This process necessitates not simply centering the voices and experiences of refugees but centering refugee leadership. Capacity-building networks include academia, community organizations, relevant societal stakeholders and refugees themselves.
The social sciences could have more impact in increasing reflective capacities in society and academia by contributing more innovatively to the quest for increased inclusiveness. As early as 1959, C. Wright Mills (reprint 2000, p. 6) argued for sociology to live up to its promise and moral imperative as a social analysis that is of direct relevance to urgent public issues and insistent human troubles. He called for “the Sociological Imagination” that “enables us to grasp history and biography and the relations between the two within society.” This imagination is then needed as a quality of mind to connect everyday personal realities with larger social realities (Mills 2000, p. 15). In a world overloaded with information, Mills argues, a sociology that only provides information is unable to perform this challenging task. There is a need for narratives and sociological imagination to make a difference in the quality of the human condition (Jacobsen & Tester 2014, p. 11). In the same vein, Fassin (2013) argues for a critical and public ethnography beyond disciplines that allows for a “presence both involved and detached, inscribed in the instant and over time, allowing precise descriptions and multiple perspectives, thus providing a distinctive understanding of the world that deserves to be shared” (2013, p. 642; see also Abu-Lughod 2016). Inspired by these scholars, critically engaged scholars must take up the challenge of “illuminating the unknown” and “interrogating the obvious” (Fassin 2013, p. 642) in academia and society through reflective journeys in rethinking the conditions of actual inclusion.
Abu-Lughod, L. (2016). The cross-publics of ethnography: the case of “the Muslimwomen”. American Ethnologist, 43(4), 595-608.
Fassin, D. (2013). Why Ethnography Matters: on Anthropology and its Publics. Cultural Anthropology, 28(4), 621-646.
Jacobsen & Tester (2014) M.H. Jacobsen & Tester, ‘Inleiding.’ In: Wat is het nut van sociologie?: gesprekken met Michael Hviid Jacobsen en Keith Tester. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2014, pp. 9-14.
Mills, C. W. (2000).  The sociological imagination. New York: Oxford University Press.
Narratives of change (or transformative narratives) refer to narratives that have the potential to unsettle normalized power structures, identify conditions which can catalyze change, and present new imaginations, possibilities, and trajectories for genuine inclusion. Put simply, narratives of change make something visible which was not visible before. In practice, situating individual narratives within dominant discourses (in co-creation with academic knowledge) creates space to reflect on the ways that exclusionary processes are contextually and historically shaped. In doing so, these narratives illuminate that exclusion is always contextual, even when it is experienced at the individual level. Co-generating these narratives with individuals exposed to exclusionary processes, along with academic and societal stakeholders in positions of power, creates possibilities to not only identify the sources of exclusion that are often invisible, but also rethink conditions for inclusion that are effective and lasting in practice. Narratives of change are, thus, simultaneously personal and collective, and inherently processual, relational and generative. At times, these narratives are unsettling and confronting, because they require vulnerability, honesty, and reflexivity when reflecting on positions of difference and normalized discourses of exclusion. Yet, these narratives of change are necessary sources of transformation and hope, as they have the capacity to serve as catalysts that enable reflection and stimulate the sociological imagination, in order to rethink inclusionary practices involving societal and academic stakeholders.
An academic engaged project focused on the inclusion of refugees brought various stakeholders (refugees, policy makers, HR managers, members of NGOs working with refugees) together to debate issues of diversity, power, and inclusion. The most profound example of this project came from Sarah, who had come to the Netherlands as a refugee 10 years prior. When Sarah was asked to tell the group the moment in her life when she felt strongest, her answer was: “I don’t think I have such a story.” After encouragement from the group to think about which aspects of her narrative she would consider as powerful, she remained silent. “I don’t know,” she answered.
After several sessions of silence, Sarah ended up telling an astonishing story of herself as a young woman fighting for her freedom and that of other women in an oppressive, patriarchal environment in Eritrea, eventually joining the armed fight for the freedom of her country, leaving her family, social position, and daily certainties behind.
How can one account for the fact that such a story can be forgotten? Sarah, who was invigorated by revisiting her activist past, shared that she had only heard negative responses during her stay in the Netherlands. “No, you are not good enough.” “No, your language needs to be improved.” “No, you do not have the proper papers.” Several years of constant repetition of these words caused Sarah to lose her self-confidence, and, most importantly, to lose her story.
