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Research by the people, for the people

After attending the Uncover Action research conference, former Local Trust Journalist-at-Large Louise Tickle gives a round up of the day, topics covered and lessons learnt.

A multimedia presentation put together throughout the event by a team of journalists is available for download at the end of this article.

It was a drizzly late November morning when 170 delegates arrived at the Uncover Action conference held on London’s Southbank for a day talking about how to do research with and in local communities. Sessions included how publicly available data could be deployed to bring about change, how health outcomes can improve when you put communities in control, and how to use film to empower groups of local people.

Kicking off the day’s plenary session, independent researcher Mandy Wilson remembered how two decades ago she had first sat down with community members to design a research project which would be shaped and driven by local needs, rather than simply interviewing residents about their lives. “Participants prioritised the objectives, reworded statements they felt lapsed into jargon, shared their experience of good practice and developed checklists… thus generating potential benchmarks and indicators,” she explained. Over time, local people’s participation in that piece of bottom-up research resulted in communities that “felt stronger together [and] stood up to attempts to control them,” Wilson concluded.

The theme of participation generating skills, strength and agency was taken up by Sonia Duval in a session called “Public scrutiny: putting communities in the driving seat”. As someone who had lost confidence after staying at home to look after her children before getting involved in a local research project called Whitley Researchers, co-ordinated by human geographer Sally Lloyd Evans at Reading University, Duval described how taking action means she now feels valued in her community. Local information on transport routes captured by Whitley Researchers was used to campaign locally, and says Duval, meant that “we had a bus route changed” A number of research projects later, Whitley Researchers now “have a name, and people recognise us now.”

In a session looking at gang violence and at the Home Office’s “Prevent” anti-terrorism agenda, community responses were discussed. From Preston, councillor Martyn Rawlinson explained how research with local communities had led to the realisation that there had been no progress in “religious literacy” – the knowledge of and ability to understand other religious. This, he said, was hampering progress when it came to community relations and integration. Outlining the responses of people who lived in communities where gang violence was rife, Sian Penner, a Local Trust rep, highlighted the work of London’s North meets South Big Local and discussed the Sound Waves mothers’ group, made up of grieving mothers who have lost sons to gang violence. Common themes that arose during the community research in both Preston and London included misunderstandings about the drivers of violence; the lack of trust and confidence in the authorities; the negative impact that media coverage can have: austerity and its impact; and the distance between policy makers and the factors which people felt drove violence.

This picked up on a point made earlier in the day by Professor Linden West from Canterbury Christ Church University, when he observed that “the language used by policy makers sometimes outrages me, and it should outrage you”. Derogatory phrases such as “sink estate” are unlikely to be used by the people with no option but to live in sub-standard housing; another reason to involve communities themselves in research into the problems that policy makers are tasked with solving.

It was acknowledged throughout the day that engaging in community research is always challenging in a way that traditional research never will be. “The intersection between community and research is hard, because community is hard, and research is hard, “ noted Hetan Shah, executive director of The Royal Statistical Society, in his speech to the conference. One delegate made the point that community research needs to be properly resourced so that the time, costs and effort taken, and the value of what is learned, are all acknowledged.

Delegates were clear though that research done “with”, rather than “about” communities is always qualitatively different in its findings as well as in its process; entirely different things are discovered than would otherwise be the case. In a session on using arts-based methods in community research, Dr Ed Stevens from King’s College London hit the nub of why making research participatory works better than simply viewing people as research subjects. “When people feel heard they are more likely to speak up and take risks,” he said. His experience had shown him, he said, that people opened up faster, “and shared more in-depth thoughts.”

One delegate, asked why community research was worth doing, given the time, costs and effort involved, summed it up. “It’s being accessible, isn’t it? It’s being open to your community, so it’s not them and us,” she said. “It’s about knocking down that artificial divide.”