A Collaborative Approach & Problem Analysis
Research that engages network and seeks to make impact
The purpose of this research initiative is to understand issues of stress among students and to develop stress preventative measures and enhance well-being. While students are at the center of this research initiative and a primary source for both knowledge creation and idea development, the research scope will also include the larger organizational system related to the CBS study environments. If we are to address stress at a more comprehensive organizational or cultural level, it entails to draw on knowledge and experience across this network of units, functions and people at that contribute to the study experience at CBS – as well as to bring people together around this shared agenda of stress-prevention and student well-being. Pernille Steen Pedersen has designed the project with a dual ambition: the research needs to generate new knowledge on stress and well-being among students and, at the same time, initiate new processes that can facilitate transformation within practices that potentially triggers stress. In order to encompass both aspirations the collective approach inviting for collaboration across CBS is crucial. Transforming practices necessitates a network engagement and effort. To this end, students as well as the network around the study environment must come together and participate in a collective “journey” to work with stress prevention and well-being. It is a journey that entails exploring current practices. Since some of the underlying triggers for stress among students are found within the relational context or the collectively produced environment, it will require a collaborative effort to address these issues and to develop and – eventually – implement suitable long-term solutions.
Transparency as an invitation to a collective journey
Placing collaboration as a central aspect in the research process and development of stress-preventive activities, differentiates this research project greatly. Close collaboration with both students and staff at CBS is a part of the methodological design, exploring and experimenting with new ways to conduct research that also aims to facilitate an impact. Frequent meetings and dialogues with the partners and collaborators of the project is part of this network-based research process. Another essential part of the design is frequent communication about the research both to keep the network informed and engaged, but also because detailed information and transparency of the research process can foster a shared understanding and invite for new ideas to emerge. This website serves to this end. It is used deliberately to explore how best to provide insights into the “machine room” of research of a social relevant and important topic, and also as a way to set the stage for better possibilities for collaboration across CBS and beyond.
The site therefore has lots of information and text, including a detailed “Project Log” that functions as a research journal of ongoing activities. Always with the focus on stress prevention and well-being for students at CBS, the site as a communication platform for the project, also shares insights and experiences from different voices across the network. Furthermore, the site demonstrates how the project overlaps and intersects with other research projects or initiatives on CBS with the shared agenda, showing the collaborative efforts as they unfold.
Exploratory inquiry and “problem analysis”
Aligned with the network-based focus in the research process, Pedersen has adopted an exploratory approach in the initial research stages, which emphasizes the importance of perceiving multiple voices and perspectives. Stress is a contested topic, and research on stress specifically among students has not yet received extensive scholarly attention. Therefore, it has been important to Pedersen to approach the topic with an attitude openness and not assuming conclusions beforehand; or as she puts it: “from an attitude that we don’t know yet what we are dealing with”. One consideration is to inquire without pre-assuming the reasons for stress, but another is how to research the internal emotions, tensions, conflicts and experiences of others? Together with sociologist Troels Krarup from Copenhagen University, Pernille Steen Pedersen has developed some techniques for researching such intra-personal conflicts and tensions. Drawing on Foucault’s work they use the term “problem analysis” to describe this approach. It is an approach designed to work with “problems”, which they perceive as generic situations imbued with tensions, ambiguities, contradictions and potentially even conflicting arguments. Why do such contradictions arise and what are the conditions that make these contradictions coexist and arise repeatedly? Krarup and Pedersen are working with the hypothesis that conflicts that keep arising, e.g., the reoccurrence of people going down with stress, can be seen as relations or answers that arise at some level but due to a deeper underlying problem, the conditions that give rise to their existence. This underlying problem, however, might be unclear or invisible at first. In relation to stress research this also stems from the fact, that the topic touches upon emotions as well as tensions and conflicts that can be difficult to speak about or put into precise words. Emotions are difficult to study and can often be contradictory within the same experience. The “problem analysis approach” is thus a methodological tool to address these appearing contradictions in order to explore and reveal the deeper conditions causing a given problem.
In her work on work-related stress, Pedersen has often encountered that people tend to approach stress by wanting to find one root cause and evaluate a situation. For example, an interviewee shared how she had reported stress-related sick leave to a manager with a few explanations for the reasons why, and the response she received was “this is not something that can cause stress”. That someone arrives at the point of sick leave cannot be explained through a few situations, however, but some crucial moments might become the last drop making the cup run over. There is a tendency to judge from a place of right or wrong, if it is okay for someone to be stress by this or that, to doubt and question their experience. According to Pedersen it is important to refrain from judging others’ experiences and jumping to quick conclusions. She advocates an open mind to investigate stress and to explore the issue from a broader perspective through different stress-related experiences. Problem analysis departs from an open inquiry into contradictions in the empirical material, without assessing statements as being right or wrong, but looking into the relations, connections, practices and emotions across the material. By unfolding contradictions and tensions in the material, and analyzing across multitude of experiences, “problem analysis” looks for patterns that can shed light on more fundamental issues behind the immediate conflicts.
In Pedersen’s material immediate conflicts can for example be employees sharing experiences of feeling powerless, feeling outside the community, feeling a change in how one is treated, and feeling not good enough to handle a task. Comparing across the type of situation across many different employees, there seems to be some commonalities and patterns. Pedersen then asked, what is it that binds these seemingly different moments together? What are the conditions that makes such conflicts arise? This inquiry led her to introduce the notion of shame, as an analytical stance and conceptual explanation for an underlying foundational problematic. From this perspective it also becomes evident that these stress experiences cannot be reduced to being about the individual, because similar experiences and circumstances reappears for many people and in different organizations. These are shared experiences for many people, which then reveals some more foundational relational dynamics between human beings and within workplaces.
Instead of trying to judge, fix the individual or clarify if it is “correct” that one can be stressed of “this or that”, Pedersen approach stress from a place of wanting to understand what stress does and in which kind of situations across many different people. Her approach incorporates the opposing feelings and contradictory statements people might share, as something human and realistic that reflects the ambivalence and paradoxes that also constitute modern work life. Her aim is to develop methods to talk about it without evaluating or judging neither ourselves nor others, for example in form of dialogue cards to facilitate such talks. Research that develops concepts that can provide explanation for the deeper underlying problems behind immediate conflicts or issues, will ensure a different point of departure for developing new measures and transformational solutions.
In the podcast below (in danish), “Ud af skammekrogen”, produced by CBS Teaching and Learning and edited by Emil Nørgaard Munk, Pernille Steen Pedersen and Troels Krarup are discussing in greater details their work and method of problem analysis.