This case helped us to identify the normalized sources of exclusion (the structures behind the “no’s”) and to discover the turning point from silence towards a surge of agency. This turning point became visible when she recovered her self-definition as a political activist and a “fighter”. This transformative narrative served as content for ongoing reflections by the involved stakeholders regarding normalized images and discourses about refugees in organizations (discourse of lack), in policy (weak groups who need help), and in daily interactions (being either weak or a threat to society). For example, one of the HR managers said that he often gives similar feedback to people whose language is not perfect. He said he had been doing that with the best of intentions, hoping that they would improve their skills. He had never before realized that it could have such a negative impact. One of the policymakers commented that she had also had this image of refugees and migrants as people in need of help and thought that policies focused on this would be a solution. But after hearing Sarah’s story, she realized that the policies actually lead to a fixation on imperfections. In this way, the taken for granted images and practices became visible and questioned (Ghorashi & Ponzoni 2014).
When we think about change, it is essential that we focus not only on the individuals who need to adapt but also on the organizations that need to be inclusive, which means they need to increase their reflective capacity. I have one example of this that has been crucial in my own career. When I came as a refugee to the Netherlands in 1988, I had the ambition to study and work as an academic. Though I finished my master’s in anthropology with cum laude and finalized my PhD within the duration of my contract (both quite exceptional in the Netherlands), I still did not have the confidence to find a position in academia. I looked around me and did not see any people of color (and especially with a refugee background) who had academic positions. Nevertheless, I applied for a position at the VU, where I had completed my master’s, and was successful in getting the position of assistant professor in the Department of Culture, Organization, and Management, which had an anthropological focus within organization studies. Organization studies was a new challenge for me, but my background in anthropology and my dissertation about identity and diversity was at that time much needed expertise in organization studies, which gave me confidence. However, there was another challenge that felt quite unsettling to me at the time. I had to teach in Dutch knowing that as a non-native who had learned Dutch not so long ago, my language skills would be something students were not used to. So I was quite stressed about it.
When I started my job, I had to teach two courses. One was a large class of 150 students and the other was a tutorial course on academic writing in Dutch for first-year students. Since I am good at improvising and telling stories, I had very successful interactions with the large class and received a high evaluation from the students for that class. But, as you can imagine, I received a rather low evaluation for the other course because I could not help students sufficiently with their Dutch. At the end of the academic year, I had an appointment with the head of the department for my annual review. I was afraid that I would receive the usual evaluation that I had heard about from many others refugees like me in good positions. I expected my boss would say, “You are a valued colleague and we like you, but the profile you applied for requires someone who has perfect Dutch and English skills. Because we appreciate you, we will send you to a Dutch course to improve your Dutch”. And I knew such a response would be the start of many years full of frustration for both me and my colleagues because my Dutch would never meet the expected perfection (because I learned the language at an older age). But the department head surprised me with his reflection, “Oh, Halleh, you have such a great talent for teaching large classes. Many of your colleagues do not like to teach those classes, so please continue doing that”. And then he continued, “But why did we ask you to teach a tutorial course on Dutch academic writing? There are so many of your colleagues for whom it is much easier to teach such a course. How stupid of us to ask you to do that. You do not need to do that next year”.
There he was, a privileged white man who had flipped the coin of normalized bias (of constantly fixating on the shortcomings of refugees, on their language skills for example) by first complimenting me on the course I had taught well and then correcting the organization for making the wrong choice about the other course. This double act of positive feedback and organizational reflection was essential to boost my self-confidence as a teacher, which resulted in my winning the prize of best teacher of the whole university four years later in 2005. Thus, in my lecture about diversity, I always say that you can become the best teacher of the university even with an accent. This is only one example of the support system that helped me get to where I am now: one of the very few (if not only) female full professors in Dutch academia with a refugee background. This support system was also essential for developing my research line on engaged scholarship in 2005, at a time when few people believed in its academic value. Receiving the funding for this VICI project on engaged scholarship and narratives of change in 2018 was, of course, icing on the cake.
Ghorashi, H., & Ponzoni, E. (2014). Reviving agency: taking time and making space for rethinking diversity and inclusion. European Journal of Social Work, 17(2), 161-174.