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Partnering for research: a critical discourse analysis

Leona M. English

St. Francis Xavier University

Catherine J. Irving

Coady International Institute, Canada

Paper presented at the 37th Annual SCUTREA Conference, 3-5 July 2007, Queen's University Belfast, Northern Ireland


There is increasing competition for research funds, legitimacy and for knowledge, especially in the Canadian landscape where economic restraint and fiscal conservatism are a government mantra. And this conservatism brings with it the string that research is more likely to be funded if it involves a partnership of community, universities and sometimes government. Using a poststructuralist lens, we examine the seemingly benign partnering phenomenon, highlighting the ways that women as researchers are affected and affect the research process.

This paper begins in, but is not confined to, our experience of ‘doing’ a State of the Field literature review on Gender and Adult Learning, for and with a government body, the Canadian Council on Learning (CCL). Building on our immediate research collaboration process, we use critical discourse analysis to explore the social and historical context, competing discourses and the power/knowledge nexus within universities, government, community and feminism. Within this context of coerced partnership and collaboration, we pay particular attention to the social relations of power that operate in the knowledge generation process, especially as they affect feminist researchers. Finally we look at how the partnership phenomenon might benefit from repeated engagement with poststructuralism and critical discourse analysis.

Theoretical framework

We use Foucauldian poststructuralism (1980; see Dreyfus & Rabinow 1982) to delve into how power is exercised (used) and embedded in the complex web of relationships and discourses (languages and practices) that surround the partnership process. Attention to this flow of power helps us as feminists to understand more about how government mandated agencies such as the CCL operate, and helps to complicate the seemingly clear-cut and hierarchical structures of government and universities (see Brookfield 2005, Chapman 2003; English 2005). Poststructuralism, and especially critical discourse analysis (CDA), attends not only to what is produced (the research project), but how it is produced (in partnership) and to the history and contexts that surround its production (mandatory partners, streamlining of funding). This allows us to focus on power as a way to discursively create the players in funded research – the university, the academics, the administration and the community as well as the feminist researchers. And this power is productive – it produces knowledge, researchers, and practices, and it produces diversity and competing discourses. This diversity is needed in political discourse as a way of ‘avoiding a language of consensus which disguises differences’ (Fairclough 2000, p. 161).

Critical discourse analysis (CDA) was used to probe the discourse in the research infrastructure and partnering to understand how the discourse was founded and how it perpetuated itself. Though social scientists have shown increasing interest in partnerships (e.g., Baum 2000, Cobb and Rubin 2006) few if any have addressed these through CDA. Feminists have been drawn to the discourse analysis because of its possibilities for negotiating competing discourses and acknowledging social context (Mills 1997). It is, to borrow from Treleaven (2004), ‘a social process situated within the social relations of power’ (pp. 154-155). Research is not an unproblematic event and nor is partnering. This partnering for research phenomenon not only shapes interactions in and among the partners, the community and university for example, but also the knowledge they produce and the nature of inquiry itself. Researchers who have an interest in gender will be especially interested insofar as partnering or collaborating is a regime of truth within gender studies.

Situating our inquiry

Critical discourse analysis (Fairclough 1992, Mills 1997) pays attention to the history and environment in which the research is produced. In our case we were feminist researchers physically located in a small publicly funded university invited to participate in a State of the Field review. Data were gathered during a collaboration with the CCL to produce a micro analysis of the research on gender and learning. We draw also on previous research experience within Canada, and our own experiences of academic work. This research seeks to understand the effects of power and the discourse within the larger university research culture that operates in Canada, which encourages collaboration and partnerships with the public and private sector and especially with the community. University websites, national university publications, federal research funding agencies’ published material, and the related academic literature were analyzed to provide a micro and a macro picture of this broader context.

