Through conflict to sustainability
: engaging with ‘the space between’ entities and individuals working in collaboration in the UK and the Netherlands

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy (PhD)


As formerly centralised social infrastructure services are outsourced, organisations with highly disparate cultures and working practices are increasingly required to collaborate to deliver essential community-facing services. Sustaining such multi-sectoral and cross-cultural collaborations over time requires an ongoing synthesis of myriad values, norms and hierarchies, thus increasing the potential for conflict as well as relying heavily on interpersonal relationships. This exploratory research study aimed to better understand how conflicting views arrived in ‘the spaces between’ individuals and organisations working in collaboration and to explore how differences were negotiated. The small-scale mixed methods research design used a complexity-informed framing to surface differing viewpoints and needs in four task groups. Participants (n=21) were drawn from two cross-sector collaborative systems which delivered community-facing work in the UK and the Netherlands. Each group completed an identical 2-hour interactive, self-managed session consisting of four separate tasks: initial reflections on why they took part in the research; co-creating a map of the collaborative system surrounding a specific piece of work; exploring values that underpinned the work; and final reflections. Data collected included recordings of all participant interactions; participant-created maps of two multi-level collaborative systems; observation and reflection data; feedback data from participants; and entries from the PhD journal. An iterative, emergent approach to the data analysis resulted in the development of an innovative methodology for visualizing qualitative group data. Building on previous studies of small group mood, these visualizations highlighted shifts of energy in the group interactions and explored how these shifts related to laughter use in the groups. Textual analysis of the data built on the visualizations to explore micro-power dynamics and strategies used by participants to negotiate fields of tension during their discussions. The combined visual and textual data analysis surfaced a number of findings in relation to collaborative work, from the impact of nonverbal interaction on positive group function to the significance of insider/outsider positioning and the ranking of knowledge hierarchies. Theoretical and applied outputs from the transdisciplinary research include reflections on the active engagement with an emergent frame in qualitative research; a conceptual focus on ‘the space between’ to illuminate group dynamics and interactions; the trial of innovative research methodologies, from the visualization of qualitative data to psychodynamic observation of undercurrents in group interaction; a heightened awareness of the importance of nonverbal communication in group interaction; and negotiation strategies employed by participants as they worked together. These outputs hold relevance for the social science research community; for those working in or with collaborations across a range of settings; and for both research and practice in relation to the sustainability of multi-sectoral and cross-cultural working environments and programmes.
Date of Award23 Jan 2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Bristol
SupervisorDavid W J Sweeting (Supervisor)

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