In a keynote speech at the Co-operative Education Conference, Linda Shaw, former vice principal of the Co-operative College, looked at how the movement could build on past achievements to promote co- operative research. After retiring from the College last year, she went back to her roots as a historian and is currently working on a study on developmentalist colonialism and co-operatives.
As a researcher, Dr Shaw joined the College in 2001, bringing her experience in the academic and NGO sectors. At the time, a lot of the research on co-operatives was following a decline narrative. “Much of the research felt inward looking. There was a lack of confidence about co-ops and their future,” she told delegates.
While individual researchers were examining the co-operative movement, depth was missing and co-ops were not taken into account by most universities, she added. The International Labour Organization had also stopped collecting data on co-ops in the 1980s. The sector needed statistical data and the literature available was fragmented.
According to Dr Shaw, the adoption of the statement on co-operative identity in 1995 led to a global revival of the movement.
“I wouldn’t underestimate the role the movement played in understanding itself. The movement started generating its own statistics because of the lack of data providing an alternative narrative about co-ops, one that wasn’t about decline,” she said.
In 2011, the International Co-operative Alliance produced for the first time the Global 300 – a report about the world’s top co-operatives. The International Year of Co-operatives also led an extensive promotion of co-operatives worldwide, said Dr Shaw. Two years later Cooperatives Europe, the regional office of the Alliance produced a report on co-operatives and fairtrade.
The research by the College and other co-operative organisations helped generate more research from academics, she added, increasing their interest in co-operatives. She explained how throughout this time the College supported PhD research programmes and used its networks, translating and disseminating research on co-operatives.
The International Co-operative Alliance hosted its first research conference in 2009, with others following in 2012 and 2015.
The College continued to work with co-operative movements in Africa on other global initiatives, and the development of the UK’s National Co-operative Archive all helped stimulate the amount of research taking a global, rather than a national perspective, said Dr Shaw.
She thinks the sector has had a positive journey over the past ten years in terms of research. More evidence and data on co-ops is now available and emerging researchers are becoming more interested in co- ops. However, she highlighted that the sector continued to be present in a limited number of undergraduate and postgraduate courses. Literature also remains limited and so do good practice examples. “The teaching agenda has to catch up but the research agenda is expanding,” she said. She also pointed out the lack of career opportunities for postdoctoral researchers in the UK.
Asking delegates how to make research activities more equitable, she suggested looking at the co-production of research as well as building new research co-ops. She encouraged participants to go beyond the project-based approach to research and form new partnerships with self-employed co-op researchers or co-ops doing research. Co-operative research has been on a positive journey over the last ten years but co-ops had a challenge to sustain the momentum.