Robert Hollands

When I was asked to come up with a title for a Newcastle Sociology Seminar Series talk in October 2016, to launch the publication of an audience survey/ impact document I had written for the Prague Fringe, frankly I struggled. Eventually I settled on ‘Lovin’ Your Work’, a somewhat ‘touchy, feely’ sound bite, I agree. And not one usually associated with the rather serious discussions of engagement and impact taking place in our universities today!

As context, I have been involved in researching fringe, specifically the Prague Fringe, as part of a wider academic interest in the role arts and culture can play in transforming cities. At the same time, I have also ‘lived it’ having attended the festival for fifteen of its sixteen year existence. Indeed, one might say that I have literally ‘married’ into it – an inevitable outcome of such a long engagement perhaps – but not a typical way of thinking about one’s research focus! During this time I have become immersed into the festival’s internal structure and organisation, by becoming its defacto (unpaid) Research Officer, conducting three large-scale audience impact surveys for them, amongst other research. In the course of this long association, I have also developed close personal relationships with a range of fringe personnel, or what we euphemistically refer to as the ‘fringe family’. It is these multiple roles that have led me to reassess aspects of conventional academic understandings of engagement, and begin to articulate some of the more ‘hidden’ aspects of what is usually understood as impact in universities.

For despite their pervasiveness in academic life, engagement and impact continue to be rather vague, and in some cases, problematic concepts to many. Regarding impact, the Research Excellence Framework (REF) 2014, the system for assessing the quality of research in UK higher education institutions, defines it as ‘an effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, beyond academia’. While such a definition is broad enough to be acceptable to most academics, what happens when some universities choose to privilege certain aspects over others? For example, one (unnamed) university web-site I recently consulted regarding partner impact, focusses almost exclusively on aligning research with improving industrial ‘competitiveness and productivity’, and fulfilling Government requirements of university research producing a return on ‘public investment’.

Unsurprisingly then, some social scientists remain sceptical about the so-called ‘impact of impact’ on our academic practices. For example, Caroline Knowles and Roger Burrows (2014) state: ‘Impact is the new tool in the still-gathering audit and metric culture in UK higher education producing new statements of account’. In addition to the epistemological problem of how we measure impact, there is also the wider political issue about how such auditing might unconsciously begin to skew research agendas towards supposedly more measureable and government driven topics. What if economic impacts are privileged and more easily demonstrated in research terms, than studies which seeks to demonstrate their impact on promoting cooperation, social cohesion, and diversity for example?

Engagement, as a concept, may also be similarly circumscribed by the impact agenda. Reading yet another (unnamed) university strategy for engagement, while I was pleased to hear that it can take ‘many forms’, it is clearly not something to be undertaken as an ‘end in itself’, separate from creating impact (which ironically is mentioned seventeen times in the said fifteen page engagement document). And while more thought has recently been given to exploring the actual mechanics of engagement in universities, far less is said about the motivations and emotions behind ‘why’ we might want to engage in research with others outside of the academy, with whom in particular, and in what form, not to mention the very real challenge in trying to quantify the impact of our engagement with them.

For a start, I would suggest thinking more broadly and historically about the term engagement. Early 17th century origins of the term suggest that it was defined as not only a legal, but also a ‘moral obligation’. One of the meanings of the French term ‘engager’ means literally ‘to commit, to bind’. And of course there is the more marital meaning of the term engagement (which I previously alluded to), which in the modern world at least, assumes an emotional commitment is present in the relationship. These definitions hint at the existence of a slightly different approach to engagement (and impact) in our research work.

For instance, my research relationship with the Prague Fringe, stretching back fifteen years, was never motivated by any initial utilitarian notion of impact. My role was never one of ‘research consultant’ designed to make the fringe more ‘competitive’ in business terms. This is not the reason, I would argue, that most sociologists choose to study what they study even when they are consultants. In my case, it stemmed from both an academic and practical ‘interest’, and indeed ‘passion’ for the role art and culture can play in transforming our lives and our cities. For me engagement with the fringe developed organically, rather than instrumentally, and is characterised by an emotionally close, long-term commitment. To borrow on the words of one of our premier researchers in the Sociology of Arts, Howard Becker: my work as a sociologist and these artistic interests have often intersected or merged in ways that are hard to separate. In addition to becoming its unpaid Research Officer, I also became a member of the fringe team and ‘family’ (literally, by marrying its artistic director).

