Stateless nomads, with little to trade (or how knowledge brokers are set up to fail and how to avoid this)

This blog post is based on the Evidence & Policy article, ‘Understanding knowledge brokerage and its transformative potential: a Bourdieusian perspective‘.

Graham Martin, Sarah Chew and Natalie Armstrong

Some problems in society result from institutions’ traditional tendency to work in isolation from one another. An example is the slothful pace at which evidence from healthcare research reaches practice:  some estimates suggest it can typically take as long as seventeen years. Increasing collaboration between institutions is the obvious remedy, but ‘If you think competition is hard, you should try collaboration’.

The institutional fields of research and practice have very different structures and value systems. This means that getting them to collaborate requires some external impetus. Recently, knowledge (brokering a range of activities designed to link the producers and users of knowledge by, for example, encouraging new relationships, devising new ways of working together, and helping to move knowledge across boundaries) has been promoted as a way of enabling collaboration and even bringing about changes in the working relationships of institutions. Knowledge brokerage has become a role in its own right, but its popularity as a remedy outstrips evidence for its efficacy.

For four years, we studied seven dedicated knowledge-brokering roles in a partnership between healthcare research (a university) and practice (NHS hospital trusts) which aspired to bring researchers and research users together to co-produce locally-driven research, and so reduce and transform the boundaries between the institutions. The knowledge brokers were seen as the crucial link that would make this happen. We focused on the interaction between the knowledge brokers’ backgrounds, their attributes, and the characteristics of the institutions across which they worked. We used Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of capitals to understand their roles in context.

Each knowledge broker was positioned between the university and a partner NHS trust. They were managed by the collaboration but situated in the trusts. Initially, they were enthusiastic about the idea of being key agents helping to enable collaborative co-production. But in practice, the sheer breadth of things that they were asked to do was daunting. Moreover, the skills, knowledge and connections they brought to the collaboration were not the ones that the either institution most valued.

In particular, the knowledge brokers lacked what Bourdieu would call ‘social and cultural capital’ – that is, the networks of contacts and markers of knowledge and esteem that were valued in each field, and which they needed to bridge the gap between the two institutions.  They also had limited control over ‘economic capital’ – material resources – adding to their powerlessness. Rather than crossing the boundaries between the two institutions or reducing the distance between them, they found themselves stuck in the middle: stateless nomads with no capital to trade or leverage for power in either research or practice. Ultimately, some of the knowledge brokers ‘pitched their tents’ on the practice side of the research-practice boundary, where they found there was a market for at least some of their skills – but this fell well short of the transformative expectations of the knowledge-brokering role when it was set up.

We conclude that when setting up knowledge broker roles to effect collaborative working between institutions, careful consideration of the capital value system of each side is crucial.  Those deployed in such roles must have a sufficient endowment of the capitals that are valued on both sides of the boundary to give them the power and agency to resist marginalization and remain ‘stateless’ yet authoritative.

Dr Sarah Chew is an Honorary Research Fellow in the Department of Health Sciences, University of Leicester, UK.

Natalie Armstrong is a Professor of Healthcare Improvement Research in the Department of Health Sciences, University of Leicester, UK.

Graham Martin is the Director of Research at The Healthcare Improvement Studies Institute, University of Cambridge, UK.

You can read the original research in Evidence & Policy:

Chew, S. Armstrong, N. and Martin, G. P. (2021). Understanding knowledge brokerage and its transformative potential: a Bourdieusian perspective. DOI: 10.1332/174426421X16149632470114.

Image credit: Photo by Cassie Smart on Unsplash

If you enjoyed this blog post, you may also be interested to read:

Knowledge brokers or relationship brokers? The role of an embedded knowledge mobilisation team

A comparative ethnographic study of collective knowledge brokering across the syntactic, semantic and pragmatic knowledge boundaries in applied health research

‘Maybe we can turn the tide’: an explanatory mixed-methods study to understand how knowledge brokers mobilise health evidence in low- and middle-income countries

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