Table 1 depicts the range of stakeholders (government, community, higher education administration, academics and feminist academics) and competing discourses within our context. These discourses include but are not limited to finances, social agendas and academic ideals. Not only are there competing discourses among the stakeholders (e.g., feminist versus government) but also within groups of stakeholders (e.g., academics who uphold integrity and truth ideals and academics who follow the bottom line). This data is illustrative not exhaustive. It is broader than our actual studies and represents a range of thinking in our context.

TABLE 1: Historical Context and Competing Discourses in Research




Primary focus




(and the research funding agencies they administer-- CCL, SSHRC)


budgetary accountability

multiple commitments

pressure to help HE and community

need to increase GDP

community university partnerships



knowledge economy

internationally competitive research

put research knowledge into practice

strategic investments

in education and research

united research community

prioritizing results driven research

centralized funding sources

creation of research bodies and centres


funding / partnership agencies


(NGOs, local organizations, grassroots movements, individual practitioners)


scarcity of funds

multiple constituencies

need to produce research evidence


authentic voice

evidence-based decision making

indigenous knowledge



build capacity

build civil society

find partners

seek funds

loss of control

collaboration in unknown areas

loss of purpose

community development literature


data with women’s centres

(English, 2005)

Higher education administration

(deans, presidents, boards of governors)

reduced funding from govt.

waning enrollment

global competition


funded research


budget constraints

academic standards

role in knowledge economy

boost enrollment

promote funded research and collaboration

seek govt. funds

culture of efficiency



professional academic ssociations

university publications (websites)



restricted research funding

reward structure that privileges fundable research

pressure to collaborate

scholarly integrity

independent scholarship

contributing knowledge


participate in collaborative grants

write collaboratively

do fundable research


strategy focused


personal knowledge

job ads


Feminist academics

inattention to gender

suspicion of gender




3rd wave idiosyncratic

do authentic collaborative work

oppose patriarchy

struggle with outcomes based research

suppressed hierarchies

collaborative focus

our own research

this minor project

Analysis of the data

Informed by the use of CDA by Treleaven (2004), Fairclough (1992) and Mills (1997), we looked at the everyday background, as well as the historical, economic, cultural and political setting in which the data (language and practices) were contextualized. Since each partner – feminist, academic, government, community and higher education administration – is positioned with different agendas and mandates, each responds to and co-creates the dominant discourses of partnerships and efficiency uniquely. Several discourses stand out and we analyze them here, allowing the theory to intersect with the data when relevant.

Research context and players

Although we have isolated them above for discussion purposes, the overall Canadian research context is one of fiscal restraint and efficiency. Canada’s Auditor General Sheila Fraser is popular with her ‘tough-on-spenders’ stance, by exposing federal fiscal mismanagement. In response, the Accountability Act of the federal parliament moved to make government leaders more responsible for decisions and funding, affecting a discourse of accountability across all government departments and agencies. Faced with such scrutiny, multiple commitments and requests (pressure to promote regional development and help communities, support higher education, and the need to increase the GDP) the government has to prioritize funding mechanisms. The federal agency Status of Women Canada (SWC) for years was a primary funder of women’s organizations enabling them to conduct their own community-based research and work to improve conditions for women and promote gender equality. The government has stripped SWC of this role in the name of administrative streamlining, ‘program renewal’ and an ‘outcome-based approach to funding’ ( Not surprising then is the call for collaborative work which will maximize funding dollars and make us more efficient and accountable. Universities respond with the promise that their collaboration efforts are ‘enhancing the effectiveness and efficiency of Canada’s research enterprise’ (AUCC 2005, p.27).

Competing discourses and effects

We begin with the dominant discourse of partnership, produced by the government and its research funding agencies such as the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) and CCL, as a way to create efficiencies. Although collaboration and alliances are also popular, we note that partnership is the preferred term (not lost on us is the fact that business and legal institutions favour this word to designate economic ties). Such partnering brings with it fantasy, unreal expectations and assumptions about the inherent and internal unity of discourse within universities or communities. In reality, there is no unified identity – within each there are competing discourses (see Baum 2000).

