What are the merits and limitations of novel metatheoretical artefact with promoting the learning and teaching of theory for social work?

PIF 7 July 2021

Gavin Millar, Senior Lecturer in Social Work and doctoral student at ARU, presented his doctoral thesis, which involved students and educators, as co-researchers, determining rigour for a metatheoretical (theory of theories) artefact, as a part of a Participatory Action Research (PAR) inquiry. 

In brief, social work has a long history, dating back to the late 1800s, of accommodating theories from different fields of study, such as (but far from limited to) philosophy, sociology, and psychology. Gavin introduced us to the longstanding tension between needing to understand the psychology of people (Addams, 1902) and needing to understand groups, cultures, and societies (Richmond, 1917); when in reality we probably need a fusion of both (Bruno, 1936). Social work is inherently interdisciplinary; however although the meaning is often understood, the theories developed in other disciplines do not always translate effectively to social work practice. Indeed, in-house academics, independent government reviews, and serious case enquiries, have laid blame on the teaching of theory, to be at the root of educational difficulties with preparing social workers for the complexities of contemporary practice (Munro, 2011; Stepney, 2012).

As an inclusive practice, social work and social workers draw on many different theories and perspectives, from critical theory to attachment theory, feminism to existentialism. These theories should not be considered within a hierarchy but applied when appropriate, dependent on both the social work practitioner and the situation. Accordingly, Gavin argues that we should not be telling social work students which theory to use, but helping them to understand the self and which theories work for them. Furthermore, theories can be blended to allow a more nuanced approach; but there is no instruction or language to explain how this could be done.

Embracing students and practitioners’ feedback and suggestions, Gavin developed the Blended Theory Model (the Artefact), to engage with this problem and promote transparency in working with social work’s transtheoretical epistemology. The Artefact was subsequently examined, and amended, by a focus group of co-researchers (including students, practitioners and educators) with aims for improving the learning and teaching of theory for social work. In terms of the PAR approach, Gavin identified a number of challenges before he had even started:

  • Typically, PAR shouldn’t have an expert (Winter and Munn-Giddings, 2001; Silver, 2008).
  • Typically, the artefact would come out of the process (McTaggart, 1997).
  • Typically, decisions on the research design would be made by the participants (Punch, 1998).

However, McTaggart (1997, p.26) poses three general questions when considering whether research can be considered PAR:

  1. How is this example participatory action research?
  2. What does this example tell us about the criteria we might use to judge claims that an endeavor is participatory action research (to test our theory of what participatory action research is)?
  3. And, most important of all, what contribution has this example made to the improvement of the understanding, practice, and social situation of participants and others in the context described (acknowledging that all good things in our experience are not necessarily participatory action research)?

The fact that McTaggart poses these questions suggests that it is possible to do things differently, and Gavin sets out the following answers to the questions:

  1. The Blended Theory Model Artefact itself is participatory. Although Gavin designed the initial version, participants could have completely rejected the Model, and it changed and developed organically through a dynamic process.
  2. The research was action-based: it focused on the interdisciplinarity of social work and the problem of applying theories developed in other disciplines to social work practice, and how that could be improved.
  3. There was a commitment throughout to engaging with participants on how the Model would be developed and reviewed. For example, participants decided that they should each create their own Blended Theory Model in order to experience the process and from this exercise the Model was transformed.

The final version of the Blended Theory Model is a simple foundation for students and practitioners to identify an overarching theory, assessment theory, intervention theory, and then develop the complexity of how these fit together. It combats theory fatigue as it enables an understanding of why those theories are relevant and how they fit together, making decisions around approaches to practice less complex. It is important to recognise that people learn theories in different ways, and the Blended Theory Model is not a panacea. However, it is a tool of self-reflection as well as a shared platform for people to discuss theories. Different people will have different approaches, but the Blended Theory Model allows you to see where those approaches come from and how that translates into people’s practice and style of working.


Participatory research online exploring care leavers’ experiences of support during the Covid-19 pandemic

PIF 4 March 2021

Dr Niamh O’Brien, Senior Research Fellow, and Anna Dadswell, Research Fellow, presented their participatory research exploring care leavers’ experiences of support during the Covid-19 pandemic.


The Covid-19 pandemic has perpetuated the challenges faced by many care leavers. It is important to hear from care leavers about their experiences and include them in decision making so that support better responds to their needs. This participatory research was conducted in collaboration with Essex County Council and funded by the Department for Education as part of a wider project looking at the response of social services in supporting children, young people and families during the pandemic. It involved a research team of 25 care leavers along with their support workers from six Local Authorities: Cornwall, Essex, Hertfordshire, Medway, South Tyneside, and Stockport. The research team met online over eight research sessions to identify priorities, develop an online questionnaire, participate in focus groups, reflect on findings, agree recommendations, and disseminate resources from the research.


Practical challenges: 23% of care leavers were very worried about money before Covid-19, but during the pandemic 46% were very worried. Experiences of support were mixed, and some felt let down by services: “Living on £200 for five weeks is hard when you have rent and bills and food and everything to pay for.”

Mental health: 25% said their mental health was not very good before Covid-19 and this rose to 57%. Some care leavers received support from their Personal Advisor, while others were offered support that did not meet their needs, or did not know where to go for support: “My PA has been very supportive with helping me speak to someone regarding lockdown and my mental health and I couldn’t thank him enough for him going above and beyond.”

Social connection: 59% of care leavers felt connected with friends and family before Covid-19, and this fell to 32%. Some did not have people to connect with, while restrictions made others feel more isolated. Support with access to technology and connecting online was hugely important; though some felt they needed more opportunities to connect: “People from the leaving care group always keep in touch, we were all given help to stay in touch with a computer and internet.”

Support from services: 51% of care leavers said their Personal Advisor supported them practically and emotionally during the pandemic. Involvement and participation teams, along with charities, were also important in supporting care leavers: “Ensuring that YP are being checked up on, all it needs to be is a text. It makes the world of difference to CL’s to know that the LA actually care about them.”

