17th November 2022 Blog

Co-Production, Commoning, and Community Empowerment

#MentalHealthResearchMatters • Loneliness •

Georgia Gardner shares her experiences advising on Dance/Connect, a project funded by the Loneliness and Social Isolation Mental Health Research Network.

During her time advising on the project, she noticed similarities between coproduction – the process of researchers and experts by experience collaborating to create research together, with commoning – a way of communities working together to meet people’s needs.

In this opinion piece, Georgia makes the case for non-hierarchical collaborative research that benefits both the researcher and experts by experience.

Georgia Gardner

In July 2021, I joined the intergenerational and youth advisory committee of Dance/Connect (2021-2022). Dance/Connect is a study led by Dr Katey Warran, at University College London (UCL) funded by the UKRI Loneliness and Social Isolation in Mental Health Research Network (LSIMHRN). Katey and the Dance/Connect team wanted to explore how online group dance may support the social and mental wellbeing of young people with anxiety.

I was interested in joining this project as I saw similarities to my independent research, which considers how cultural production and art affects and reflects psychological recovery, and, at the time, I was specifically considering dance.

My role within the Dance/Connect committee involved advising on the design of the study, working with Laura Wright to co-facilitate focus groups and reflective exercises for our Dance/Connect participants and the delegates at the Scottish Ballet’s Moving Minds conference, co-authoring on a journal article, and co-presenting about the study at talks and seminars. Like all of the LSIMHRN-funded studies, researchers and lived-experience experts co-produced this project from start to finish.

While working on Dance/Connect, I noticed how co-production is reflective of the grassroots social organisation strategy of commoning. Commoning refers to the social action of collaboration and reciprocal engagement in a network of individuals to serve the needs of the community.

I see cultural uses of commoning and the process of co-production as forms of, not just community involvement or creation, but community empowerment and mutuality.

Co-Production as a Commoning Practice

We often think of co-production as a way of broadening, and democratising research by involving lived experience experts, policymakers, or charities in the design, analysis, and presentation of a study.  Co-production can also serve an interpersonal function.

When co-production is at its best, researchers and lived experience experts both benefit from knowledge exchange, empathy and reflection. Co-produced studies demystify mental health research.

We can view co-production through the lens of social activism, closely mirroring the organisational strategy of commoning. Commoning is a grassroots political, and, more recently a cultural strategy that values difference in order to identify and support the common needs of a community. Both co-production and commoning place emphasis on mutual respect and transparent, non-hierarchical networks.

As an organisational strategy, commoning is adjacent to the practice of mutual aid. Individuals within communities collaborate to cultivate an equal and reciprocal relationship that support the common need. Facilitators aim to improve collective well-being driven by the input of those with lived experience. It works both with and for the community. Celebrating transparency, commoning does not allow external individuals to assume what communities need.

I have noticed similarities with co-produced mental health research. Particularly in the use of advisory committees, in the use of focus groups or reflective exercises. Both were integral to Dance/Connect. By embracing differing perspectives and routes into mental health research, we were able to establish a mutually beneficial process where learning and interpersonal knowledge exchange became cyclical. However, as is the case in the cultural sector, co-produced research faces limitations in its equivalence with commoning due to infrastructural boundaries.

Commoning, although established in the early 1900s, didn’t gain momentum until after the increasing community division and precarisation of the 1980s. At this moment, it functioned to resist the political infrastructure that privileges a singular authorial voice. By removing the hierarchy of different sources of knowledge, commoning initiates a positive form of inter-reliance, that is both pragmatic and radical. It encompasses care and unlearning the privileging of academic knowledge. This establishment of a network of care, service, and information gathering directly responds to the establishment of intersectional feminism.

Commoning and co-production hold the potential to platform those who are typically voiceless in academia. I see it as a way of humanising research, by giving equal value to research-based and lived experience knowledge. This is especially important as, often, the process of academic research can alienate readers with lived experience through overly pathologising language. Inaccessible language, affiliation with exclusionary institutions, and the potential for studies to dehumanise their participants through the statistical representation of people all create barriers.

Commoning and Empowerment in Arts and Health Research

I recognise commoning and co-production as strategies for mutual empowerment. This understanding further emphasises the benefits of co-production, particularly when employing an advisory of an otherwise under-recognised community.

In radical politics, communities use commoning to reject the differential treatment of different publics within the dominating sources of culture and knowledge production. I noticed a reflection of this in our methodology at Dance/Connect. A lived experience (with an [GG8] advisory committee had their say throughout the project. From design, data gathering, facilitation and analysis, through to the dissemination. Throughout the study we practised non-judgement, mutual recognition and affirmation, and equal input.

This consistent, safe, and profound collaboration that values, rather than denies, difference is why I believe co-production offers similar benefits to commoning. In Dance/Connect the drive to include youth voices, or voices of those experiencing mental health challenges, or any other often-suppressed voice, empowers individuals. This is especially important when it comes to mental health, with those facing symptoms still impacted by stigmatising representation and the dehumanising, delegitimising effects of over-pathologisation.

Final Thoughts

The relationship that I have identified between co-production and commoning demonstrates the need to humanise mental health research.

I believe the employment of co-production in reflection of commoning principles offers an opportunity for de-stigmatisation amongst professional researchers, lived experience experts, and a diverse readership alike.

This connection between mental health research and grassroots political strategy, that frames co-production as a commoning practice highlights how embracing different sources of knowledge can create an environment of empathetic knowledge production that maintains human nuance. Co-productive units that fully embraces these values can cultivate a sense of one-ness and empowered community.

In Dance/Connect this was done in two ways. First, through identifying and addressing mutual aims and/or needs of experts by experience and researchers (in Dance/Connect the aim was to investigate how individuals with anxiety can overcome feelings of isolation through online connection). And second, through non-judgmental engagement with difference. We recognised our different routes to mental health research from the start, our different perspectives and frameworks of knowledge inspiring innovation and versatile empathetic analysis [AM9] [GG10] at each stage of our study, especially the circumstances that make people passionate about mental health, and their personal experiences.

Co-production with the ethos of commoning uses interpersonal communication and sharing to affirm both individual and collective value. It validates individual strengths as we feel belonging to a team, but we also feel a sense of communal offering as we work towards supporting our communities.

Commoning and co-production both:

  • Platform the voices of the community.
  • Democratise: diverse knowledge paths are respected equally.
  • Centre reciprocity: the community benefits from meaningful contribution and research/community development prioritises nuance and empathy through insight of the community.
  • Function interpersonally and intrapersonally: strengthens interpersonal relationships and intrapersonal relationships. At its best, all members of the co-productive and commoning units witness their own value as part of a team.
  • Take action towards inclusive and de-hierarchised social/research futures.

Keep up to date with Dance/Connect by following them on Twitter for details about upcoming journal articles and presentations.

Find Georgia and information about upcoming research outputs on Twitter and on her website: georgiagardner.com

Learn more about the UKRI research networks attached to the #MentalHealthResearchMatters campaign.