Nowhere is this partnership course more apparent than in research publications from the government. Canadian researchers depend mainly on government funds through a group of bodies such as CCL, SSHRC and their counterparts in sciences and health. SSHRC encourages major collaborative research initiatives that are interdisciplinary and inter – university ( SSHRC’s Community – University Research Alliance (CURA) claims that ‘stronger alliances between community organizations and postsecondary institutions can be enormously effective and yield important benefits for them both.’

A minimized discourse of government is that of efficiencies, which undergirds and supports the partnership discourse. Those, such as us, who worked or partnered with government, were affected by both discourses. We sought (or at least positively responded to) the opportunity to work with government to ‘create really useful knowledge’ (Johnson 1988, pp. 21-22) about gender and learning. Yet, we resisted the government’s attempts to co-opt our labour by not paying for it and not actually using the report in the ways intended, by writing several papers from our research reports and using them to complement our existing academic work. Other academics who have resisted such efficiencies include Janet Gross Stein, who in the 2003 distinguished CBC Massey Lectures, the Cult of Efficiency, asks, ‘Efficient at what?’ Does efficiency become an end in itself? The discursive effect of the efficiencies discourse then is cynicism by academics.

Higher education administrators (deans, academic vice-presidents, provosts, boards of governors) are attentive to the partnership and efficiencies chatter and have created a discourse of their own, sometimes in sync with the government (partnering, collaborating to produce first rate research, worthy trustees of government funds) and at times at odds with it (research integrity, above politics, and standards above all). The competing discourses exist simultaneously each producing its own regime of truth. Faced with declining enrollment and global competition, higher education administrators reward funded research, corporatism, and entrepreneurial activity. AUCC (2005) cites successful private sector collaborations that promote the transfer of knowledge to the marketplace, and this emphasis is echoed by universities highlighting their entrepreneurial achievements in their annual reports and websites.

Academics also use the discourse of cooperating, partnering, collaborating, and sharing. The enlightened (and successful) researcher has responded favourably to the discourse and begun to use it, becoming team members, collaborators and co-investigators if the SSHRC grant calls for it. They negotiate the competing discourse and resist to some degree with a research integrity discourse, made manifest in university bodies such as Research Ethics Boards and Research Integrity committees, and played out in academic organizations’ calls for independent research untainted by pharmaceutical companies (see Owram 2004). Yet, the quest for funding continues and the academic subject position that is produced is made up of multiple and contradictory identities (Ford 2006).

Community and grassroots organizations also embrace the partnering discourse, in quest for research and funding. Although partnering among and between community-based organizations is integral to grassroots activity, partnering with universities and government to survive has taken on a new form. Where once universities looked to them as sources of data, now communities look to universities for funding and skills to operate and conduct research to support policy making. Without the research they cannot justify to funders that they are credible. Community groups resist with the discourse of indigenous knowledge, grassroots organizing, and at times, authenticity, integrity, voice and legitimacy. This knowledge for the people by the people discourse, however, is parallel to the partnering and survival discourse. Now the community has to write proposals for CURA funds, participate in university research projects and use the marketspeak of Executive Directors in order to do community work. Their skill set is often not strong on research language and they become minor players in the alliance (Cottrell and Parpart 2006). They worry that their knowledge will be appropriated and co-opted (Cooke 2004). As well, their goal is community impact whereas the university prioritizes publishable work. CDA makes it clear that the partnership is a troubled discourse that creates distrust and resentment that the university has stolen from the grassroots. The partnering discourse assumes a monolithic community group as partner (see Baum 2000). The troubling reality is that no entity can be clearly marked community – there are differences and competing agendas even within single community groups (Cornwall 2004).

Feminist researchers within the academy negotiate the competing discourses of equal and marginalized. Allied with university and community they struggle for their share of the research funds, while trying to honour collaborative processes that are embedded in their feminist ideals. Often they see the opportunity to work with community as a way to enrich ‘both academic theorizing and community activism (Cottrell and Parpart, 2006, p. 16). Their research has the potential to draw needed attention to the ways in which women are unequally and differently positioned, yet with the overall efficiencies discourse, funds to do this work are shrinking. Ideally the research question drives the research method or the fund, but increasingly government efficiencies and partnerships are in control. Feminists who employ the participatory methods they value for authentic collaborative research face challenges when their methods are questioned by the funders who promoted the partnerships in the first place (Butterwick and Harper, 2006).

