Some of us listened to all of Science In Vivo's recorded conversations: dozens of hours of final critiques and category conversations. Seven main themes emerged from this listening. Each of these main themes are reflected in every category of Science In Vivo activity, and we are beginning to think that these themes may be inherent aspects of situated engagement. However, the way that main themes are expressed vary from site to site, which means that each main theme is comprised of multiple secondary themes. Every quote highlighted as part of the Science In Vivo project was tagged with both a main theme and a secondary theme.
Situated engagement is a call to action. Since it goes beyond just showing up at a public event, it is not possible to practice situated engagement without actively participating in your community. This is a call to leave the comforts of your home base, both literally and metaphorically. It can be an antidote to entrenched institutional thinking precisely because situated engagement takes us into settings and contexts that we do not control and must adapt to. Though it never goes from start to finish as planned, situated engagement opens up growth for practitioners and strategic potential for organizations. As with all things it can do great damage if done thoughtlessly (please do not force your way onto center stage at someone else’s party), but as a practice situated engagement calls for conscious, sensitive, community building that is inherently inclusive.
Situated engagement joins community. Situated engagement is about leaving control of the scene to those that set the norms for a community gathering. It naturally recognizes community members as experts, since they are closest to the community’s priorities, obstacles, and identity. Rather than fostering an “us versus them” othering mentality, situated engagement builds a healthy sensitivity to the shifting dynamics of insider and outsider in every cultural context. When the role of outsider is too problematic, situated engagement offers a way to emphasize listening and community engagement over institutional baggage. As much as situated engagement is about adapting to a community setting, practicing it can also build community by changing the way we think about who is on our team.
Situated engagement connects cultures. By showing up and participating at any event we make a statement that we are part of the fabric of a community. Doing this with care and intention at events we do not normally attend can bridge cultural divides, especially when accompanied by authentic underlying partnerships. At the core of those partnerships are relationships of trust that transcend cultural differences. This means that most of the work of situated engagement takes place outside of any one event, and is found instead in the careful processes that teams bring to their practice. Over time, situated engagement begins to build a deep understanding of the layered and nuanced meanings implicit in people’s actions in a setting, and our own. In this way, practicing situated engagement builds both cultural competency and personal connection.
Situated engagement is personal. Whether it is a part of our job or not, it seems impossible to practice situated engagement without emotional involvement and connection. Maybe this is because situated engagement means we have to show up as a whole person. Who shows up and how they participate means much more than specialist credentials. For scientific institutions this may at first seem like science is only being deemphasized, but it is really a remarkable opportunity to meld science identity with other personal and cultural identities. This focus on the whole person is also a chance to rearrange or even put aside institutional baggage that gets in the way.
Situated engagement reframes science. It is a great way to quickly reset our notions of what science can be, where it should be, and who it includes. One reason why is deceptively simple: Cultural events move at a face pace, and do not allow for long-winded explanations. Successfully participating at the right pace means we get it right culturally, but this comes at the expense of the typical frame that science is always about learning. Letting go of traditional learning objectives can be hard for science-first teams, but situated engagement forces the realization that this has to happen to make space for the much greater message that science is human. It is more important that situated engagement strike the right tone for the whole scene than convey any particular content. Since most cultural gatherings are uplifting, this means that science participating in these spaces is often framed as joyful.
Situated engagement transforms teams. Since it requires adaptation to real contexts and settings, situated engagement is a fantastic way for a team to quickly learn, grow, and move beyond business as usual. Situated engagement processes are rooted in relationship building across cultural and community divides. The key to that relationship building is to recognize the generosity we ask of our potential partners, and to more than match that generosity in return. While this may mean putting our own immediate goals aside at times, it can transform and expand our notion of who is part of our team and what our team is for. The energy needed for this relationship building is likely to be more than originally accounted for, but matching the energy, fun, and passion of a culminating event is an incredible way to energize teams. These aspects of situated engagement may feel new for science engagement practitioners that have yet to recognize that we are working in the much larger field of cultural arts.
Situated engagement is better with special support. Effectively adapting to a new cultural context requires sensitivity, relationship building, and time. Situated engagement works when we are able to sustain our commitment to showing up repeatedly, to taking the time to learn, to moving beyond one-off events, and to putting in the appropriate resources when the occasion calls for it. This means that situated engagement often means we must pare down the scale of our activity and scope of our objectives to match our actual effectiveness in new settings. Traditional outreach teams and engagement practitioners are likely to find that situated engagement needs new markers of success, and that these align better with real world conditions. Since situated engagement requires navigating complex and nuanced contexts, arranging for observation and critique of our activity is an essential part of improving our practice. All of this may seem sideways and slow to organizational leadership that is accustomed to barreling ahead, but leaders that make a personal, emotional connection through this activity find that situated engagement is a lever for institutional change.