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7 Sep 2023

Blog: The world café is an unmethod within co-produced research

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In this blog, Professor Brett Smith, Director of Research, Department of Sport and Exercise Sciences at Durham University argues why the ‘World Cafe’ method of qualitative research is actually an ‘un-method’ within co-produced research.

First introduced in 1995 by J. Brown and D. Isaacs, the World Café is a participatory approach designed to take place in a café like setting so that people can discuss an issue in small table groups.

In a World Café people are invited to enjoy three or more 20-30 minute rounds of conversation in small groups of four or five. To help conversations flow a key question underpins each round, which may build upon one another in subsequent rounds. Often there also is a final round to share the results of conversations with the wider group.

The World Café is now a popular way of understanding issues. It has been embraced by multinational corporations, small non-profits, community-based organisations, government offices, and educational institutions. It has also been used extensively by academic researchers as a data collection method. Recently we used the World Café as part of a project called Moving Social Work.

Moving Social Work is a co-produced project that aims to embed physical activity in social work education, policy, and practice. The reason for this research is that social workers are an overlooked yet important group of professionals for promoting physical activity to people in general and disabled people in particular.

World Cafés were chosen to help create the physical activity education programme partly because it was felt that that principles of World Cafés were similar to, and compatible with, the principles of the type of co-production that guided Moving Social Work (see Smith et al, 2023). For example, in both co-production and World Cafés power is shared through equitable partnerships, diverse knowledges are encouraged, respected, and blended, lived experience is at the centre of dialogues, and dissent or challenges to opinions appreciated.

At the beginning, and as has been consistently described in the academic literature, we approached World Cafés as a method. In research method is typically referred to as a specific reproducible or step-by-step procedure that researchers implement. Often, like we did, a protocol is created to describe the procedures and act as a manual or recipe to follow.

However, as the co-production team reflected on our first World Café it was decided we should move on from the protocol. The protocol became a ‘burden’ for doing effective, organic World Cafés. For example, it hindered participants falling into conversation. We also believed that a protocol was inconsistent with the logic and practice of genuine co-production.

Having conducted six World Cafés with 87 people, and after much discussion and engagement with ideas from different disciplines and areas of inquiry, we now believe World Cafés should no longer be described as a method, or practically engaged with as a method. Describing World Cafés as a method privileges procedure over theoretical matters and research relationships. In practice it drives us away from inventiveness and from people falling into genuine conversations.

We propose then that World Cafés, like co-production, are better described as an unmethod. Un- as a prefix means non- or not-a-method, but it can also mean challenging or undoing certain normative versions of method that currently prevails within academia. To help better understand the World Café as an unmethod two metaphors were useful. We found it useful to think of and practice the World Café as like jazz and/or as contact improvisation – to make space and time to support people to fall into conversations that matter to them, and in the process enable their voices to cross pollinate. We invite people then to resist the temptation to standardize and protocolize the World Café and instead think of World Cafés an unmethod and practice them like jazz or as contact improvisation. This move is also consistent with the principles and practices of co-production.


Javier Monforte, Jake Netherway & Brett Smith. (2023). The world café is an unmethod within co-produced research. Qualitative Research in Psychology.  DOI: 10.1080/14780887.2023.2239728

Brett Smith, Oli Williams, Lydia Bone & the Moving Social Work Co-production Collective(2023) Co-production: A resource to guide co-producing research in the sport, exercise, and health sciences. Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise and Health, 15:2, 159-187. DOI: 10.1080/2159676X.2022.2052946

This work was supported by the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) [Applied Research Collaboration North East and North Cumbria (NIHR200173)] and Sport England.