Posts

So, what is context?

[Editor’s note: This post is part a series produced by Vanesa Weyrauch and Leandro Echt from Politics&Ideas to share what we learn through the project “Going beyond ‘Context matters”, supported by the International Netowrk for the Availability of Scientific Publications (INASP).]

 

As we have already shared in a previous post, P&I jointly with INASP are developing a study called “Going beyond context matters”, which has two main objectives:1) to detect which are the windows of opportunity of different contexts for researchers and policymakers to better interact with each other or work jointly; and 2) to inform the design and delivery of capacity building efforts with regard to the use of research evidence in policy making, by better deciphering how to deal with the context.

By PhOtOnQuAnTiQuE at flickr.com under CC

By PhOtOnQuAnTiQuE at flickr.com under CC

The conceptual framework is almost ready; we are waiting for some final feedback and the last review from our mentors and when we will be able to share it with all of you. We are learning lots as we move on and have found interviewees very helpful in terms of thinking more thoroughly about how to frame the influence of context.

In our work to contribute to the understanding of context, the first challenge to face was the definition of context itself. Why? We believe the concept is not mature enough as there are lots of different ways of understanding it. As McCormack et al (2001) -based on Morse et al (1996: 256)- point out, concepts in a discipline are ‘mature’ when they are relatively stable, clearly defined, with well-described characteristics, demarcated boundaries, specified preconditions and outcomes. In contrast, if a concept is ‘immature’ it will be poorly understood, poorly developed and poorly explained.

Although context has been used very frequently in studies and reflections about the interaction between research and policy, it is a concept that requires further maturity; it does not meet the above described characteristics. It has, for example, been used to refer to very different contextual dimensions relayed to policy and politics: macro-political context, specific policy context, decisive moments in the policy process and even the way in which policymakers think.

Therefore, we will try to contribute towards its maturity by detecting and prioritising the contextual factors that play a critical role in the promotion of the use of knowledge in research. Based on available literature, our first decision was to use in this study context as the environment in which people try to get research evidence and knowledge into practice, ‘the environment or setting in which the proposed change is to be implemented’ (Kitson et al, 1998: 150).  In its most simplistic form, the term here refers to the physical environment in which practice takes place, but it also encompasses the relationships and processes that go beyond this physical environment and enable change as a consequence of these. Such an environment has boundaries and structures that together shape the environment for practice (Mc Cormack et al, 2001).

However, by following such a definition so as to focus our efforts we do not want to dismiss the complexity of context nor reach a conclusive definition of it. As Ademokun and Harle (2014) share in this post, any system is supposed to interact with other institutions and actors – funders, government policy, internal and external incentives. The authors propose that there are probably ‘rings’ within a system, maybe inner and outer, maybe more levels than that. Indeed, any setting or environment where practice takes place will be influenced by and at the same influence other similar and also different settings and environments (e.g. the Congress will be affected by the Ministry of Finance and vice versa) so there are no linear ways to structure the system but rather circles overlapping and crossing each other . Thus, our framework will need to capture those inter-relationships and how they affect practice as effectively as possible, and at the same time draw some working boundaries so that it does not become so encompassing that it gets too hard to do something about it.

It´s not a coincidence, then, that our framework is an intersection of inter-related circles with some blurring boundaries that shed some light into its main dimensions but still leave space for further work in terms of setting boundaries and narrowing down levels. However, we are hopeful this is a step forward to begin perceiving, speaking about and using context in a more precise and operative way.

Any others working on this who can contribute to the discussion?

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Great to see this interest in exploring context. I have found a realist framework very helpful in identifying what will be the most important aspects of context to consider in building or applying knowledge to policy. This looks at identifying causal mechanisms that fire in particular contexts (aspects of the implementation environment or characteristics of participants). Gill Westhorp’s new paper on Realist Impact Evaluation sets this out very well. You can download it here http://www.odi.org/sites/odi.org.uk/files/odi-assets/publications-opinion-files/9138.pdf

  2. Thanks so much,Patricia, for this valuable resource. It comes in just in time as we seek to make our framework a device that can be really used in the practice: how can such a set of complex dimensions and sub-dimensions become meaningful to inform choices? In this sense, the 5 key ideas of realism state in a very clear way some points that we were trying to make but without such clarity!

Leave A Reply