Power dynamics

This page provides further information on the ‘Power dynamics’ theme in the design framework, including the background and supporting material, and the development process.


Background and supporting material

As with many schemes that focus on the persistent gap between research and practice, we found that many embedded research initiatives had an underlying intent to address power dynamics, sometimes explicitly and proactively or, perhaps more often, implicitly and reactively. As a theme, power dynamics were evident initially in the published literature, such as when Duggan (2014) discusses the way in which embedded research illuminates and problematises the traditional power relationship between the researcher and the researched. Our scoped examples were also shot through with intentions related to power dynamics, even though individuals working them sometimes struggled to respond directly to questions about power.

We identified two aspects of power (who and what) attached to three different facets of the initiative (control, contribution and gain). The concerns were: who is in control of the initiative, and what aspects of it are they in control of; who contributes to the initiative, and what do they contribute; and who benefits or gains from the initiative, and what are these benefits? The first part (i.e. who is in control, contributes and gains?) tended to be reflected in the structural features of an initiative such as employment and funding arrangements. These were usually presented in a factual manner and were not the source of reflection or discussion. The second part (i.e. what is being controlled, contributed and gained) was the subject of some discussion in both the literature and our scoped examples, and included both resources (human and financial) and knowledge.

A further way in which power dynamics played out was in relation to the intended effect of the initiative on the ‘traditional’ roles ascribed to academia and practice, whereby academics are conceived as knowledge producers, and practitioners as knowledge consumers. Across the literature and our scoped examples we found initiatives that sought not only to influence these epistemic positions but also those which occur within healthcare practice (e.g. between different groups of healthcare professionals).

“…one of the things that I’ve ended up being is this kind of weirdly passionate advocate revolutionary on behalf of nurses – because I just think that they’re treated like shit basically.  And clinical teams talk a big game about being this great high-functioning team, but they don’t really mean it – they don’t really treat nurses’ perspectives or admin perspectives, or anyone who’s not a consultant’s perspective as valid as their own. And I’ve ended up fighting for that…” Embedded researcher interview

Actively disrupting power dynamics was rarely the explicit intention of initiatives, however. While some sought to challenge them by bringing epistemic and other inequalities into focus, others sought to rebalance them by blurring roles and boundaries (e.g. by involving healthcare staff in collecting and analysing data). Still others sought to maintain or bolster traditional roles and relationships, or simply left these unaddressed. In fact, many of our interviewees found it difficult to respond to questions about power dynamics, or explicitly downplayed their relevance. Our workshop participants, in contrast, suggested power dynamics were an emotive and oftentimes painful issue for those involved in embedded research initiatives, using words such as ‘emotion-fuelled’, ‘tension’ and ‘frustrating’ when reflecting on this theme. Further discussion revealed that it was precisely when power dynamics were hidden and/or unacknowledged that significant disruption and frustration was experienced by the initiative and those involved in it.


Duggan, J. R. (2014) ‘Critical friendship and critical orphanship: Embedded research of an English local authority initiative’, Management in Education, 28(1): 12-18.

Development and adaptation process

The original title of this theme was ‘political and power dynamics’ but during the workshop we found that the idea of ‘politics’ did not seem to sit well with participants, which led us to remove it from the title.

When reflecting on this theme, workshop participants tended to focus on their responses to and feelings about power dynamics (e.g. frustrating, tension, emotion fuelled, difficult to understand and navigate) and the extent to which they were hidden and disruptive to the initiative. Our reflections were that the theme is an important way of opening discussions about power which can render the different aspects and effects of power visible. For workshop participants, an important element of this theme was understanding and clearly communicating research, people and roles. This led us to emphasise this in our rewording and description of the sub-themes.

Originally we included only two sub-themes – aspects of power and intended effect on roles and relationships. Due to the perceived ‘hidden’ nature of power dynamics and the apparent rarity of discussing these when planning an embedded research initiative we felt that it would be better to divide ‘aspects of power’ into three sub-themes, each highlighting an aspect of power (control, contribution, benefit).

The intended effect on roles and relationships did not change following the workshop. This sub-theme was originally drawn from our analysis of individual initiatives and the differences which we saw between them (especially in relation to the level of co-production being subscribed to). This was not something which workshop participants reflected on, as they tended to only be aware of their own initiative and not see the potential for making other choices about how the initiative could affect roles and relationships.