August 1998 // Volume 36 // Number 4 // Research in Brief // 4RIB1

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From Knowledge Extended to Knowledge Created: Challenges for a New Extension Paradigm

Traditionally the practice of Extension has been described as "knowledge applied" or "knowledge extended." More recently, the research community has begun to recognize Extension's role in creating knowledge. Beyond Extension's contribution in setting agendas for future research, this movement recognizes Extension's capacity to participate as a full partner in the research process. This article critically assesses a research collaboration in New York where Extension agents were full research partners. The unique challenges for both the research and Extension partners are articulated and discussed.

Mildred E. Warner
Assistant Professor
Department of City and Regional Planning
Cornell University
Ithaca, New York
Internet address:

Clare Hinrichs
Assistant Professor
Department of Sociology
Iowa State University
Ames, Iowa
Internet address:

Judith Schneyer
Community Development Program Leader
Cornell Cooperative Extension: Dutchess County
Millbrook, New York
Internet address:

Lucy Joyce
Agriculture Program Leader
Cornell Cooperative Extension: Orange County
Middletown, New York
Internet address:


Extension as Knowledge Extended

The Extension system has a long and distinguished history of non-formal education focused on enhancing the well-being of individuals, families and communities. A strong connection to the Land-Grant research institutions sets Extension apart from other non-formal education providers by providing it with an exceptionally strong research base. Hence, it is not surprising that Extension has developed a strong track record in extending university based knowledge to industry (particularly agriculture), families, and communities. This tradition of "knowledge extended" or "knowledge applied" is captured in the old Cornell Cooperative Extension motto, "Helping you put knowledge to work."

Extension has played an important role stimulating research within the Land-Grant university as well. Extension has helped identify new research agendas and new clienteles for the Land- Grant university system. Thus, Extension extends knowledge in both directions: from the university to the public, and from the public back to the university - closing the feedback loop.

Extension as Knowledge Created

As communities have become more complex and integrated within the broader society and economy, Extension has had to address new challenges that do not lend themselves neatly to the disciplinary boundaries that traditionally define university research. To meet these demands, Extension has taken its role as educator and facilitator to a new level - building community coalitions to engage in research for community problem solving. Such Extension programs create local knowledge to be used in policy and program design.

Examples of such programs include public policy education (Hahn, 1992) business retention and expansion (Cornell Local Government Program, 1993) and nutrition monitoring (Pelletier 1995). This new approach is reflected in Cornell Cooperative Extension's new motto, developed in 1996, which acknowledges the importance of the partnership between university research and local knowledge. "The Cornell Cooperative Extension education system enables people to improve their lives and communities through partnerships that put experience and research knowledge to work"(Cornell Cooperative Extension, 1996).

This reorientation reflects, in part, an international movement in non-formal education, participatory action research, designed to bring communities and researchers into a closer, more effective partnership which will result in social research for social change (Deshler & Ewert, 1995). Participatory action research not only incorporates the collective knowledge of the community, it increases the likelihood that research results will be applied by giving the community ownership over the research process and its results (Shafer, 1995).

If Extension can effectively partner with communities in collaborative research leading to community change, can a similar collaborative model be applied to university based researchers working with Extension agents to test and elaborate theory? This article explores the challenges and limitations to involving Extension agents as full partners in research projects designed to test theory.


This project involved a collective process of critical reflection between two Extension agents and two university researchers to test the relevance and applicability of social capital theory to Extension practice. Social capital is defined as those features of social organization - networks, norms of reciprocity and trust - that facilitate cooperation for mutual benefit (Putnam 1993, Flora & Flora, 1993). Of key interest in the theoretical literature is whether the level of social capital in a community can be altered through deliberate intervention. Much Extension practice is dedicated to the notion that community capacity can be fostered. Thus, Extension provides an important context in which to test the applicability of social capital theory.

