A blog entry by Dr Karla Zimpel-Leal, UKRI Innovation Fellow

Research and practice are often embedded in different knowledge systems, research supporting rigour, while practice supports relevance. In organisation and management studies, the ‘relevance problem’ of academic research is an old and contested one.

Dr Karla Zimpel-Leal

Dr Karla Zimpel-Leal

The concept of Mode 2 research originated with the influential distinction between “Mode 1” and “Mode 2” knowledge production made by Gibbons et al. in 1994 (Table 1).

Mode 1 research is characterised by theory building and testing within a discipline with the aim of generating universal knowledge. It refers to knowledge production processes with hierarchical mechanisms and processes executed by a set of homogenous actors from similar disciplinary backgrounds. It is primarily cognitive, carefully validated by peer review, and applied later, by others, if it is applied at all.  An example would be a research project or programme from a single or multiple universities, where a group of academics with homogeneous backgrounds work on disciplinary problems with defined research questions and aims.

Mode 2 research is characterised by knowledge produced for application. It is more socially distributed, organisationally diverse, and transdisciplinary. It is potentially more inventive in new situations but with uncertain results. An example would be a network of university partners with different disciplinary backgrounds collaborating on an application-oriented problem with other stakeholders from industry or other public institutions.

Mode 1 and Mode 2 knowledge production differ in terms of organisation, but both follow the scientific method in terms of basic mechanisms and values.

My fellowship is linked to the UK Industrial Strategy and the grand challenge of an Ageing Society. This means that much of my work is situated in practice and the challenges faced by my practice partners, which are organisationally diverse. In most of my current work, I therefore position my research in Mode 2 knowledge production. This brings particular research challenges: working with multiple and diverse partners; and dealing with novel ways of quality control that are different from peer-review. In my experience, a constant flux of sense-making during interactions with external partners, and reflexivity, are key attributes needed to avoid misunderstandings and to create objectivity. There is also the issue of (lack of) generalisability.

It could be argued that Mode 2 research is more concerned with the realities of particular situations than with the quest for generalisable conclusions. Linked to this view is the idea that what can be generalised from one Mode 2 research project has more to do with the research process than the outputs. The challenge of delivering academic excellence alongside practitioner relevance can be demanding, especially when writing for academic journals. Findings tend to be context-specific.

Although Mode 2 research involves many risks and controversies, I find it rewarding to produce knowledge this way, co-creating with diverse teams and seeing outcomes happening in practice, even if sometimes things fail.

If you are considering doing this kind of research, here are some ‘take-aways’ from my experience of Mode 2 knowledge production:

While Mode 1 is driven by the theoretic agenda, Mode 2 is driven by practice problems

Retain the interaction between theory and practice; don’t get trapped in the perils of either ‘epistemic drift’ (Mode 2) or ‘academic fundamentalism’ (Mode 1)

The knowledge production process is likely to develop beyond the researcher’s direct control, emerging from the heterogeneous group, its concerns and perspectives

Co-creating knowledge occurs both within events and between events

Rigour and relevance are both important and overlap over time

Gibbons, M., Limoges, C., Nowotny, H., Schwartzman, S., Scott, P. & Trow, M. 1994. The New Production of Knowledge: The Dynamics of Science and Research in Contemporary Societies, London, SAGE Publications Ltd.

Dr Karla Zimpel-Leal
UKRI Innovation Fellow

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