I'm honored to write this first installment of a new column to bring theory and research to the attention of Georgia’s DR practitioners. But this valuable enterprise isn’t quite “new.” A decade ago GODR collaborated to produce The Conflict Resolution Practitioner, a journal designed to respond to a need Professor Sanford Jaffe identified 10 years prior: “Dispute resolution is a field in which research is hurrying to catch up to practice.” Unfortunately, that journal lasted only one issue due to funding decisions. This column will pick up the torch.
So why do we need this column? As in other disciplines, the DR community looks to academia for valuable studies. But at present, there is so little interaction between DR researchers and practitioners that practice does not guide research and research does not inform practice. That leads to research that is seems relevant only to researchers, and practitioners who don’t have new knowledge they can use to improve their practice. Both groups are ill-served and unsatisfied.
Problem 1: Poor Access to Research
The main cause of this research-practitioner divide has been access — both where and how DR-related research is circulated. “Where” research is distributed is through a handful of academic journals and university-based publishers. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that system of scholars talking to scholars; in fact it is crucial in building theory, increasing knowledge, and evaluating trends. The problem is that that a small group of DR journal and book editors — some of whom have little field experience — decide what research gets published. A colleague recently complained, “There’s a lack of sensitivity amongst those who edit journals to what is useful knowledge for practitioners.” That may not be a fair to the editors, but the point is that many DR researchers don’t know what DR practitioners need from scholarly literature.
Moreover, those scholarly works are circulated only to subscribers and university libraries, and their prices tend to be correspondingly high. As many DR practitioners do not have access to these libraries and seldom possess the means to buy the materials, the works and knowledge remain sealed up and isolated from much of the field.
Problem 2: Different Languages Spoken
Practitioners are also turned off by “numerous dry research reports, which indeed offer little insight into practice dilemmas or decisions,” according to a text (which was published, ironically, by a university press). The image of the “dry research report” leads us to “how” research is usually presented – through specialized language that appears unnecessarily obtuse to outsiders. This can foment disdain among non-academics for intellectual discourse, a sentiment that scholar and practitioner Juliana Birkhoff called the “ridicule of ‘talking heads.’” A conference organizer who once sought to bring together practitioners and researchers experienced the debilitating impact of these language differences first hand:
The practitioners and researchers were not talking the same language. … You can’t even
have the dialogue if they’re not talking the same language. There’s some problems inherent,
[and] a whole bunch of education has to occur before that dialogue is productive.
Neither the academic’s language or the practitioner’s vernacular should be held as more important than the other. However, the potential – and the rewards – of dovetailing academic goals and practical interests is great.
How Do We Change Things?
What is not so great is the amount of education needed to bridge the gap between researchers and practitioners. A brief introduction to the tenets, language, and methods of research would prepare practitioners to better understand and appreciate research. We’ll address those issues in this column. Similarly, a brief introduction to the rules, language, and methods of practice would prepare researchers to understand practice and to present research relevant to practitioners.
Ideally, the product of this education would be that what today passes for “jargon” in academia and for “shop talk” in mediation centers would become the common lexicon of the field. Without these developments, I’m afraid DR research will likely remain the domain solely of the academic community, severely compromising its usefulness.
More Knowledge is Good
Which brings us back to the role and goal of this column. While it’s important for academics and practitioners to understand each other’s worlds, it is also critical that we recruit scholars to “translate” significant research findings into lay language that practitioners can understand. Then those “translations” need to be made widely accessible, for example in a newsletter such as this one. I believe this is an achievable and imperative goal.
The 1995 Model Standards of Conduct for Mediators (drafted by the American Arbitration Association, American Bar Association, and Society of Professionals in Dispute Resolution) state, “Mediators have a duty to improve the practice of mediation.” This implies that DR practitioners have an ethical responsibility to refine their practice through ongoing study. Birkhoff is more emphatic; she asserts that “practitioners who disregard important research findings will perpetuate ineffective, or worse, unethical practice.”
So in this column, I and other DR scholars in Georgia will bring you easy-to-digest summaries of research that will help you today to become a more skilled, knowledgeable, and ethical DR professional. As a researcher, I believe more knowledge is good. As an educator and practitioner, I believe more knowledge that actually reaches the people who can use it, is better.