A set of eight recommendations to better support care leavers during and beyond the pandemic were developed, including:

Recommendation six: To proactively reach out to care leavers and make sure they consistently have someone in Leaving Care Services independent to their case/care to talk to about their experiences and the support that they need.

Recommendation seven: To promote participatory approaches in research with care leavers to ensure their priorities and experiences are better reflected in research findings and inform action.

Recommendation eight: To invite those in corporate parent services and central government that are responsible for supporting care leavers to make a promise setting out the action they will take to improve the support for care leavers during the pandemic and beyond.

Conducting participatory research during Covid-19 raised a number of opportunities and challenges:


  • Online research enabled the participation of 25 care leavers across the country, which was valued by the care leavers and could not have happened in the same way face-to-face.
  • The research team were very engaged throughout the project and enjoyed the ease of involvement and flexible approach with no travel and less time commitment.
  • The participatory approach meant that the research was aligned with what the care leavers wanted and thought – they told us that care leavers will want to know what will be done as a result of the research, which led to the action recommendation to ‘make a promise’.


  • Practical challenges associated with research online, such as unstable internet connection, ensuring everyone had the chance to speak, and ‘reading the room’.
  • Ethical considerations around potential distress due to the sensitive subject matter, which was addressed by having Local Authority breakout rooms before and after each research session so that care leavers could check in with their support workers.
  • It was necessary to have a very quick turnaround on the project to inform better support for care leavers during the pandemic, but this meant less time for young people to take the lead, for ideas and analysis to develop, and for discussion between young people which is something they expressed they would like more of in the future.

Interpretative phenomenological analysis and photovoice methods in participatory therapeutic contexts

PIF 19 November 2020

Julia Johnson is Lecturer and Course Leader in Photography with Cambridge School of Art at Anglia Ruskin University. She started by asking how art – and particularly participatory photography – can be a catalyst for supporting recovery in mental health, given the lack of mental health services in the UK. Julia introduced her research using interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA) and photovoice methods to assess this. The research is being conducted with people accessing NHS mental health services, in collaboration with the NHS and University of the Arts London, funded by the London Doctoral Design Centre. The research objectives were:

  • To involve those accessing mental health services in the design and evaluation of a toolkit of activities and staff training for delivering mental health support.
  • To analyse the potential of participatory photography as a sustainable therapeutic tool.
  • To assess the potential for online platforms to enhance and sustain peer-led networks.

Photovoice methodology

Photovoice methodology intends to enhance participants’ wellbeing through community engagement as well as generate social action. It was developed by Wang and Burris in the 1990s, who argue that images are a more direct pathway to expressing our inner world and help us get to the words to describe our experiences in a more meaningful way.

“Photovoice is a process by which people can identify, represent, and enhance their community through a specific photographic technique. As a practice based in the production of knowledge, photovoice has three main goals: (1) to enable people to record and reflect their community’s strengths and concerns, (2) to promote critical dialogue and knowledge about important issues through large and small group discussion of photographs, and (3) to reach policymakers.”

Wang and Burris (1997, p.369)

In addition to these foundations from Wang and Burris, Julia’s approach to photovoice methodology also draws on ideas from the critical pedagogy of Paulo Freire, feminist theory and practice around oppression and empowerment, and community-based photographic work from photographer Jo Spence.

One aspect of her research involved anonymised self-portraits, which encouraged participants to think about how they could convey the self without the usual identifiers. This raises a number of ethical considerations, for example are participants credited for their work or do they use a pseudonym? Indeed, Wang and Burris state that in participatory photographic research participants cannot give fully informed consent at the start as they don’t know what will be developed through the project; so informed consent should also be sought at the end. In Julia’s research there were three stages of consent: initial informed consent, consent at the end of the project (including deciding which photos participants consent to sharing), and third element of consent from others depicted in the photography.

Interpretative phenomenological analysis

Interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA) often has a psychological emphasis, but Julia looks at how it can be used in participatory arts. The process involves individualising analyses of interviews and then looking thematically across interviews. It is important to pay attention to the meaning associated with opposing themes, polarised themes, and what is not being said. If this is not attended to, these aspects may be characterised by your own subjectivity, assumptions, and perceptions. In IPA, it is suggested that you ‘bracket your subjectivity’ in order to connect with the life world of the participant. Photovoice can be an interesting addition to the IPA process.

In Julia’s research, participants were interviewed about their experiences of the mental health service, and about their photography. Each interview transcript was analysed to identify emergent themes before looking across the interviews and collating themes.

Value and challenges

This research aimed to recognise and build on the strengths and resources of the participants, promote co-learning through sharing positive experiences, find a balance between research and action, and facilitate a productive critique of the process. However, there were many challenges to undertaking the research and achieving this aim.

  • Tensions between the participatory approach and NHS ethics. Any amendments to the research should go back through ethics, but if you can’t be responsive to what participants want then they are not at the forefront of the research. Julia decided she would respond to what the participants wanted, but anything that came from it could not be used as part of the research.
  • Photography helped as a therapeutic tool and participants benefitted from the relational value of sharing with others. However, some participants were only interested in the photography and not in the research, which meant there was a disparity between the action and the research.
  • The process of anonymising the self-portrait was challenged as not all participants want to be anonymised. It doesn’t necessarily protect people and could even be damaging and perpetuate stigma. For example, discourse from mental health movements suggest that people should have the right to claim their identity; but this is not possible within research frameworks.
  • Tensions between the co-learning and community approach and the bracketing of researcher subjectivity in IPA. There was a dialogue between researcher and participants about the photography within the interviews and it is not always possible to bracket subjectivity when you are researching something you are interested in or have personal experience of. There are other ways of being reflexive within IPA without bracketing subjectivity.