Paradoxes in the partnerships

The first paradox is that all of the partnership discourse is that it was dictated downward from the top creating a discursive effect of surveillance and resistance from the so-called partners—academics, government leaders, administrators, community researchers. Gender was also a partner, albeit a silent one, casting its gaze on the researchers, simultaneously challenging and affirming the process, and being affected by the very creation of new knowledge about it. CDA allows for this exploration of the complex issues in partnering for research. In our case, for instance, there was the expectation of collaboration between teams, and we resisted by working independently of them. At the community level, as Cornwall (2004) notes, the very presence of partnering external agencies can reinforce inequalities when they remain as ‘simply pseudo-democratic instruments through which authorities legitimize already-taken policy decisions’ (p. 80).

Another paradox was the existence of this partnership discourse alongside the discourse of knowledge exchange, knowledge transfer and knowledge production. Along with, and perhaps in concert with the partnership and efficiencies discourses, government bodies have opted for the marketspeak of knowledge as a commodity. Even SSHRC is transitioning to become a Knowledge Council according to its five year strategic plan. This knowledge discourse runs alongside the partnership discourse, working to help the government operate and compete on the international stage as a competitor for global resources. SSHRC is concerned with ‘strengthening relationships to facilitate improved decision-making by all stakeholders in the realm of learning’ (see SSHRC website). The business discourse of partnering is masked by a knowledge discourse.

A third paradox is that the partnering relationships are devoid of productive relationships. They are utilitarian and short-lived, and do not contribute to lifelong learning or an authentic knowledge culture. In applying CDA to this discourse we raise questions about its longevity and its effects. On the one hand partnering creates a research culture and on the other hand it militates against relationship. A revisioning process is needed.


Borrowing from Treleaven (2004) who has applied Foucault to organizational learning, we note four particular ways that power is exercised in this research partnership context. Power is exercised productively by the government in the creation of calls for proposals for research, and in its guidelines from funding bodies such as SSHRC. Power is exercised productively by the Canadian Council on Learning, a quasi-government entity, to promote knowledge creation and dissemination. Power is exercised productively by academics in participating in these centres and drawing on the available funding. Power is exercised relationally in the way the researchers, government, community, and universities, work with each other to keep on schedule. Power is exercised discursively by the calls for proposals and guidelines that operate in the SSHRC and CCL routines. Power is exercised discursively through academic presentation and critique of the knowledge processes, which make the research processes visible to the entire research community of partners. Yet power is also exercised coercively by government in its research approval practices.

From a feminist point of view, the partnership discourse is to be emulated and lauded, suggesting as it does relationship and strength. Yet, when CDA is employed, we see that partnering runs counter to relationship and authentic community discourse. It raises questions of the use of partnering to create efficiencies. The community asks the same question about whether the discourse spurred by the effects of fear of closure and the simultaneous need to know has integrity and authenticity. The academic wants to know if partnering is a discourse that has a long shelf life and if it contributes to sustained partnerships and knowledge creation. Higher education administrators negotiate the competing discourses of partnering and efficiencies, forever questioning the effects and the need to create a discourse that is sustainable. In fact, the potential for partnering is disrupted by the competing and somewhat contradictory discourses and the relative distributions of authority in the research process.

This kind of research contributes not only to the body of knowledge on research in uncovering and problematising seemingly benign research practices such as partnering with the government. In immersing ourselves in the complexity of the research process we want to contribute to the development of language and practices in adult education. The implications for adult education are significant: this type of meta-research (research on the research process) is important to understanding and critiquing our own processes and to encouraging others to do the same.


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This document was added to the Education-Line database on 19 June 2007