Reflections on involvement in participatory research

PIF 4th December 2018

Rebeka Fox and Jan Stannard shared their reflections of their involvement in the Creative Journeys Research with ARU as part of the Older People’s Research Group, Essex.

The Older People’s Research Group, Essex (OPRGE) is an independent peer research group made up of people over the age of 50 looking at issues that face others over the age of 50 in Essex. It developed after initial training from ARU and has since been supported by ARU and Essex County Council (ECC). Throughout its lifetime, the OPRGE has been involved in a range of projects, often commissioned, including most recently Creative Journeys.

Creative Journeys is led by ECC Culture and Community Engagement Team and ARU researchers, along with the OPRGE and in partnership with three arts organisations. The research explored the role of participatory arts activities in promoting the social relationships of older people in care homes. Literature had shown the benefits of participatory arts for health and wellbeing, but the aim was to look specifically at relationships. You can find out more by reading the Creative Journeys Final Report or Executive Summary.

The OPRGE was involved throughout all stages of the research:

  • Planning the research at the start of the project.
  • Designing data collection tools e.g. observation template and survey questionnaire.
  • Data collection, including observations and interviews with residents.
  • Data analysis with ARU researchers to identify themes.
  • Participation in steering group meetings throughout the project.
  • Presentation contributions to the interim and showcase events.

On reflection, Rebeka suggested that their involvement in the research was collaborative rather than participatory or participative. Members of the OPRGE are not care home residents themselves so do not have this direct experience; however they may share some experiential knowledge:

  • May share some social and cultural memories e.g. work and work environment – no emails, no computers.
  • May have experience of a stage of life only possible through growing older e.g. having grandchildren.
  • May have experienced losses such as loss of family members or friends, or loss of health.

These factors may assist mutual understanding and encourage freer discussion during interviews with care home residents. However, there are also a whole range of experiences that are specific to older people living in a care home, which the group discussed:

  • Care home residents may experience other losses – loss of space, loss of belongings and familiar surroundings, loss of privacy. Also a loss of independence.
  • The effect of living in an institutional setting, being dependent on care staff and with limited opportunities for engaging with the outside world.
  • The experience of living with other older people whose mental or physical health is deteriorating may result in a different sense of what is possible.
  • Huge difference between the experience of a 50 year old and a 90 year old.

Going into a care home is not something that people often think about, but it is an inevitable reality for many of us. As we get older it does become more relevant, so it may be important for researchers who are closer to this experience to be looking at researching and promoting positive care home experiences.

For future research, it is also interesting to think about what could facilitate greater involvement of care home residents not only as participants, but as collaborators in the research process. This would include identifying the benefit for them, getting buy-in from care staff to help champion the research, and being creative about how they are involved. Though there are significant challenges, the resulting research has the potential for greater insight into the experience of older people in care homes.

Getting funding for participatory research

PIF 4th December 2018

Based on their experience, Professor Carol Munn-Giddings, Dr Niamh O’Brien and Dr Melanie Boyce presented some guidance and ideas around getting funding for participatory research projects. Firstly, there are different types of bids:

  • Open tender – A call is put out for research that meets a specific focus and criteria set by the funder. A lot of funders now have expectations around public/patient/service user involvement in the research process (e.g. ESRC and NIHR).
  • Closed tender – There is no national call but particular researchers are invited to do a piece of work for a funder. Often there is already a relationship between the researchers and the funder in these cases.
  • Responsive funding sources – There is a general area of interest (e.g. health and wellbeing) but few specifications so researchers can decide on the focus for the research. These are generally less common.

There are a number of things to consider when looking for funding for participatory research.

  1. Does the funder have a track record of funding participatory research? Funders such as the Big Lottery, AHRC, and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation have funded participatory research and are therefore more likely to accept and value participatory approaches in future bids. Smaller charities are also often more appreciative of participatory approaches.
  2. Why is participatory research core to your project? Participatory research is on a spectrum – there are many different ways in which people can get involved across the research process: the distinction has been made between participatory research where participants are involved in all stages, and participative research where they are involved in some of the stages but not all – both are valuable and not everything can or should be participatory.
  3. What policies and practices does a participatory approach support? If you can identify the added value of a participatory approach and how it fits in with policies and practices that the funder promotes, then you are building the rationale for the funder. You need to strike a balance between telling the funder what you plan to do and leaving it open for involvement.
  4. What is the timescale for the research? It is important to think about whether genuine participation is realistic. Often funding calls have tight timescales and participant involvement is just a tick box exercise. Don’t underestimate the amount of time that is needed to develop relationships and trust with participants to enable genuine participation.