Wang, C. and Burris, M.A., 1994. Empowerment through photo novella: Portraits of participation. Health education quarterly21(2), pp.171-186.

Wang, C. and Burris, M.A., 1997. Photovoice: Concept, methodology, and use for participatory needs assessment. Health education & behavior24(3), pp.369-387.

Appreciative Inquiry: An innovative approach to eliciting voices of Secondary School Leaders

PIF 6 February 2020

Gill Thomas is a post graduate doctoral student at ARU and her school experience includes posts as a Trust Educational Director in secondary and primary academies, an Executive Headship and two Secondary Headships. At our Participatory Inquiry Forum focused on doctoral research, Gill presented her findings and reflections from her Professional EdD using appreciative inquiry to hear the perspectives of Secondary School Leaders.

Gill conceptualised school leadership through a lens of change: school leaders are under huge pressure and face many challenges as a result of the unprecedented pace and extent of contemporary educational change (Hargreaves, 2014). Though research has demonstrated the need to develop leadership at all levels in schools (Harris, 2008), there is less evidence on how collaborative, distributed leadership impacts on student success, as perceived by Secondary School Leaders themselves.


School leaders ranging from middle leaders to head teachers, were recruited from three secondary academies from the South East of England, including one Outstanding, one Good, and one Requires Improvement as defined by the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted, 2015). Through participant interviews, they offered new knowledge and possibilities as authors of their personal stories, creating new ‘worlds of meaning’ (Bushe, 2013).

Appreciative Inquiry (AI) represented an innovative way of eliciting the voices of Secondary School Leaders who aren’t always heard in the discourse on leadership (often dominated by head teachers and school governors). It also provides space to identify and build on successes rather than taking a deficit approach of focusing on problems (Bushe, 2013). Participants were empowered to reflect on their successes and promote their best practice (Shuayb, et al., 2009). Sharp et al. (2016) suggest that there is no single AI Inquiry method, but rather AI is formed around a set of core principles where voice, patterns of conversation and different perspectives to explore new possibilities are key.

Gill choose to adapt the 4D model of AI for her research, which comprises four phases: discovery, dream, design, and destiny (Cooperrider and Whitney, 2005). This enabled an exploration of current practice and identified areas of success to be developed into practice.



Distributed leadership characteristics that emerged across all three academies were trust, accountability, and collaboration. Further characteristics included collaboration, shared values, developing people, and a culture of success and honesty. Time constraints and an overarching value of moral purpose that were also prominent.

Dynamics of being trusted and trusting others had been established between leaders to enable a different way of working, that was distributed and collaborative – however participants emphasised that this had taken time. Trust was also influenced by an interdependency between collaboration and shared accountability. The participants identified a shift from individual accountability to shared accountability, underpinned by things like school standards, ethos and shared values around raising aspirations, engaging students and parents, and being more than just a school.

This interdependency of trust, collaboration and shared accountability was instrumental in how distributed leadership was able to influence student success. Student success was conceptualised broadly, from tackling gang culture to positive engagement with students and parents.

Adapting AI

Gill explained that she had intended to hold a group forum to share findings with the school leaders and discuss how they would take the learning forward; however the gatekeepers would not allow participants to spend any more time on the research. Accordingly, Gill adapted her approach to a 3D hybrid AI model (Crow, 2013). This was an ethical response to the challenge of participants’ time as there has to be a balance between the interests of the researcher and the interests of the institution (Kirsch, 1999).

In order to gain feedback for the design and destiny phases without taking up too much time, Gill developed and emailed feedback sheets that gave participants the opportunity to comment on the themes to generate a collective view from each school. This final phase identified evidence of a guiding sense of moral purpose that was an intrinsic part of their leadership, both in a practical way for example by keeping students engaged and away from gang culture, and in a broader context of social justice. Creating a climate of success was also identified, evident for example in the school with the highest levels of disadvantage being passionate about every single student.

Our discussions during the PIF included how the AI approach enabled a collection of voices – a choir of voices – where no one component is more or less important than another. This was also reflected in the community of leaders in each school who are sharing accountability for student success and all have a part to play, though they are not all doing the same things. We also talked about being able to be vulnerable as a leader in order to talk about where improvements are needed.

We also talked about the strengths and limitations of the AI approach. For example, though it is useful to identify and build on best practice, does this obscure problems? Gill concluded that with significant time constraints and other pressures on schools, the adapted AI approach may represent a meaningful way to engage school-based professionals and to support the participation of school leaders in considering successful practice.

Student voice and the role of school governors: a case study using participatory action research

PIF 6 February 2020

At our Participatory Inquiry Forum focused on doctoral research, we had Professional EdD student Tracey Price presenting on the early stages of setting up her participatory action research case study on the role of school governors in promoting student voice. She started by reflecting on her professional role as the Chair of Governors at the school where her research takes place, but also her role as a mother of a student at that school, a mother of a teacher at that school, and a member of the local community that the students and teachers are also a part of. Because of these roles, Tracey felt she is not an insider or an outsider but both, partially, at different times.

Tracey began by researching the history of school governance – where did it start and how has it changed over time? The main role and responsibility of the Local Governing Body/Committee is to ensure the school provide a good quality of education for all students. As early as 1977, The Taylor Report advocated for a strong link between governors and the student body. Since then, various agendas have suggested there should be “mechanisms for enabling the board to “listen, understand and respond to the voices of parents/carers, pupils, staff, local communities and employers…pupils” (DfE, 2019, p.10).

However in terms of research into student voice, it is becoming harder and harder to get into schools as they are so pressed for time and focused around grades and Ofsted, who are not necessarily interested in student voice. Ofsted and Governors tend to hear from more articulate/active/elected students or those who are struggling/have behavioural problems and are outspoken, but Tracey is particularly interested in what is happening for those who are just getting along, the “excluded middle” (Wisby, 2011, p.42) and “the silent – or silenced – students” (Rudduck and Fielding, 2006, p.228). This led her to the research questions:

  • What is student voice, and what is available to students in the school to express their voice?
  • How might the link between governors and the student voice be developed and strengthened?