Extension agents working on agricultural land preservation in the suburban fringe of New York City had designed programs to address social as well as environmental and economic concerns. Researchers thought this work might provide an example of social capital construction at the community level. The agents were introduced to social capital theory and encouraged to review their program strategies from that perspective. Critical discussion between researchers and Extension agents led to new insights on the importance of network formation not fully elaborated in social capital theory.

The Extension agents acknowledged their work to establish farmers markets and community visioning groups, while billed as economic development efforts, were also designed to build the trust and communication necessary for promoting cooperation between agriculture and the broader community. These public spaces reflected the intentional creation of new social forums for interaction between diverse interests (in this case, farm and non-farm interests). Secondly, the Extension agents identified the need to build bridging ties between diverse interest groups. Such ties enable the exchange of information, power and vision across networks without diverting the energy and focus which comes with single issue based groups. These two strategies - intentional creation of forums for interaction and bridging ties - provided explicit examples of how social capital could be built at the community level, strengthening mechanisms for agricultural land preservation and fostering a stronger sense of community (Warner, Hinrichs, Schneyer & Joyce, 1997).

These insights resulted from a collective process of critical reflection between the Extension agents and researchers. Eldon and Levin (1991) speak of the importance of co-learning through a dialogue between practitioners and researchers. In this case, the Extension agents provided an "insiders" framework (emphasizing Extension practice), while university based researchers provided an "outsiders" framework (providing theoretical context). As a result of the collaboration, Extension agents considered the larger theoretical ramifications of their stance, and researchers became more sensitive to and appreciative of practical details. The dialogue between the practical and theoretical resulted in new insights on social capital theory, specifically attention to network formation and the need to create new forums for interaction and bridging ties among previously isolated groups.

Collaborations between researchers and Extension agents have traditionally respected a division of labor which distances Extension agents from the research process and researchers from Extension practice. This project tested a new approach where Extension agents were brought in as full partners, co-authors, in the research process. This new approach brought new challenges - to research design and methodology, to Extension practice, and to organizational style and culture - which must be addressed to successfully promote more participatory research collaborations in the future.

Challenges to Research Design and Methodology

Traditionally Extension agents have been used as key informants or to facilitate access to local knowledge and communities. By involving agents as co-authors, insights afforded by the unique Extension lens were balanced by the contributions of the research lens. Nuance and detail which would have been easier to leave out (to create a cleaner and more compelling research account) had to be incorporated in a way all parties found comfortable. As a result, new insights into social capital theory were identified.

Rather than interviewing a large number of key informants, this process relied on the critical review and analysis supplied by Extension agents. Based on many years experience in the field, the Extension agents could reference multiple perspectives from a broad range of community groups. The Extension agent serves not only as actor in a community process, but also observes the process from the professional distance of an organizer/facilitator. This dual perspective was instructive to the research process and provided a separate lens on local experience. The approach also allowed a more qualitative research inquiry without incurring the costs and time of numerous in-depth local interviews.

This process privileges the Extension lens as much as the research lens has been privileged in the past. The tension between the research and Extension perspectives was dynamic, instructive and highly productive in pushing the boundaries of social capital theory, particularly in identifying some of the specific mechanisms by which social capital is created.

Challenges to Extension Practice

Research collaborations such as the one described here, allow Extension agents to engage and challenge theory. Time for reflection on one's professional work is a luxury which field based practitioners rarely can justify. Nonetheless, there is a benefit to reflecting on Extension practice through a research lens. Using theory to understand different outcomes across time or place helps agents get beyond the particularities of a situation to discern broader patterns which may offer clues about designing and planning future work.

Another challenge to Extension is the political cost of engaging in critical inquiry about one's practice. If the Extension system and the broader community have not adopted some of the features of a learning organization (which supports critical reflection leading to system change, Ratner, 1997), new insights gleaned from the research process could be viewed negatively or used to undermine program budgets and professional effectiveness.

