The Deep Adaptation Forum: An online network enabling radical collective change?
In 2018, nine years after receiving my previous degree, I decided to embark on a PhD. It was not an easy decision.
For a start, I knew that it would force me to waste countless hours jumping like a trained poodle through a number of bureaucratic hoops (and chase after transcripts from a decade ago) in order to re-enter a university system which I consider to be deeply broken, unfair, and exploitative. Furthermore, I had no access to funding, so I would have to finance my degree using my meagre savings. But on top of that, I was growing into a deepened awareness that industrialised society might well collapse in the coming years. I pictured myself clutching my doctoral degree, with a ridiculous mortarboard perched on my head, standing in the pile of rubble that was formerly some proud Western academic institution, and wondered: “Does this really make sense?”
Eventually, I decided that it did. An important reason was that I realised it was possible for me to do more, through this degree, than simply produce an unreadable thesis full of abstract theories. I could actually take steps toward creating some of the change I wished to see happening in the world. Because change was what really motivated me, and it does now more than ever. The approach that makes this possible is called Action Research, which is about simultaneously generating useful insights and bringing about positive social change. See this page on my blog for more details on Action Research.
So, what exactly is my research about?
The point of it all
My current research question is: “How may online networks enable radical collective change through social learning?“ Since early 2020, the Deep Adaptation Forum is one of the key networks that I am exploring. In this blog post, I will outline what this project involves, and what has been happening so far.
Firstly, what is “radical collective change”? Put simply, it is collective change commensurate with the extent of our planetary social-ecological predicament, which is already irrevocably harming the biosphere, leading to massive human suffering, and may even lead to human extinction. More specifically, I am referring to fundamental transformations in political and economic governance, and in people’s ways of life, behaviours, and mindsets. Such radical change needs to happen within individuals and social groups, in a number of interrelated domains:
- cognitive: in our substantive knowledge, or what we know and understand about the world;
- relational: in our ways of relating to self, each other, and the non-human world, along with our ability to cooperate;
- normative: in our systems of norms and values, and world-views;
- societal: in the social, political, and economic structures conditioning our social life as a whole.
I believe that such transformations require learning, and in particular, social learning.
The topic of how to define learning is vast, and I hope to write more about it elsewhere. For now, I’ll define social learning (following E. and B. Wenger-Trayner) as an experience of agency and meaningfulness, which may occur when a person fruitfully interacts with others in order to make a difference in their life and in the world, while engaging their uncertainty and paying attention to what happens in the process. You can discover more about this theory in this video.
I’m interested in learning as a process of change on both the personal and the collective levels, which may happen as a result of people following their passion in a spirit of curiosity, and in active collaboration with others. This is more than just about absorbing new information: indeed, I see this as learning that can and should also bring about profound insights on relational, normative, and societal levels. In other words, learning that may help to precipitate radical collective change.
And in my view, online networks, and the communities that can form and grow out of them, could be vital vectors of such change. Granted, the internet is far from having lived up to the dreams of collective liberation that some of its founders nursed; indeed, I would agree that “Today, for most of us the Internet is little more than a heavily surveilled, over-policed Electronic Strip Mall in which we are carefully herded from one company’s property to another.” (source). In particular, I am fundamentally suspicious of proprietary social networks controlled by the likes of Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft (the infamous GAFAM), or their rival equivalents in China and elsewhere. My friends and colleagues in the Deep Adaptation Forum know that I tend to shy away from the DA Facebook group, thriving though it is, for this very reason. And there is much that can be said about the environmental impact of the internet itself.
Nonetheless, I sense a possibility for redemption in the genuine human connectedness that online networks enable, particularly in the case of networks specifically designed to foster the emergence of generative communities, as I think is the case of the Deep Adaptation Forum. Our global predicament is of such a magnitude, and there is so much learning and un-learning to be done, and fast, if we (as humans) are to at least “soften the crash” of industrial societies. This connectedness represents a huge potential that should be urgently explored… for as long as the internet keeps going.
So, how have I been investigating these topics within the Deep Adaptation Forum so far?
Researching (in) the Deep Adaptation Forum
This project isn’t about me stepping into DAF groups and conversations, and scribbling notes and sketches on my clipboard like an old-school ethnologist. As a member of the DAF Core Team, I am involved in a variety of groups and initiatives, but I do not collect any data from the conversations (written or spoken) without explicitly seeking consent from anyone who takes part in these conversations. In fact, most of the information I collect (besides through occasional surveys) comes from interviews that are explicitly about this research, and which I am happy to have with anyone willing to share their learning journey with me.