It also led her to a participatory paradigm that is collaborative, with the co-production of knowledge through joint understanding from lived experience (Costley, Elliot and Gibbs, 2010). Tracey’s case study will take place in one secondary school with a group of sixth form students (aged 16-18) as co-researchers. The students have first-hand knowledge of school, while Tracey has experience as a Governor, which is reflecting in an ontology of becoming where no-one has all the expertise (Gallacher and Gallagher, 2008) and they will all be going through the research process together. They will be using McNiff’s revised 2002 PAR model described below:

“We review our current practice; identify an aspect we wish to investigate; asked focused questions about how we can investigate it; imagine a way forwards; try it out, and take stock of what happens; modify our plan in light of what we have found, and continue with the action; evaluate the modified action, and reconsider what we are doing in light of the evaluation. This can lead to a new action-reflection cycle…” (McNiff, 2013, p.90)

She is also drawing on Zuber-Skerritt and Perry (2002, p.177) to understand the relationship between thesis research, core action research and thesis writing:


In terms of progress so far, Tracey has recruited her co-researchers and is establishing the best way to communicate through the school system (rather than on personal emails) and meet with them at times that fit with their school schedule. We discussed boundaries relating back to Tracey’s various roles in the school and community – for example only talking with the students about the research at the research meetings and not when she sees them in other contexts.

Tracey concluded by sharing the following quote, which she said summed up her experience of participatory doctoral research so far:

“For us, research is fundamentally a process of muddling through, sometimes feeling lost and out of place, asking stupid questions, being corrected and having our preconceptions destroyed. In this way, we cannot deny our incompetence and vulnerabilities: our immaturity. And we do not want to.” (Gallacher and Gallagher, 2008, p.509, italics in the original)


Costley, C., Elliot, G. and Gibbs, P., 2010. Doing Work Based Research. London: Sage.

Department for Education (DfE), 2019. Governance Handbook: For academies, multi-academy trusts and maintained schools. [pdf] London: Crown copyright.

Gallacher, L.A. and Gallagher, M., 2008. Methodological Immaturity in Childhood Research? Thinking through participatory methods. Childhood, 15(4), pp.499-516.

McNiff, J., 2013. Action Research Principles and Practice. 3rd ed. Oxon: Routledge.

Rudduck, J. and Fielding, M., 2006. Student voice and the perils of popularity. Educational Review, 58(2), pp.219-231.

Wisby, E., 2011., Student Voice and New Models of Teacher Professionalism. In G. Czerniawski and W. Kidd eds. 2011. The student voice handbook: bridging the academic/practitioner divide. Bingley: Emerald Group Publishing, pp. 31-44.

Zuber-Skerritt, O. and Perry C., 2002. Action research within organisations and university thesis writing. The Learning Organization, 9(4), pp.171-79.

Language and landscapes of participatory research

PIF 26 November 2019

Participatory research spans a range of different disciplines and encompasses many different approaches. Buzz words such as ‘co-production’ and ‘service user involvement’ are everywhere, but are used in different ways and can result in people claiming they are undertaking participatory research when they are not. There is sometimes little recognition of other approaches within the participatory research landscape so that many researchers end up working in silos despite potentially trying to achieve something similar. In this PIF we explored the language and landscapes of participatory research, drawing on an example from our guest Maritta Törrönen, Professor of Social Work at the University of Helsinki and Visiting Fellow at ARU.

Defining participatory approaches

Professor Carol Munn-Giddings explained that participatory research is about who drives different stages of the research process and how we can conduct research with people, rather than on them as in traditional approaches. She introduced the important features behind some of the most prominent approaches:

  • Participatory research: Participatory forms of research value the active involvement of participants in the research process. This takes place along a continuum: at one end of the continuum there is full active involvement throughout all stages of the research process, whilst at the other end involvement is more passive, typically as data sources (Cornwall, 2008).
  • Action research: “Action research is the study of a social situation carried out by those involved in that situation in order to improve both their practice and the quality of their understanding” (Winter and Munn-Giddings, 2001). The aim is to change something during the research process, not just at the end.
  • Participatory action research: This brings participatory and action approaches together to form “a participatory, democratic process concerned with developing practical knowing in the pursuit of worthwhile human purposes” (Reason and Bradbury, 2001).
  • Co-production: This term is used a lot in statutory services, along with variations such as ‘co-creation’ and ‘co-design’. It involves “…working together to do something. It is also about people with different views and ideas coming together to make things better for everyone” (SCIE, 2015).
  • Transformative research: Transformative research is rooted in critical paradigms that attempt to amplify the voices of marginalised people. This adds to the multiplicity of voices and should focus on the things that matter to those people in order to contribute towards knowledge generation, action and liberation. (Burgess, 2019)

We discussed some of the complexities and controversies within this landscape of participatory research, including why people might want to get involved (or might not), what happens when people don’t want to be involved in all stages of the research process but are involved in a meaningful way at certain points (sometimes known as participative research), and the difficulties of funder expectations that participatory research can be conducted in the same amount of time as traditional research.

Next Dr Melanie Boyce introduced different degrees of participation and models of participation:

Degrees of participation

  • Cutler and Taylor (2003) use participation and involvement interchangeably – defined simply as “taking part in decision making”. They recognise a spectrum of degrees of taking part.
  • Lansdown (2001) distinguishes between ‘consultative processes’ (where children have no control, activities are adult initiated, led and managed) and ‘participatory processes’.
  • Hart (1992) stated that participation referred to the process of sharing in decisions which affect one’s life and the life of the community in which one lives.
  • Hanley et al. (2004) talk not about participation but about involvement, giving three levels on a continuum, from consultation at one end to user-controlled at the other.

