Is transformative research the way forward for Africa?

By Florence Dafe and Babette Never
Originally in the DIE International Development Blog


A growing number of policymakers, researchers and funding bodies have gotten excited about transformative research on Africa. Transformative research, they claim, may support progress towards economic, social and environmental sustainability in Africa and may enhance the participation of local actors in development research and cooperation. This may happen, if we actually knew what transformative research meant and how best to go about it.

What is transformative research? Answers to this question will differ depending on whom you ask. Some definitions, like the one of the ESRC, highlight the role of new disciplinary perspectives, others highlight the inclusion of societal actors and “change-makers” in the research process itself, referred to as transdisciplinarity. What most definitions have in common is the underpinning of research by a normative commitment and a clear orientation of research towards societal impact. More recently, the orientation of research towards the promotion of economic, social and environmental sustainability has come to characterize much of what the research funders, scholars and policymakers have labelled ‘transformative’.

Pursuing a normative agenda and societal impact has implications for how research is conducted: policy relevance and systematic engagement with stakeholders become a focus. The engagement with local policymakers and stakeholders during all stages of the research process brings transformative research closer to what actually matters to African societies.

Who benefits from transformative research?

For African scholars located in Sub-Saharan Africa, the emphasis on local engagement may open up new opportunities for cooperation and strengthen the ‘African’ in African studies. This is important because the number of African scholars publishing in top-journals of the discipline has declined. Closer cooperation with African scholars can also lead to more balanced research, which in turn leads to more balanced policy advice. Policy-concerned scholars receive a boost to their agenda, while other scholars are encouraged to engage more with “real world” problems. Policymakers, who have criticized researchers for remaining in the ivory tower, see transformative research as an opportunity for evidence-based policymaking and may use research results to justify policy.

The study of African economies may also benefit. Since transformative researchers worry less about scientific traditions, they are more open to interdisciplinarity and mixed methods than other development economists. Choosing from a range of quantitative and qualitative methods and insights from various disciplines is more likely to lead to a comprehensive understanding of the complex socio-economic relationships in Africa. Moreover, transformative research opens up an exciting research agenda for pioneers seeking to explore pathways of economic development that respect the boundaries posed by economic, social and environmental sustainability.

Caveats of transformative research

That said we need to watch out on at least two fronts. First, there is a risk that the normative core of transformative research may lead to results in favour of the underlying values. For instance, research driven by a concern for environmental sustainability may not give enough consideration to trade-offs with other development goals such as poverty reduction.

Second, we need to watch out on concerns related to researcher independence. Efforts to enhance policy relevance and achieve impact tend to require close relations with stakeholders. Stakeholders such as policymakers, however, are likely to have political interests with respect to the research in question and may seek to shape the research findings in line with their own political preferences. Research independence might further be compromised by the fact that the funders of transformative research often have an interest in certain policy choices and that researchers feel pressure to ‘pitch’ research results in line with these interests in order to maintain support from funders.

How to use transformative research in international cooperation

In light of the above reservations, we should take three principles into account in the pursuit of transformative research:

  1. Transparency with regard to the underlying normative assumptions. Thus, without an explicit statement of underlying values it will be difficult for researchers, policymakers and the wider public to assess the findings of studies involving transformative research.
  2. Awareness of the political role of transformative research. Transformative research relies on engagement with “changemakers” such as local authorities and businesses, reducing the distance to these groups. The closeness to the political realm is a precondition and a consequence of the promotion of societal change. As a result, research independence declines and ethical questions become even more important. Key issues include, for instance, how to ensure the safety of interviewees and research partners and how to integrate the preferences of the societies being studied.. In Africa, this is particularly relevant in non-democratic or hybrid Regimes.
  3. Acknowledgement of the trade-offs between different types of transformations and different dimensions of sustainability. African economies face particularly strong pressures to not only master the transformation towards environmental sustainability but also to increase growth, reduce poverty and inequality and create jobs. Paying attention to the trade-offs between different development goals such as productivity growth versus environmental conservation is important to improve our understanding of the challenges African societies face.

It is too early to say whether transformative research is the way forward for the study of African economies. But those concerned with international cooperation, inside and outside academia, cannot be too far wrong by experimenting with, debating and further developing the approach.