Our understanding of the social economy has completely changed in the last 12 years. Since the early 2000s, there has been a transformation of the image of the social economy, in terms of sector and geography, not just in Québec but also in Canada and around the world (in Europe and Latin America, chiefly). This is thanks in no small part to the Québec Network of Research Partnerships in Social Economy (RQRP-ÉS).
This deeper understanding of the importance of the social economy owes much to two grants from the Social Sciences and Research Council of Canada (SSHRC). They enabled the creation of the RQRP-ÉS, which I had the good fortune to co-lead with Nancy Neamtan, President and Executive Director of the Chantier de l’économie sociale.
From 2005 to 2011, our network brought together some 40 researchers from most of the universities in Québec. This partnership has enabled us to work with about 30 practitioners and to involve a good 20 students annually. Our network was affiliated with the Canadian Social Economy Research Partnerships (CSERP).
Simply put, what’s there to say about our achievements? They brought about a better understanding of research partnerships, for purposes of promoting them within post-secondary contexts. In addition, and above all, they demonstrated the importance of the social economy to the development of Québec’s society.
By working with social economy actors, we were able to respond to their needs in terms of the development of new knowledge. This knowledge helped them to recognize the importance of their sector, their work, and the impacts which their initiatives generate. It also supported the design of instruments, mechanisms, or management tools.
Specifically, our work played a role (sometimes minor, often major) in the emergence of new projects. So, by way of example, the support we gave to the development of the urban business park Angus Technopole; to the creation of the Chantier de l’économie sociale Trust; to the Social Economy Bureau of the City of Montréal and to its policy of "Partnership for Community-based Sustainable Development”; or to the design of the Economie sociale Québec Web Portal. Finally, there’s the expansion of that model of intervention we call the University Incubator Parole d’excluEs, now attached to the Centre de recherche sur les innovations sociales (CRISES - the Social Innovation Research Centre).
When I say that we worked to understand research partnerships, I mean we had to analyze our methods of work, the same way you might peel an onion. Starting in 2005, we assigned a small team of researchers and social economy actors to explore the features, requirements, strengths, but also the limits of this method of co-producing knowledge. To describe it, we designed two guides and produced the video documentary “At the Crossroads of Knowledge.” (The guides and the video were produced in both French and English.)
In terms of the limits and challenges of research partnerships, Ian MacPherson and Mike Toye raise very pertinent issues in the article "Stay the Course.” We share their views on the many challenges facing those who take the path of collaborative research. The mixing of different cultures is not straightforward. For sure, researchers as much as practitioners find themselves in competitive environments. Our respective organizations require the achievement of results which do not always converge: for social actors, finding practical solutions; for researchers, the production of abstract knowledge.
However, we don't share their view of the main constraint they identify. We didn't have a lot of difficulty integrating research partnerships with the ongoing activities of the research profession. In fact, the central challenge we encountered was more about how the limits to post-research support affected researchers and students. Our work certainly enabled the co-production of knowledge, but it allowed for little or no follow-up in terms of helping social economy actors apply this knowledge. In fact, we researchers would often work away on something together when the actors would have loved to continue the research within a coaching framework designed to help them put it to work the knowledge which had been co-produced.
For us in the post-secondary milieu, "Staying the Course" means to be able to address the need to conduct research which enables the production of fundamental knowledge while at the same time being able to carry out participatory action research which can lead to applied research. That is, it can lead to partnerships combining participatory research and support within transfer modalities which give rise to the development of a long-term, historical perspective, empowerment evaluation, and strategic planning activities.
Jean-Marc Fontan is a Professor of Sociology at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM), specializing in economic anthropology and developmental sociology. His work at the Centre de recherche sur les innovations sociales links primarily to the study of modalities of socio-economic and socio-cultural development in metropolitan Montréal. He is Co-ordinator of the Incubateur universitaire Parole d’excluEs.