Models of participation

  • Hart (1992) developed an eight-level ‘ladder participation’ where the further up the ladder, the more involved participants are. However this has received a lot of criticism because it suggests you can’t move up unless you have achieved the rung underneath.
  • Shier’s (2001) ‘pathway to participation’ emerged from the community development field and suggests ways in which children and young people can be involved and have their opinions heard.
  • Chawla (2001) proposed seven forms of participation, and talked about how you can build on the different types of participation that are already happening in a project.
  • Treseder’s (1997) wheel of participation provides a useful critique of Hart’s ladder as it shows how people can be involved in different ways at different points, and takes contextual issues into account.

So participation can mean different things in different contexts and no one model or form can be applied across all settings and in all situations.  Each model has its strengths and limitations and each may be appropriate for use in different projects.

As an example, Dr Niamh O’Brien explained the dual-axis model of participation (Moules and O’Brien, 2012) and the axis model of participation (O’Brien, 2016) developed through research with children and young people. These models reflect on where the power lies in terms of decision making, control and direction, ideas, and knowledge throughout the research.

Power is fluid and changes moment to moment. In Niamh’s doctoral research, the young people relied on her to train them in research methods at the start, but then initiated different ideas and were involved in different ways to make decisions along the way. They also had different ideas about who held the power at various points. During the PIF we discussed the balance between acknowledging the substantial contribution of people involved in participatory research, and maintaining their confidentiality – essentially why are we as researchers credited when participants remain anonymous?

Reciprocal Encounters: Young Adults Leaving Care

Maritta Törrönen, Professor of Social Work at the University of Helsinki and Visiting Fellow at ARU, introduced her work with young people as co-researchers who interviewed their peers on their shared experiences of leaving care. The research built on previous participatory research in Finland, but evolved into participatory action research that ran in the UK in 2016–2018. It was a collaboration between Anglia Ruskin University and the University of Helsinki in cooperation with the Essex County Council (ECC) Children in Care Council. A full description of the project can be found here: https://blogs.helsinki.fi/reciprocalencounters-youngadultsleavingcare/files/2018/09/Reciprocal-Emotional-Relationships-260918.pdf

Maritta shared some of her thoughts on the participatory nature of this research.

  • Young people in care are not often heard, so the aim of the research was to raise their voice on what is important to them and facilitate them to ask other young people their point of view. It was very touching as the young people really wanted to help others in the same situation.
  • Working collaboratively with peer researchers meant training young people to carry out research, including negotiating the interview schedule, helping them to conduct interviews, and understand how their role was fundamental in the process of data analysis.
  • One challenge was around whether the young people could be equal to researchers who have the education and training to undertake research; but the young people were experts by experience, and this gave them knowledge and sensitivity around certain things beyond ours.
  • As co-researchers, they built self-esteem and learnt skills that will be useful in their working lives – these opportunities are sometimes out of reach for young people in care e.g. for one young person it was the first time they had used the train alone.
  • They were also acknowledged in the report and co-presented the findings for ECC. The co-researchers were eager to continue this kind of work and are now very active with the Council, for example education practitioners.
  • There was an impact on the Children in Care Council who now do almost all of their research with the involvement of care leavers and practitioners. However, various restrictions from the Council meant that we were unable pay the young people for their work (which we could do in Finland).

To finish, we held a group discussion on some of the challenges, tensions and potential of participatory approaches to research. Some of the questions discussed were as follows:

What is the role of the researcher in your research?

  • Researcher as expert or facilitator?
  • Researcher as activist?
  • Involvement and role of co-researchers or peer researchers?
  • Reflections on the position and power of the researcher.

How meaningful is participation in different stages of your research?

  • Is it more about providing opportunities for participation and/or involvement at different stages?
  • What are the different and competing priorities of research participants? Can this barrier be turned into a strength?
  • How can research be more inclusive?

How can participatory research be conducted within existing structures?

  • How can we get funding and support from funders for participatory research?
  • What are the challenges in applying for ethical approval for participatory research?
  • How do we address the differences between the participatory research plan (or proposal) versus the reality of undertaking this work?

What does your research leave behind?

  • What value does participation and/or involvement add to your research?
  • How does participatory research fit into the impact agenda?
  • Does your research facilitate action for change?


Burgess, R. (2019) on “When participation isn’t enough: A call for transformative research methods in global health” Wed, 9 October 2019 University College London – Wolfson Centre Room B.

Chawla, L. R. (Ed.) (2001). Growing Upin an Urbanizing World. London: Earthscan Publications.

Cornwall, A. (2008). Unpacking ‘participation’: models, meanings and practices.  Community Development Journal, 5, 1-15.

Cutler, D. and Taylor, A. (2003). Expanding and sustaining involvement: A snapshot of participation infrastructure for young people living in England. London: Carnegie Young People Initiative.

Hart, R.A. (1992). Children’s participation: From tokenism to citizenship (No. inness92/6).

Lansdown, G. (2001). Promoting children’s participation in democratic decision-making (No. innins01/9).

Moules T, O’Brien N (2012) Participation in perspective: reflections from research projects. Nurse Researcher. 19, 2, 17-22.

O’Brien, N. (2016). To ‘Snitch’ or Not to ‘Snitch’? Using PAR to Explore Bullying in a Private Day and Boarding School. Unpublished thesis, Anglia Ruskin University. Available from http://arro.anglia.ac.uk/700970/

Reason, P. & Bradbury, H. (2001). Handbook of action research: participative inquiry and practice. SAGE: London.

SCIE (2015) Co-production in social care: What it is and how to do it. http://www.scie.org.uk/publications/guides/guide51/what-is-coproduction/index.asp

Shier, H. (2001). Pathways to participation: Openings, opportunities and obligations. Children & society15(2), pp.107-117.

Telford, R. and Faulkner, A. (2004). Learning about service user involvement in mental health research. Journal of Mental Health13(6), pp.549-559.

