Background to the Oxford Praxis Forum

The roots of the Oxford Praxis Forum lie in some work that Emeritus Fellow Dr Marshall Young and Sir Douglas Hague did together in the 1990s and the 2000s, working with cohorts of senior international executives from both the public and private sectors. At different times they had both directed the flagship leadership programme at Oxford that these executives had attended.

Dr Marshall Young writes

At this time, many of our university colleagues focusing on traditional disciplinary academic research were under increasing pressure from their research funding bodies to demonstrate the practical relevance, so called ‘impact’, of their research. Despite significant efforts by many researchers to address this issue, progress was limited, and it remains a concern of funding bodies to this day.

From the standpoint provided by our work with executives at Oxford, both Douglas and I were surprised that this issue was proving so intractable. For:

  • As Hatchuel [1] points out, and we could observe for ourselves, research involves much more than detached observation and thinking. The experimenting researcher must also be an acting, enquiring and administrating investigator (handling activities as diverse as building a laboratory or test bed, managing numerous devices/surveys involved in repeated measurements, modification of factors, managing budgets and schedules etc.). New disciplinary knowledge can be seen first and foremost as the reward for successfully undertaking the practice involved in the management of the diverse range of activities research entails. Hence many research colleagues were well aware of the demands of practice.
  • Similarly, we found the cohorts of executives we worked with were reflecting the trend Douglas had noticed in his book ‘Beyond Universities’ [2]. Many had been top students at top universities, often gaining postgraduate qualifications, who, rather than continue in traditional research hubs, had chosen to take up corporate and professional roles. Hence, they were well aware of the demands of quality research.

It seemed incongruous that these researchers (theoreticians) and practitioners, who each had a fair understanding of their counterpart’s world, seemed unable address this issue of practical relevance of quality research. Douglas and I decided to launch an inquiry into why this had arisen and what might be done about it.

Initial Programme

The nature and scope of the initial programme we launched, under the Oxford Praxis Forum banner, is summarised in the earlier Overview section above. The closing ‘After Action Review’, built on the methodology expounded by former US Army Chief of Staff Gordon Sullivan and co-author and Praxis member Colonel Mike Harper [3], highlighted three areas:

Area 1

Many of the key insights identified in the research review prong of the inquiry were elegantly captured and summarised in some work by Zierhofer and Berger [4]. They had collected detailed profiles of 16 actual projects that had sought to include single discipline research in inquiries into complex ‘lifeworld’ problems. Taking single disciplinary research as a benchmark in terms of its clear epistemic end (new knowledge production) and clear epistemic means (methodologies that met strict truth protocols) they then looked at the epistemic ends/means relations evident in the projects.

This highlighted the way each project was focused on multiple epistemic ends (typically involving new knowledge desiderata associated with knowledge for action), and new epistemic means (inclusion of multiple disciplines, participation of non-research actors etc). They suggested that, at best, the projects might be considered as a class of epistemically and methodologically heterogeneous research activities that are only formally unified by the two general properties ‘interdisciplinary’ and ‘participatory’.

Moreover, there was a distinct lack of explicit understanding as to how these diverse activities might be integrated into an actionable, coherent perspective. Many individual projects had resorted to informal, ad-hoc measures in attempts to secure the integration needed for actionable findings.

Clearly, until this integration process is better understood, incorporating academic research into practice-oriented projects will remain a challenge.

Area 2

The activities in the research prong involving experiential events showed a distinct pattern. In terms of engagement with senior practitioners, the individual Praxis pilot activities all enjoyed high levels of satisfaction and positive feedback. But these events failed to secure any real synergies in terms of follow through. The events often finished with an enthusiastic discussion of possible next steps, but none of these translated into credible options for generating the kind of sustained, pro-active involvement Praxis was seeking. The participants enjoyed the intellectual stimulus, but, as with the practice-oriented projects in the previous section (Area 1, above), struggled to integrate this new knowledge back into the heterogeneous activities their work on complex lifeworld problems entails.

The one, partial exception to this concerned the activities involving small group discussions (e.g., the Reading Weekends) where many participants were clear the focus for them was not on new knowledge or a new integrated perspective. It was rather an opportunity to stand back and de-Frame, to review the basis of their existing integrated perspectives before looking to update them.

Area 3

Praxis determined that the most promising option for addressing this integration issue was to look more closely into the framing challenge it poses. Encompassing and integrating the heterogeneous activities into an actionable, coherent perspective clearly requires developing a new frame.

Framing is a basic social cognitive skill that enables people, often subconsciously, to encapsulate and communicate specific meanings to others. A range of researchers (sociologists, cognitive psychologists, political scientists, and communications scholars) have been using frame-based analysis for the past 30 years. However, despite all this frame related activity, there seems little academic consensus as to what frames are or how framing works.

A comprehensive ‘Framing of Framing’ is beyond Praxis but, building on an approach advanced by Gill [4], Praxis was able to develop a conceptual schema that highlighted the key cognitive elements involved in framing. This schema does not pretend to offer a generic model. It rather captures sufficient language, concepts and exemplars (e.g., the more specialist community of inquiry involving a community of process, the Deweyan focus on meaning in social semiotics, open-source support platforms) to help participants better understand the process of framing they are engaged in.


  1. Hatchuel, Armand (2005) Towards an epistemology of collective action: management research as a responsive and actionable discipline; European management review [1740-4754] vol:2 iss:1 pg:3
  2. Hague, Douglas C (1991) Beyond universities: a new republic of the intellect; Institute of Economic Affairs, London
  3. Sullivan, Gordon & Harper, Mike (1996) Hope is not a Method; Times Business, New York
  4. Gill, Grandon (2011) When What is Useful is Not Necessarily True: The Underappreciated Conceptual Scheme; Informing Sci. Int. J. an Emerg. Transdiscipl.14: 1-32 (2011)