Researching partnerships #PhDlife

Have you ever been stuck in a lift with a PhD student?


If you ever do a PhD, one of the first things you’re told you have to be able to do is the ‘lift test’. I.e. you need to be able to describe your PhD topic in the time it takes to ride a lift. This test comes in handy in bars and at family gatherings where someone asks the inevitable and you race to explain your super important work before the enquirer’s eyes begin to glaze over. Now I’ll attempt to do the blog post equivalent of the lift test.

In the year Circuit launched, Emily Pringle at Tate and Pat Thomson at The University of Nottingham teamed up to devise an AHRC-supported studentship, focused on investigating partnerships between visual art organisations and youth organisations, using Circuit as a research context. The call for applications popped into my inbox one day at work, and – hungry for a new adventure and intrigued by the question – I decided to apply.

Waving goodbye to financial security and embarking upon (what is known on Twitter as) #PhDlife, my first task as the appointed doctoral student was to get to know and invest in the core question.

Partnership is one of those concepts so overly used that it can seem virtually meaningless. Partnership discourse appears across public services, in business, politics and education. Partnership also forms the basis of our romantic lives, and as a result, the subject matter is rhetorically powerful and emotive territory.

While you could apply partnership research to almost any situation, the partnership question we are dealing with involves a set of practices, politics and technologies that are specific to the youth and visual arts sectors. The unique challenges of building equal, sustainable and creative partnerships between galleries and youth organisations are what drives this research.

The first year of the PhD was a blur of questions:

Who should I talk to?
How can I get people interested?
Can I be honest without damaging reputations or causing offence?
What’s in it for participants?
What’s the end goal?

It became pretty clear early on that the process of becoming an effective researcher is not so dissimilar to the process of becoming an effective partner. The researcher has to learn to talk new languages, to establish trust, to give as well as take, to cooperate, to share objectives and understand the priorities of co-researchers or participants. Now at the start of my second year, and knee-deep in fieldwork, I recognise these parallels daily.

I’ve definitely used up my lift-time by now, but for those interested to know more, please visit the new Tate Research Centre: Learning site here for an extended account of my research aims, questions, methodology and current stage of progression. I also have a personal blog, which features slightly more meandering thoughts around youth and culture.

If you made it this far, thanks for listening!