Treseder, P. (1997). Empowering Children and Young People. Save the Children, London.

Winter, R. & Munn-Giddings, C. (2001). A handbook for action research in health and social care. Routledge: London.

Researching (in/at/from/through) the margins

PIF 11th June 2019

Professor Jeffrey Grierson introduced his discomfort over the years around “researching the margins” and how HIV research can maintain those margins as there is a need for that rhetoric of marginality in order to leverage funding for the community sector and researchers. However it raises some questions: Whose margins are they anyway? Who is looking at who and in what way?

So what do we mean when we talk about marginalised communities?

  • Statistical minorities – For example 3% of the population in Australia are indigenous. But there are also groups who are minorities but not necessarily economically deprived e.g. women with young children, so statistical minority doesn’t create a marginality in itself.
  • Differential quality of life – Comparative disadvantage by identifying which groups are doing worse in comparison to others. People who are poor have a different experience living next to people who are wealthy compared to living with people who are also poor.
  • Power differential – The power that communities have to make decisions for example. In research this includes whether the topic has emerged from the community rather than imposed by the funder or researcher.
  • Representation – Who is represented and how are they represented in media, imagery, discourse, language, etc. Marginalised communities are often represented as alternative from the mainstream.
  • Ineffectively serviced – Marginalisation as service oriented, so when a group is underserved and don’t receive adequate support, rather than incorporating sense of their identity.
  • Othered – The way in which groups are placed as the exception to the norm and how this plays out in society, for example celebrating black history month.

And how can we work from within the margins?

  • Insider research – The researcher can identify with the marginalised community and build a sense of friendship, making engagement easier.
  • Outsider research – The researcher by definition has a different perspective and asks people to respond to questions, which is not the way people live and experience something.
  • Liminal positionality – The position of the researcher is multidimensional: there are bits that you are inside and bits that you are outside.
  • Complex margins – There is a coalition of communities so the researcher is always an outsider and there is often a lot of internal politics.
  • Your margins or mine – The sense of identification between the researcher and the marginalised community can be really complex as to how far their experience is shared.

With this in mind, Jeffrey shared his personal reflections around HIV positivity research in Australia. Though HIV is seen by the mainstream as a marginal experience, for someone living with HIV, it is their entire world. HIV research and advocacy emerged from community identified need, drawing on gay liberation and feminism, and in some ways an example of organic participation and activism.

Research not hysteria


This was a horrible time for many people, with a sense of hopelessness for people inside the margins of the gay community and a toxic atmosphere towards them from outside the margins; but in this sense, the community had nothing to lose and so took action to try and improve people’s lives.

Inside the margins: There was terror including enforced imprisonment, shame and guilt, a great sense of loss and anger, but also activism and a common purpose to fight for.

Outside the margins: There was hatred, fear, discrimination and stigma towards the gay community, but also cross-party collaboration in response to HIV, so some positive political aspects.

HIV research: Community based research that was focused on rapidly documenting what was happening. It involved people across all classes and cultures, as so many people were affected by HIV – for some they had nothing to lose while others were risking everything.


There was consolidation around the HIV response including the need for activism to galvanise money, services, political commitment and changes in law. Campaigns were bold and shocking for the time, but pushback against campaigns gave opportunities for further activism.

Inside the margins: The community built alliances around hope, grief, pride and resistance, and they became more professional in order to be strategic in establishing evidence.

Outside the margins: There was a move to international concordance, scepticism rather than optimism, medicalisation of HIV, and distrust of activist based evidence due to issues of objectivity.

HIV research: Consolidation of research that was well resourced and so had the space to be ambitious and creative as well as strategically developing research agendas that were grounded in the community. For example the HIV Futures Project included an Advisory Committee; though disparate positions of members needed to be managed, alongside avoiding further marginalisation of the community or fuelling the media.


With the collective structures in place, campaign work centred on representing different identities and intersecting experiences of people affected by HIV; however money began to diminish.

Inside the margins: Increasing differentiation – not just people with HIV but those at the margins of the margins, which meant a rush to the margins and competition undermining the alliance. There was a sense of failure of the gay liberation movement, with gay marriage seen as the goal of equal rights and nostalgia becoming problematic as “young people don’t know what it was like”.

Outside the margins: HIV and gay liberation slowly disappeared from public discourse and there was a backlash of normalisation, while science became weaponised.

HIV research: There was an emphasis on innovation over consolidation in new initiatives, with surveillance and strategy dominating funding. There were also challenges in representation of all the experiences from the margins of the margins, and the “everyone is a researcher” conundrum.


Specific campaigns with particular communities (e.g. indigenous communities) who are involved in the development of these campaign; but this is set in the context of hugely diminished resources.

Inside the margins: Increased individualisation of HIV experience, but normalisation of this and integration into mainstream services. There is also a loss of elders impacting on leadership for HIV community engagement and research.

Outside the margins: Perception that AIDS epidemic is “over” so specific funding is completely diminished and absorbed into mainstreaming of funding. There is a re-emergence of the individual blame discourse, and the margins are somewhat erased as experiences of HIV are very different now and not necessarily marginalised or stigmatised.

HIV research: Severely diminishing resources and a loss of critical mass. Various shifts from social research to intervention science, from national concern to international aid, and from HIV focus to integration into mainstream.

The discussion included a consideration of how to represent a diverse but distinct community in a positive way and without perpetuating the issues. The emergence of HIV positive researchers changed the way in which HIV research was viewed. Managing the media was also important and at times in the past this meant keeping the media away from HIV research. The participation of the Advisory Committee was also useful in guiding how to represent the community and the wider field of HIV research e.g. peer reviewing reports. They received training on research so that they were able to engage in the research in an informed way; but it was noted that this training may have influenced them in terms of becoming part of the research community, rather than the lay community. Overall, Jeffrey suggested that the term marginalisation is still useful for mobilising funding and that is what made the research work and led to people being able to see themselves represented in participatory research. It can give people a voice and a purpose which is important for engagement, but it is essential to keep being critical.

