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On being a pracademic

I have finally resolved my identity crisis! I have discovered that I am a pracademic.

What am I on about? Well, the term almagamates the identity of a ‘practitioner’ with that of an ‘academic’ in the tradition of the twittonary. Although it doesn’t feature in there yet, it is a pragmatic term to describe someone working at the interface of research and practice.

I came across the term yesterday at the Social Capital World Forum (SCWF). The SCWF aims to connect practitioners who are intentionally using social capital to enhance community wellbeing; share knowledge and experiences of ‘social capital in practice’; build a collaborative network for effective future communication between SCWF participants; and expand opportunities to promote the value of social capital regionally, nationally and internationally.

When Colin from Assist Social Capital first used the term ‘pracademic’ to describe my role at the SCWF, I wasn’t sure what to think. Am I not considered robust enough in my work to be considered an ‘academic’? Am I not considered sufficiently grounded in practice to be called a ‘practitioner’? On reflection I consider it quite an accurate descriptor, as ‘academic’ often brings to mind ivory towers apart from the real world; ‘practitioner’ is inaccurate as I am not currently practicing social work; and ‘clinical academic’ (the health equivalent) is, well, too clinical. So, I will settle with ‘pracademic’.

The term was coined in a discussion at the SCWF about developing an evidence base for social practice and social interventions. Social capital activists, social entrepreneurs, civil servants concerned with public social spaces and others interested in the fabric of society were discussing the need to research the return on investment in social capital, for individuals, groups and communities within civil society. Bedevilled by measurement and concept operationalisation issues, this is not an easy task. The real-world expertise of practitioners needs research expertise to explore process or outcomes, and to produce valid and reliable findings.

The Connecting People Study is a good example of pracademic research. It is grounded in real-world practice and the intervention it is developing (to enhance access to social capital) arises from an ethnographic study of social care practice. Its grounded approach is combined with a social capital theoretical framework to inform the intervention model. The purpose of the intervention model is to articulate practice in such a way that it can be replicated in experimental studies. My engagement with the SCWF allowed me to meet others working in this field; explore shared agendas and pursue opportunities for collaboration.

I think the term ‘pracademic’  would have been recognised by Martin van der Gaag and Miriam Notten who I met in Delft on Thursday. Both are interested in practical applications of social network theory and analysis. Martin is a social networks and social capital analyst, who created the Resource Generator methodology which I adapted for use in the UK. Miriam is an entrepreneur providing social network consultancy to corporations. Our discussion bridged the gap between research, theory and their applications in the real world. I came away with many ideas for the Connecting People Study, intervention development and potential future collaborators, including a list of Dutch experts to draw upon.

Social work academics are prime examples of this new breed of ‘pracademic’. Their research and teaching is grounded in the social reality which they seek to address or, at least, it should be. They hold a tension between conducting ‘pure’ research, favoured by their employers, and the applied research favoured by practitioners. However, they need to ensure that their research has an impact on society so it needs to be both robust and relevant. Identifying and engaging with both the academy and the real world can be challenging, but when it is achieved I believe that the results could potentially be quite exciting.

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