Niamh shared an example of participatory research commissioned by The National Children’s Bureau where researchers worked with young people to explore the impact that cyber bullying has on young people’s mental health in England. Participatory approaches were unique here as up until this point the literature had been from the perspective of adults. Young people were involved in the design, decision making on methods, analysing data and making recommendations.

Melanie shared an example of an evaluation of an outreach service for women involved in prostitution, which was commissioned by the organisation delivering the service and funded through the National Lottery Women and Girls Initiative. It was unrealistic for researchers to go in as outsiders and work with the clients from the start, but the project is long-term so there is time to build up meaningful relationships and move towards collaborating with the clients and the staff to develop a model for exiting prostitution.

Carol shared an example of a project led by Dr Maritta Törrönen, Marie Curie Individual European Fellow, who has previously presented her research at the PIF on young adults leaving care and transitioning to independent life. The young adults were trained as peer researchers to find out from their peers about what would help to support them. Maritta negotiated access to the young adults for an English case study through Essex County Council, who were extremely supportive throughout.

We then discussed some general tips and thoughts around funding participatory research:

  • The research and involvement needs to be meaningful for the participants, and researchers should be open and honest about what is achievable with the funding available.
  • Everyone should feel included and have a voice, even if their idea is not taken up: expectations about processes and outcomes need to be managed.
  • There are tensions (e.g. in ARU policies) around how people are compensated for their time (e.g. payment/vouchers), so this needs to be thought about in advance.
  • Social media can be a useful tool to keep people involved throughout and after the research.
  • The ideal is for the research question to come from the participants, but in reality the area of research is often pre-set, either by the funder or by the researcher in applying for funding.
  • There are other ways to build inclusion into research processes even if there is a short timescale or other barriers to fully participatory research, such as citizen steering groups.
  • Different roles within the research team need to be defined and transparent to ensure you have the expertise needed to deliver the research in the most effective way.
  • Don’t underestimate the time needed to write a funding proposal, especially when lots of people are involved from the start. A critical read before submitting is highly recommended.
  • Some people won’t want to be involved in academic aspect of the research and those who do will have all sorts of different reasons for getting involved, which needs to be respected.
  • Ethics procedures may be more complex – they may need to be constantly updated as the project changes and ongoing consent processes should be built into long-term projects.
  • With so many people involved there can be internal politics within these projects that need to be managed and mediated. Flexibility is key here.
  • Project endings can be emotional as the research may have personal meanings for people’s lives. How will you celebrate what you have achieved and recognise the contribution of participants and accredit any new skills?

Overall, funders need to be prepared to listen to the voices of people who have direct lived experience of the research area. In order to achieve this, funders may need to move away from being driven by outcomes and widen their understandings of impact.

Reflection on the different stages of doctoral participatory research

PIF event 15 March 2018

Our annual PIF for doctoral students considered the challenges of getting doctoral participatory research off the ground, presented by Anna Dadswell, as well as reflections on all stages of conducting doctoral participatory research presented by Dr Mallika Kanyal.

Reflection on the different stages of doctoral participatory research

In reflecting on her doctoral research into developing a shared pedagogical space for and with early childhood studies degree students, Dr Mallika Kanyal shared with us the challenges of taking a participatory approach from conception to completion.

Developing the research

In developing the research, Mallika considered what the role of the participants would look like, participants’ choice over their involvement, and how talking with participants could be translated into actions in order to shape the agenda. This required a range of communication tools ensuring inclusivity and a balance between structure and flexibility.

Mallika followed the standard institutional ethics procedure, but on reflection she was critical about participatory research and the iterative ethics. She discussed how following ethics iteratively in participatory research can risk the dropping out of participants, affecting the continuity and the momentum of the research.

Selection and recruitment of participants

One particularly difficult decision in the selection and recruitment of participants was around who should be involved. Students and staff were the obvious stakeholders, but managers might have also been an important voice. The issues raised included:

  • Managers may struggle to commit time to the research, but their views could provide a much clearer institutional context.
  • Involving managers could have facilitated institutional action based on the findings and recommendations of the research (Cameron et al., 2010).
  • The empowering aspects of the project (sharing the control of the research with students) may have been weakened by the presence of more prominent and dominant hierarchies of management (Baldock et al., 2009).
  • It may have also created difficult moments in terms of power dynamics for Mallika, as a staff member, a doctoral student, and the lead researcher.
  • Inclusion of management, however, could have provided participants with greater assurances of subsequent actions (Manefield, et al., 2007).