Local Engagement for Roma Inclusion in Medway

PIF 11th June 2019

Dr David Smith presented research on the Local Engagement for Roma Inclusion (LERI) in Medway, Kent, which evolved from the EU framework for National Roma Integration Strategies and aimed to:

  1. Develop horizontal and vertical mediation and communication channels to enhance the social participation and engagement of Roma at the local level.
  2. Implement small-scale projects that were attuned to local circumstances and needs, based on issues identified in the fieldwork (participatory action research).

Location and population

The Medway towns grew up around Chatham Royal Dockyards, which closed in the 80s leading to unemployment and economic decline. Wages are still below average for the south east and there are some areas of high deprivation: this is where most Roma migrants are living. There was a big westward movement of Roma migrants in the late 1990s and particularly since 2011, with approximately 2000 Czech and Slovak Roma migrants arriving in Medway. There are high levels of overcrowding, unmet health needs, low engagement with available services, and poor marketable or language skills in adults. The vast majority of Roma men are working in low paid and exploitative work (e.g. in restaurants/takeaways, construction, agriculture, contract cleaning).

Research approach

The funder intended a Participatory Action Research approach proceeding through cycles of planning, action, reflection and evaluation with Roma involved in defining needs and co-production of interventions, and training of community mediators, etc. Many Roma children are attending the local high school, so this was a familiar site for many families and the school’s Slovak community liaison officer was instrumental in engaging the Roma community. However there were a number of challenges:

  • Local Roma subdivided by family/clan with no agreement over who should represent the ‘community’.
  • No experience of being ‘consulted’ or invited to participate and reacted with suspicion/scepticism initially.
  • The more articulate/confident community members with good English skills (mostly women and high school students) got involved, but difficult to engage men working long hours.
  • Exclusion of local Gypsies/Travellers due to divergence of issues and conflict between Traveller and Roma youths.

The fieldwork took place in 2013-2017 and involved various focus groups and interviews with Roma migrants, other eastern and central European migrants, Gypsy and Travellers, UK long-term residents, social workers, housing officers, councillors, teachers, community workers and other local stakeholders. The ‘Medway Czechoslovak Association’ for Roma and non-Roma (also other eastern and central European migrants) was established as a steering group, and there were various capacity building events to promote dialogue and understanding between Roma and services: education, social services, housing and police.


There were many findings around intra and inter community relations:

  • Positive aspects of being ‘invisible’ and not identified as Roma in the UK.
  • Dislike being called ‘Kosovans’ (as a generic terms for migrants from eastern and central Europe) and emphasise national hierarchies.
  • Identify by nationality rather than by ethnicity as most wanted to escape the Roma identity; increasing interaction with non-Roma Slovaks in UK.
  • Initial hostility and conflict from locals after arrival but now most feel more accepted. Locals reported as cordial but few friendships outside the immediate extended family network (among adults).
  • Adults mostly work with Roma and other migrants; few encounters with ‘locals’ in the workplace.
  • Prejudice/hostility largely from other eastern and central European migrants.
  • Viewed problems as similar to others in the neighbourhood, issues seen as class/structurally based in UK (welfare system and labour markets) unlike in Slovakia where issues seen as stemming from ethnic discrimination.
  • Generational differences: younger cohorts have more friends from outside the Roma community, identify more with neighbourhood and involved in sport, music, dance and local youth cultures.
  • Teachers report increasing attendance/academic performance (four pupils in the sixth form for the first time 2018/19) in high school where 5% of pupils are Slovakian Roma.
  • There was also an interesting contrast between stakeholder and Roma perceptions of need, with stakeholders identifying overcrowded housing, unmet health needs and unfamiliarity with life in the UK compared with Roma identifying education, community cohesion and leadership, and conflict with other European migrants as most important.

Lessons learned and recommendations:

  • Importance of an effective and dynamic intermediary known to local Roma community.
  • Stakeholders with good knowledge of local social and political environment.
  • Activities that involve the entire family (so that childcare is not an issue) and take place in a familiar environment at the high school e.g. family learning, community engagement events.
  • Issue of sustainability: short-term nature of funding leaves questions over long-term impact.
  • Mainstreaming: the UK government’s response to the National Roma Integration Strategies was to include Roma in general equality strategy, but some of the things that worked for other European migrants wouldn’t work for Roma migrants.
  • The use of ‘Roma’ as an umbrella term is problematic as there is a divergence of issues and priorities and tension between local Gypsies/Travellers and Roma migrants.
  • Potential impact is limited by wider structural factors: labour market/informal and exploitative work; public spending cuts/austerity and impact on low income neighbourhoods (27% since 2010); closure of local services and amenities; spatial concentration of poor; BME and economically inactive populations.

Discussions started with involvement as the funders wanted much more participation, however the Roma communities were not used to being asked and were largely involved through focus groups. It was suggested that involvement is often a process: people first need to be asked and need the training, support and confidence to realise that they have a role in developing the agenda and making a difference. This moved on to the impact of Brexit on Roma migrants’ sense of identity and marginalisation – many don’t have paperwork for housing or employment and are effectively invisible from authorities. Despite Roma support groups doing some work around settled status, there is a lot of uncertainty. In terms of negotiating identity, many were trying to move away from the Roma label, particularly young people who were able to integrate much more in school. Finally there was a discussion around building trust and David talked about how important the Slovak community liaison officer at the school was, alongside a couple of Roma on the Gypsy Council that he had contact with. This helped to smooth over concerns around social services and illegal deportation, but it took time which needs to be built into the research.

