Seven Tips for Academics Working with Partners to Turn Social Science into Social Change

Commentary /

Shelley Correll

As a sociology professor, my research has focused on understanding why gender inequality persists in the modern world. What are the cultural and organizational barriers that impede progress? What motivated this work since I started graduate school at Stanford was my desire to produce research that would be useful in figuring out how to move beyond these barriers to create a more gender equitable society. However, it was not until I started partnering with people in organizations outside the university that I was able to conduct research that rigorously evaluates strategies for removing the biases and barriers that limit women’s full participation at work and in society.  

Conducting academic research to inform and improve on important social problems hasn’t always been easy or rewarded in the university environment. Instead, academic social science has traditionally valued basic science research that advances theoretical understandings of social problems, while devaluing research that works towards solving those problems. Yet, basic and applied research are synergistic, not oppositional. By conducting research on how to promote gender equality in partnership with people in workplaces and schools, my lab—the VMware Women’s Leadership Innovation Lab—is uncovering basic scientific insights into the causes of gender inequalities in organizations and developing workable, research and practice-based solutions for advancing gender equality. 

"Academic social science has traditionally valued basic science research that advances theoretical understandings of social problems, while devaluing research that works towards solving those problems. Yet, basic and applied research are synergistic, not oppositional."

I am thrilled that Stanford has taken bold steps to encourage and support social science research focused on having a positive social impact in the world beyond our campus. Stanford’s long-range vision includes a specific call to accelerate “the creation and application of knowledge to tackle the world’s great problems, anchoring research and education in ethics and civic responsibility, and promoting access and inclusion.” That is exactly what we are building and nurturing at Stanford Impact Labs and the VMware Women’s Leadership Innovation Lab where we believe scholars working in partnership with leaders in business, government, and nonprofits is the way to create meaningful change. 

I recently shared seven tips for establishing effective academic-practitioner partnerships with the Stanford faculty who are part of the second cohort of Stanford Impact Lab Design Fellows program:

  1. Find and build a relationship with an organizational partner who is interested in contributing to research-based solutions. Look for someone who can lead and champion the work in their organization. Ideal partners understand the value of bridging the worlds of research and practice to make progress on important social issues, like reducing gender bias in the workplace, and they are positioned to lead the change internally. Often this means you will need to work with a fairly senior leader who can champion new approaches and help with the day-to-day implementation of the change effort. If you can establish a long-term relationship with the partner, you have the potential to produce incremental changes that cumulate into larger scale change over time. I’ve found that “small wins,” defined as gains of relatively modest size, often inspire people across an organization to keep pushing for more change, creating a culture that strives for constant improvement.
  2. Listen, don’t lecture. Those of us in academia are used to teaching, informing, and yes, lecturing. For research-practitioner partnerships to work, focus on listening. Listen—and work to understand—the issues your potential partner is facing day-to-day. Learn to converse with them in the language they use in their work. Learn what motivates their interest in bridging research and practice, and what they need to make improvements in their organization. Once you understand your partner’s perspective, you will be able to see where your expertise and research goals align with their opportunities to create change. 
  3. It has to be good for them, not just for you. Partnerships for public impact need to be a two-way relationship that benefits both parties. They are not simply a relationship where an organization hands over organizational data for the scholar to use and analyze in their own academic work. Instead, partnerships should both help the partners achieve their goals and allow scholars to produce high quality scientific research.
  4. You’re not a consultant. I’ve emphasized the need for you to listen, understand and support your partner’s interests and goals. That said, you are not a consultant, so you should not be there just to perform tasks for the partner organization. It is important to communicate frequently with the partner about your need to maintain academic independence and produce research, in partnership with them, that benefits organizations more broadly.
  5. Be candid about roles and especially timelines. Every good partnership requires candor and clarity about roles and boundaries. Both sides need to contribute something of value that together has greater potential for social change. The best partnerships I’ve had include regular, ongoing conversations and negotiations to clarify who is managing the research project, what is expected from each side, and what to do in moments of uncertainty or setbacks. I urge you to be especially upfront about timelines as the timelines for academics and business leaders eager to make change can—but don’t need to—conflict. 
  6. You need a different kind of team to get the work done. I can’t emphasize enough how much you will need a cross-cutting team of staff who bring not just research skills, but also program management, legal, and communications skills to your impact efforts. Most of us were trained in traditional social science structures that don’t typically have people with these skills on their research teams, and we usually do not we have funding to hire them. Yet, people with project management and communication skills are essential for making research-practitioner partnerships work and for ensuring that the research has impact in the larger ecosystem.
  7. Flip “dissemination” on its head. Too often, when we think about our research having impact, we tend to think only about translation of research for the broader public. We complete a research project and then maybe talk to a reporter here or there, write a single op-ed, or hire someone to write a piece for a slightly broader publication. For research-practice partnerships to create broader public impact, you need external engagement from the get-go. You need different types of communication for different audiences and you need to engage these audiences in an ongoing way. In my lab, for example, we have created a set of research-based toolkits for our partners to use as they work to get rid of biases in their hiring and promotion processes. We shared these tools early on in the design phase so that we could get feedback from our partners about what was working and what was not as they attempted to use the toolkits. Remember, with effective partnerships you will be learning from your partners, just as they are learning from you. 

"Remember, with effective partnerships you will be learning from your partners, just as they are learning from you."

I’ll end by noting that when I first started to launch this kind of impact research, I often felt like I was stumbling around in the dark, on my own, trying to figure out how form the kinds of partnerships and secure the funding that are necessary to produce evidence-based solutions for creating sustainable change. What is so exciting about Stanford Impact Labs is that we can provide the infrastructure—plus financial resources, human support, and training—to develop research, partnerships, and practical ideas for social change across many different pressing social problems. We can lower the barrier to entry for people who want to engage in social impact research. I am heartened to see the number of labs we have around campus that are focused on making progress on important social problems — like SPARQ, which uses behavioral science to reduce social disparities including racial bias, and the Immigration Policy Lab – and even more inspired by our potential to expand this number and tackle even larger array of pressing problems.

This post was drafted with support from Sarah Jane Staats, strategic communications and engagement advisor to Stanford Impact Labs.