Thus far, 25 interviews have taken place, involving volunteers, core team members, and other DAF participants. My hope is that these conversations may enable more of us to gain a bird’s-eye view of the changes that are taking place for people in various Deep Adaptation Forum spaces, as a result of our participation, as well as the “ripples” that these changes may cause, if any, within our social circles and beyond.
This research is based on the ethos and practice of Participatory Action Research, which involves collaboration and co-creation in all aspects of the research design and execution. For this reason, since September 2020, I have been actively collaborating with DAF volunteer Wendy Freeman, who is bringing invaluable insights and contributions to this project. Wendy is passionate about Transformative Learning, which was the topic of her Master’s degree. And we would be happy to work with more fellow co-researchers, too!
Each (co-)researcher is invited to be reflexive, in other words, to view their own self – their views and knowledge and lived experience – as fully involved in the study. Indeed, an Action Research paradigm challenges the traditional view that a researcher can be objective, or free of biases or assumptions, or that they can study a social context without their presence affecting that context. On the contrary, they embrace their fundamental “entanglement” with everything and everyone else. Therefore, as a complement to any other research methods, it is vital for such researchers to adopt a “First-person Action Research” (or autoethnographic) stance, to continuously try to pay conscious attention to their own biases, assumptions, and intentions, and continuously reflect on how these may play out in the research. This is also an excellent way to keep track of one’s learnings. For this reason, I try to keep a research diary updated as often as possible with musings and critical reflections on what I’m doing, thinking, feeling, learning, etc. in the course of this project.
We also occasionally disseminate anonymous research questionnaires, with the aim of gaining a broader understanding of what changes, learning, or unlearning may be happening for people as they participate in the Forum. The results of every survey are then shared with the Forum, or at the very least with the survey respondents. So far, the following three reports have been shared:
- “Does anticipating societal collapse motivate pro-social behaviours?” (co-authored with Jem Bendell)
- “Strategy Options Dialogue Final Survey results: ‘How was it for you?’” A report about the 2020 Strategy Options Dialogue and what participants learned in the process.
- “DAF ‘Dismantling Racism’ training – Your feedback” This report was produced to look into the impact of the DAF “Dismantling Racism” training, which took place in November 2020. It was shared with the trainees.
Finally, Wendy and I have started to organise online gatherings to involve more people in this research, including reflecting on our methodology and preliminary research findings. The first one took place last December, and another one will take place in the coming weeks. Please keep an eye on the Events section of the Professions’ Network if you wish to attend.
Speaking of research findings…
What have we learned so far?
It still feels a little early to be attempting to summarise the mass of data, intuitions, thoughts, and feelings that we have been gathering, producing, and mulling over so far. Nonetheless, we hope to start sharing results shortly, and in ways that enable more dialogue, more co-creation of meaning, and more learning.
It is clear that participating in the Deep Adaptation Forum has been a rich source of social learning, and in some cases, even transformative learning — for nearly every person that has shared their path with us, and that is true for us as co-researchers too. But beyond deepening this understanding, it is my wish that we will also find more and more creative ways, following Action Research principles, to further cultivate and amplify the change that is happening already within DAF, and move towards more radical collective change in the Forum and beyond.
One first such experiment in this regard was the launch, last December, of Mutual Care circles. These are spaces for connection and inquiry, working as an important portal for direct connection, mutual support, and collaborative learning among all active DAF volunteers (Facebook group Moderators, Professions’ Network volunteers, Facilitators, etc.), along with Holding Group members and the Core Team. Through these circles, we are hoping to strengthen our relationships, deepen our mutual learning, clarify issues we see emerging, and stay updated on where we all feel we are in the process of co-evolving together.
I also hope that more DAF participants passionate about learning will join Wendy and I as co-researchers. Please get in touch if this sounds interesting, or if you have any ideas on how to foster more learning experiments within the Forum. We will keep sharing insights that emerge from our research on this blog, so please subscribe to receive updates.
To go further:
See this page on my blog for more details about this research.
A new survey is currently collecting responses until June 16, on the topic of how DAF participants are conceptualising the possibility of societal collapse, and how this relates to their sense of community. Your participation would be much appreciated.
Image: ‘Migration’, by Janet Lees