The inclusion of stakeholders, therefore, is an important decision to be made. On reflection, selecting stakeholders could have itself become an inclusive part of the project where participants decide who should be involved.

Data collection and analysis

Data collection took place over a number of meetings and discussions between participants, which raised various questions around participation: Who controls the discussion? Who speaks the most? Who takes the notes? How can we avoid tiered relations between dominant and silent voices? In addressing these questions, Mallika interrogated her own role as a researcher, and particularly the “subtly varying shades of insiderism and outsiderism” (Hellawell, 2006: 486). As her experience as a participatory researcher grew, she learnt how to negotiate different levels of participation and ensure opportunities for participants to decide the extent of their own participation.

The research was primarily qualitative, but participants wanted to quantify the qualitative data, which resulted in complications related to the traditionally opposing positivist and interpretivist perspectives. However, there are various conceptual notions that support the combining of these seemingly inconsistent epistemologies. Participants used their local classification and scoring processes to make sense of the data within their educational and professional contexts. Though the findings present a solely quantitative approach, the process of reaching those findings included comprehensive discussion, which was considered an important part of participatory analysis which allowed a balance between the condensing of data into a priority list, to retaining the original meaning and “feel” (Gale et al., 2013: 5) of the participants’ views.

Final reflections

The experience of undertaking participatory research can challenge and change theoretical frameworks. Mallika’s intention to foster genuine co-construction of a shared pedagogical space would have gone against Vygotsky’s concept of the zone of proximal development, but this was contested during her viva as in fact, participants were responding in a certain way based on how the lead researcher had set up the research. By actively facilitating the data collection and analysis sessions and appropriating participants’ dialogues, the construction of knowledge aligned closely with the ideas of the lead researcher. As such, the research showed that working within a zone of proximal development fits with a participatory approach, as there were opportunities for inclusive decision making, but at the same time there was also the need for a ‘more knowledgeable other’ (Vygotsky, 1978), be it a tutor, lead researcher, or peers, to support and facilitate participants’ learning.

A final tension in the participatory nature of this research was around sharing our reflections on the research. The students completed feedback questionnaires so their reflections were known to the lead researcher, however the critical reflection of Mallika was not known to the students. Though it would have been interesting to have a final meeting to share these reflections, it was decided against due to the additional burden on participants’ time, who had already generously volunteered their time to be involved in the main part of the research. Balancing these and other tensions is something that doctoral students undertaking participatory research must be prepared for.

Baldock, P., Fitzgerald, D. and Kay, J. 2009. Analysing the impact of policy. In: Understanding Early Years Policy. (2nd ed). London: Sage. Chapter 7.

Cameron, K. A., Engel, K. G., McCarthy, D. M., Buckley, B. A., Mercer Kollar, L. M., Donlan, S. M., et al. 2010. Examining emergency department communication through a staff-based participatory research method: Identifying Barriers and Solutions to Meaningful Change. Annels of emergency Medicine: An International Journal, 56 (6): 614–622.

Gale, N.K., Heath, G., Cameron, E., Rashid, S. and Redwood, S. 2013. Using the framework method for the analysis of qualitative data in multi-disciplinary health research. BMC Medical Research Methodology, 13:117.

Hellawell, D. 2006. Inside-out: analysis of the insider-outsider concept as a heuristic device to develop reflexivity in students doing qualitative research. Teaching in Higher Education, 11 (4): 483–494.

Manefield, J., Collins, R., Moore, J., Mahar, S., and Warne, C. 2007. Student voice: a historical perspective and new directions. Research and Innovation Division, Office of Learning and Teaching, Victoria Department of Education, Melbourne, Australia. [online] Available at: [Accessed October 4, 2014].

Vygotsky, L. S. 1978. Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Getting doctoral participatory research off the ground

PIF event 15 March 2018

Our annual PIF for doctoral students considered the challenges of getting doctoral participatory research off the ground, presented by Anna Dadswell, as well as reflections on all stages of conducting doctoral participatory research presented by Dr Mallika Kanyal.

Getting participatory doctoral research off the ground

As we all know, doctoral research is hugely complex and challenging, and it has also been driven by a very traditional and individualistic construction of knowledge by the ‘expert researcher’. Embarking on a more bottom-up approach, which blurs the boundaries between the researcher and the participant, challenges this tradition and therefore participatory approaches add another dimension of difficulty to the doctorate. As Southby (2017, p.128) states:

“Participatory research may juxtapose the institutional mechanisms surrounding a research degree and provide practical barriers to research-degree students.”