Challenges to Organizational Style and Culture

In order to engage in successful research collaborations with Extension agents, the privileged position of researchers within the research/Extension partnership must be challenged. Mutual respect, confidence and trust must be built between Extension and research colleagues in order for Extension/research collaborations to be effective. Extension colleagues are co- equals with different areas of expertise; their time and voice must be honored. Researchers must avoid the temptation to "leave their Extension partners behind" once they have gleaned the necessary local insights and don't want to trouble with the challenges of continuing to incorporate a practical Extension perspective in subsequent writing and analysis.

Reality complicates theory, and theory, by definition, attempts to simplify reality. Too close an engagement with local practice removes the distance often thought necessary to assure research objectivity. Knowledge is socially constructed and the collaborative research process capitalizes on the value of differing interpretations of the same events. Such a close articulation with local actors inevitably pulls researchers into the action phase. This "erosion of research distance" is both the challenge and promise of participatory action research.

On the Extension side, effort must be made to lower the costs of engaging in academic scrutiny of one's practice. Time is a limited commodity and the value of time spent on research must be recognized at an institutional level. The benefits of seeing one's experience through a researcher's lens can yield new insights for future practice. However, if the research collaboration only focuses on the past and ignores insights for the future, then the benefits to Extension practice will be greatly reduced.

A particular challenge of collaborative research with Extension agents is the differential political costs they may face as a result of engaging in the process. Given the potential for higher political risks to Extension agents, research collaborators must be especially sensitive to Extension concerns throughout the research process. In survey research, anonymity is often guaranteed respondents to protect their privacy. The more open nature of participatory research does not allow such anonymity. While participatory action research may lead more quickly to community action based on research findings, it may also suppress critical inquiry if the political costs to participants are too high. This is the promise and curse of the participatory process, and may pose a serious challenge to the tradition of unbiased Extension and research espoused by the Land -Grant system.


Extension is uniquely positioned to engage researchers in collaborations which challenge theory to more effectively address practical concerns. Such collaborations provide new dimensions to the research-Extension feedback loop - blurring traditional divisions of labor between research and Extension. Notions of objectivity, academic freedom and independent verification are challenged by such collaborations. That such collaborations strengthen the connections between research and practice is clear. Both research and Extension stand to gain from new insights. However, hidden costs to Extension effectiveness and research independence should be assessed.


Cornell Cooperative Extension: (1996). Pathways to the twenty-first century: Strategic directions for the Cornell Cooperative Extension System. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University.

Cornell Local Government Program. 1993. Schuyler county business retention and expansion program. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University.

Deshler David and Merrill Ewert, 1995. "Participatory Action Research: Tradition and Major Assumptions," The PAR Tool Box: Part #001,

Eldon, M. & Levin, M. (1991). Co-generative learning: Bringing participation into action research. In W. F. Whyte (Ed.) Participatory action research (pp. 51-84). Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Flora, C. B. & Flora, J. L. (1993). Entrepreneurial social infrastructure: A necessary ingredient. The Annals of the Academy of Social and Political Sciences 529 (September),48-58.

Hahn, A. (1992). Resolving public issues and concerns through policy education. Ithaca, NY: Cornell Cooperative Extension Information Bulletin 214.

Pelletier, D. L. (1995). Redefining "information" and linking it to decisions: Experiences from community-based nutrition monitoring, Innovations in Community and Rural Development, CaRDI, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University.

Putnam, R. (1993). Making democracy work: Civic traditions in modern Italy. Princeton, NY: Princeton University Press.

Ratner, S. (1997). Emerging issues in learning communities. St. Albans, VT: Yellow Wood Associates.

Shafer, C., (1995). Doing research with communities: Smart research that results in sustainable change, Innovations in Community and Rural Development, CaRDI, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University.

Warner, M.; Hinrichs, C.; Schneyer, J.; & Joyce, L. (1997). Sustaining the rural landscape by building community social capital. Community Development Reports 5(2) Ithaca, NY: CaRDI, Cornell University. publications/cdr/cdr5-2.html.

Acknowledgments: This research was supported in part by a grant from the USDA Hatch Research Program through the Cornell University Agricultural Experiment Station.