This raises other important issues that university engagement strategies do not always address satisfactorily. For instance, must engagement always create impact? Is engaging with business and the economy more valuable than engaging with social movements concerned with social justice, or cultural organisations promoting well being? Should engagement always be ‘value-neutral’? Does the nature of engagement change over time? Do we engage differently with organisations that we are committed to, as opposed to those that we are only ‘instrumentally’ attached to? Can we love what we research and still remain a ‘critical friend’? I would suggest that these issues are best raised and debated in universities in relation to ‘real-time’ practical examples, rather than expressed as principles in abstract engagement strategy documents.

I want to raise a couple of issues concerning ‘the impact of impact’ on how we do our research work, by making explicit reference to my most recent research report on Prague Fringe. The 2016 document is my third such audience survey conducted for the festival, taking place roughly every five years (2007 and 2011). It contains both quantitative and qualitative data, including demographic information on fringe audiences, their knowledge of festival, patterns of attendance, audience, performer, and volunteer profiles, and finally covers the economic impact of the festival. Historically, after I’d analysed the data and written the reports, they would be handed over and utilised by the fringe directors to plan the festival, make policy changes, and aid funding bids.

However, over this past year a number of things have changed. For the first time, I noted that I actually used the word impact itself in the title of the report. I also volunteered to organise an engagement and impact seminar for the Sociology Seminar Series, which involved myself and two directors taking about various aspects of the report’s impact. Finally, I recently interviewed a range of different stakeholders, from Prague City Council and the tourism office, as to what they found most useful about the report. While there were positive aspects too much of this activity, does it imply that all of us are being slowly inculcated into the impact agenda? Not to mention the issue of all the extra work, impact research requires.

The second issue surrounding impact, concerns the power of quantitative economic data versus qualitative data indicative of social processes, and was thrown up by the stakeholder interviews.   Two of the three stakeholders I interviewed (a city councillor and a city tourism officer) both said the most impactful research my report contained was the economic impact of the festival and increase in audience numbers (both growth indicators), and that at the end of the day these were the only figures political funders were really interested in. Yet, for me, the biggest impact of the research over the past fifteen years has been to record the human and social effects the festival has had on people’s lives, which, it could be argued, might be much more difficult to measure and quantify. How exactly do we capture the impact of comments like ‘I get a sense of belonging at festival time’ or ‘I hope to perform when I am older’, from audience members, or numerically express the development of confidence and skill acquisition amongst young festival volunteers? Social bonding, community, and inspiration, are amongst the most important features of festival involvement, yet in impact terms they are harder to document and appear less valued by stakeholders.

I have argued that conventional notions of engagement and impact don’t fully capture my research experience of working long-term with the Prague Fringe. And while I do not wish to infer that my situation is universal, I suspect that the vast majority of social science research also supersedes the limited boundaries of ‘economic consultant’. My engagement here is motivated more by a kind of ‘gift economy’ rather than any kind of market variety. And the main impact of my research work on fringe, in my view, is not reducible to demonstrating its economic value, but comes from documenting our collective engagement in a process that creates fun, allows strong bonds to be formed, and encourages creativity to flourish. I would argue that ‘lovin’ your work’ can be as equally powerful as the impact agenda in guiding one’s own research engagement practices, and certainly provides different ways of thinking about the issues involved.


Robert Hollands is a Professor of Sociology at Newcastle University whose current research interests include subjects like the egalitarian arts, fringe festivals, smart cities, youth cultures/ nightlife, and alternative urban cultures. His latest project is a Major Research Fellowship, funded by the Leverhulme Trust, entitled ‘Urban Cultural Movements and the Struggle for Alternative Creative Spaces’.