Developing professional practice with childminders using action research and crystallization

PIF 28th February 2019

Kay Aaronricks is the Deputy Head of School for Education in Chelmsford, and presented on her doctoral research developing professional practice with childminders using an action research model and engaging in crystallization as an approach to data analysis. Most research into childminding has been done on rather than with childminders and tends to be quantitative demographics, rather than qualitative experiences. To date there has been limited research carried out by a childminder – as Kay has been – with implicit knowledge and understanding. This posed an ethical challenge in terms of having a very strong personal view of what childminding is, what happens on a day to day basis, and what the challenges are. The involvement of other childminders in the research process was one way to overcome this.

The action research model involved cycles of planning, action, observation, and reflection, however there were two parts to this:

  1. Thesis action research – This was undertaken by Kay and did not involve the childminders e.g. in reading the literature, developing the research question, writing papers, and conducting a survey to gage the views of other childminders around what is important – this led to a focus on training as a mode of continual professional development.
  2. Core action research – Childminders were involved in deciding what it was they wanted to explore around training. They identified the current challenges and discussed how they might engage in a more appropriate model of training. They engaged in a series of sessions over a period of 10 months, forming 3 cycles of core action research and reflecting on the implementation of the training using creative approaches such as photos and observations. Collective reflection sessions enabled them to share and discuss good practice as well as working together to explore how they felt about the research process.

This two tier approach of core action research within thesis action research drew on Zuber-Skerritt and Perry (2002), and was successful in terms of engaging the participants within doctoral research. They valued the learning experience and wanted to continue particularly for the relationships and network they had built, as childminding can be a very isolated job.

However the researcher had a very complex role, with similar experiences but no longer being one of the childminders, whilst also acting as a facilitator and trainer at different times. Data analysis was another challenge; there was a wealth of data from photos and other materials used to reflect and evaluate, as well as from various activities that were completed in the sessions. Innovative approaches to analysing the data were sought in order to promote an authentic representation of voice.

Data analysis through crystallization

Crystallization offered a useful way of analysing and interpreting the data whilst acknowledging multiple ways of knowing. Essentially, the data is presented in a multitude of ways, utilising various genres of presentation. Through this analytical process of immersion and layered accounts, the data is portrayed in a variety of ways therefore allowing it to be viewed in differing ways. The analogy of a crystal portrays the data entering the crystal then exiting through different facets. For Kay, this creative analytic practice included turning her data into a magazine, a poster, presenting it at conferences, writing it as a story, delivering it as a three minute thesis, and so on. Childminders were involved to some extent in this, and their reflections focused mostly on the emotional affect of the CPD, how they feel about childminding and who they’ve met and built relationships with through the research.Crystal 2

The emphasis of crystallization is on multiple ways of knowing and the authenticity of voice. Through the data analysis process the key themes emerge consistently; whilst it also allows the recognition of the quieter voices which may not have been as visible. For example, one of the strongest themes was around the continuing opportunity to meet up with likeminded childminders, and in a space in which the delivery of the training is complimented with implicit experience of childminding rather than more generally of the broader early childhood sector. More information on crystallization can be found in the book by Ellingson (2009) entitled ‘Engaging Crystallization in Qualitative Research’.

Kay discussed a number of challenges in using crystallization, including where her approach fits in as she is using some more traditional qualitative and even quantitative methods, but also some more artistic and impressionist elements. There are issues around current generic data analysis practices and norms, and this is a key consideration of whose voices are coming through in the data. And finally, in writing the thesis as the product of the process within an action research model where process is important: how can everything be captured on paper?

Photo elicitation interviews: Research participant involvement

PIF 28th February 2019

Matt Fossey, Director of the Veterans and Families Institute at ARU, discussed the photo elicitation interview method that he is using in his doctoral research.

Using examples, he first demonstrated the power and meaning of photographs. For example, the photo of “The Kiss” is internationally iconic and is often used to represent soldiers coming home from war to their significant others; however it is in fact misinterpreted as this soldier did not know the women he is kissing. Other images discussed were evocative, brought back memories, may capture reality in that moment, but are also interpreted differently and have different meanings for different people.The Kiss

When used as a research method, photographs can be a stimulus during qualitative interviews – providing a visual reference point for discussion, focusing on a specific issue, and bringing narratives to life.

Anthropologists began to use photography as a research tool to capture how different cultures live (Mead and Bateson, 1942) and photography was first used in interviews with French Maritime communities to look at migrant housing conditions in Canada (Collier, 1957). Heisley and Levy (1991) represent the first example of participants producing their own photographs for research into understanding eating habits. Photo elicitation interviews may use photographs selected by the researcher to generate dialogue around a research topic, but may alternatively reflect on the participant’s own photographs taken specifically for the research or already existing from throughout their lives.

Matt shared a number of aspects of photo elicitation interviews that align with participatory inquiry and this generated a group discussion:

  • There is a subjective interpretation of what’s going on – it’s about how the participant feels about their own photograph.
  • Because of the subjectivity, the researcher needs to be reflexive and aware of their own position in response to those images and how that influences the interview.
  • Visual semiotics are important, especially in the military context for example where rank and structural organisation is fundamental to interaction.
  • Symbolism within language and symbolism within images can help the researcher to understand the context and the participants better.
  • Photographs can remove some uncertainties surrounding a situation, but they can also be misleading as you only see part of the full picture.
  • It’s important to recognise the difference between images that are reporting a public event or that are in the public domain compared with personal images in terms of who took them, for what purpose and what they mean to others.
  • Assumptions that photographs are understood universally, but different cultures and communities have a different visual education and may not have seen a photograph before.
  • There are issues around the power of photography and the way that “the other” has been constructed through photographs to be seen as different or exotic, or how particular events are shown to give a certain impression depending on who is behind the camera.
  • There are also issues around power in terms of the representation of photographs taken by participants and how this is rearticulated. Participants can present a certain image of themselves or their experience be selecting certain photographs – through this is true of other qualitative research methods too.
  • Finally, photography can sometimes transcend verbal language so it may be a useful tool in researching experiences that people find very difficult to talk about, such as loss or trauma.