Learning through practice and practice through learning: An interview on social science research with Alexandra Ioan

Alexandra Ioan is an alumna of two universities in the CIVICA alliance: SNSPA in Romania, where she completed her BA studies, and the Hertie School in Germany, where she completed an MPP and a PhD.

Alexandra is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the Hertie School and Head of the Learning and Action Center at Ashoka Europe, a think tank serving a global network of social entrepreneurs. Her experience has helped her develop high professional standards to guide her current research on German social enterprises, which takes place within CIVICA – The European University of Social Sciences.

Looking back at your career, I notice two intertwined dimensions that seem of great importance: practice and theory. What are you valuing most?

Indeed, I have always been very committed to and passionate about combining studying and learning with practice. Learning from social science improves practice. Still, I have also learned a lot throughout my professional life from being involved in civil society organisations and working with people directly. I think it is hard to have one without the other, and that is why I value both equally.

How has your study experience at SNSPA in Romania and the Hertie School in Germany helped you to achieve the perspective that guides your research?

My experience at SNSPA and the Hertie School was decisive in finding relevant research questions. In both higher education institutions, I discovered a robust connection to the real world. SNSPA was a stepping-stone in my career because it was the first academic environment that strengthened my critical thinking. The Hertie School was an additional valuable step, where I continued to learn powerful analytical skills in a highly international and diverse environment. I have also learned the importance of asking the right questions to start looking for the best answers that can serve societies and people.

For instance, I am interested in figuring out how social organisations can be most effective. How do they interact with their environments? What is that balanced spot between their agency and the constraints from their institutional contexts? How do these dynamics develop? What do they mean for responding to social issues? All this is embedded in an overarching interest in how civil society can ensure the development of democratic and just societies.

How can civil society collaborate to solve issues?

When we talk about civil society, we can think of citizens who get together and do things informally. We can also think of civil society organisations that develop projects and programs for specific social needs. All these types of engagement help people and influence their lives, and this is what addressing issues is about. Civil society can compensate for the absence of government services, or it can draw attention to failing political or democratic processes. The question of collaboration is essential not just within civil society – among groups and organisations themselves – but also between civil society and public structures and the business sector, to address social issues effectively.

Do you think that collaboration is the only way that people can do something for society?

I strongly believe in collaboration for the collective good, but, of course, challenging each other is essential too. Conflict also plays a role and many times progress emerges from friction. Therefore, cooperation is not the only way: competition also leads to advancement.

Is there any general recipe for collaboration? Or it depends on the region, people, culture?

There are definitely some principles that we can follow. But context, culture, individuals matter a lot. Social actors operate in specific settings, not in a vacuum. That is why it is so hard to come up with a template. We should focus on the social needs that we are trying to meet.

For instance, civil society in Romania works in an institutional setting that is much more unstable than the one in Germany. The organisations also answer to different social issues: Romania has pressing needs when it comes to poverty reduction, basic education, or healthcare, and civil society jumps in to contribute. In Germany, the very institutionalised welfare system that works closely with civil society already addressed many of these issues. These differences in context thus affect how collaboration patterns emerge, what uncertainties organisations face, and how they deal with them.

What about the uncertainties that we are facing now? Are we prepared to meet them?

Preparation also has to do with a mindset that we have to foster, that of engagement. Cultivating a civic spirit means that we are not just taking care of ourselves or our interests. It is of significant importance to nurture publicly responsible minds in any field and sector.

Please describe your current research briefly.

Our research team at the Hertie School and other partner institutions in the UK look at social enterprises as organisations that provide bottom-up creative solutions to complex social issues. These organisations understand social problems and can generate social impact specifically because they have a direct connection to the target groups. Moreover, they are also policy relevant. Because of their grassroots perspectives, social enterprises can bring in new outlooks of which decision-makers might be unaware.

What we do is look at a large sample of social enterprises in Germany to see how these organisations evolve. We are also interested in discovering trends and patterns in their work that can inform policy so that we can further support civil society. Our research develops in the framework of CIVICA and it is funded by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD).

What does it mean for you to research in the context of CIVICA – The European University of Social Sciences?

I was extremely excited when I discovered SNSPA and the Hertie School in the same European University alliance. On the one hand, it was the calibre of the partners. On the other hand, I was glad to see the geographical diversity. I am happy to be part of a CIVICA project because of the intense focus on how we can make research useful for people, practitioners, and society.

As someone who has experience with two universities in the CIVICA alliance, what do you think are the essential professional values of a CIVICA researcher?

Both SNSPA and the Hertie School taught me rigour, doing things right and well, and with all your heart. Competency and the quality of your work are essential. So are responsibility, reliability, and accountability – both for the people you work with and for society.

Practically, I believe what you do is supposed to serve others primarily, not just yourself. You gain knowledge and competency through learning and practice, and then it is up to you to use these skills to engage and to make a difference. Either as a researcher or a practitioner, you should be active, you should be present, and you should care about others and the world.

Interview conducted by Cătălin Mosoia (SNSPA)

This interview was originally published on the website of CIVICA – The European University of Social Sciences.
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