Anna’s doctoral research takes a participatory action research approach to explore the potential for young refugee women to influence change in their lives and/or in their host communities. However in starting this research, a number of challenges emerged from the complex intersection of rigid doctoral processes and requirements, the organic nature of participatory approaches, and the vulnerability of the participant group. Some of these challenges are outlined below along with reflections on overcoming them.

Defining the research question:

In an ideal world, the research question in participatory approaches would emerge from people with direct experience of the research topic. However, in reality the doctoral process has a limited scope for involving participants in shaping this focus (this is also true in externally funded research). Even if potential participants are keen to be involved, they are not just sitting around waiting to be asked to participate.

The doctoral journey is all about learning, making decisions, and justifying those decisions. Given the circumstances, defining a research question may have to be a sole effort by the doctoral student. However, this can be informed by their reflections on the literature, experience in the field and discussions with potential participants if possible. The question can also be intentionally broad to leave space for identifying a more specific focus with participants later in the process.

Finding the people you need:

Finding the group of people you need also poses a challenge. Participatory research often aims to work with vulnerable groups, who may be ‘hard to reach’ by their very nature. Gatekeepers may not be receptive to research due to their already strained capacity to deliver core services, and working with groups raises both practical and ethical issues around how to respectfully involve them in the research.

Participants are at the heart of participatory research, so being responsive to their needs is crucial. This may mean adapting your approach to meet the needs of your participants and enable their involvement to the extent that they are comfortable with. The important principle is to respect their expertise and autonomy; they should have the opportunity to be involved throughout and be supported to do so, but the research may be more ‘participative’ than participatory.

Working with vulnerable groups:

The ethics of working with vulnerable groups are always paramount. As mentioned, participatory research is likely to involve vulnerable groups – but in doctoral research, where should the line be drawn and what are the implications for excluding people who are considered ‘too vulnerable’?  Furthermore, participatory approaches often place greater demands on the participants and the doctoral student alike in terms of time, but also in sharing personal experiences, thoughts and ideas.

It is important to consider the power dynamics at play, both in terms of the expertise that participants and the doctoral student bring to the table, but also in terms of their priorities for the research outcomes. Doctoral students need to manage the expectations of participants throughout in order to ameliorate some of the potential negative consequences of participatory research, such as feelings of disempowerment once the research has been completed.

Though participatory research presents many challenges for doctoral students, it also presents an opportunity to challenge traditional approaches to knowledge construction and the learning experienced by doctoral students may be strengthened by addressing these challenges.

What is is...

Image from Wandsworth, Y. 1998. What is Participatory Action Research? Available online at: accessed on 14.05.18.

Southby, K., 2017. Reflecting on (the challenge of) conducting participatory research as a research-degree student. Research for All, 1(1), pp.128-142.



Visual methods in participatory research with adults experiencing multiple disadvantages

Sharon Jones is a PhD student in the Faculty of Health, Social Care and Education and her use of visual participatory methods was particularly relevant for our Participatory Inquiry Forum on creative methods. Her research uses critical ethnography and a Marxist theoretical framework to explore the experiences of five working class adults living in an English town that has been flagged up as having multiple disadvantages. These disadvantages affect people throughout their life course to systematically limit opportunities. For example, educational performance is a major factor for future life chances, but the education system has inherent constraints for working class children and also produces a certain expectation for what these children can achieve.

Sharon designed and implemented an arts-based intervention using a style like Augusto Boal’s forum theatre. This began with freeze frames to identify common issues and themes across their experiences, leading on to drama and other arts areas such as poetry, art and music. From this, a film showing the challenges to the participants social upward mobility was developed and is currently in a stage of critical review.

As adults are not always comfortable with performing, Sharon uses freeze frames as a technique to encourage people to analyse a common issue or topic or interest. Each group must think of their issue/theme and what it would look like in action. They must then freeze at a certain point as if someone has pressed the pause button. The freeze frame conveys the issue/theme and any issues to others without sound or movement. This builds their confidence in using their bodies to communicate and opens up further discussion about the issue/theme as the other group/s are invited to critically interrogate the action as they see it, therefore opening dialogue in a way that is different to just getting people in a room to communicate.

Drama and theatre can allow one’s mind to open; it is a form of knowledge that could and should be used as a way of transforming society.

Though drama was the main art form used, the participants did not want to perform in front of an audience, and it was also important for them to be able to see the issues they were portraying themselves, so using poetry, music and drama they produced a participatory film. Most had no experience of using a camera or being filmed, so camera and editing workshops were held and the group planned how to put their points across in a powerful way to cover the major themes they had explored. There are both advantages and disadvantages of using visual methods, but film has become popular in recent years as it goes beyond the use of still images that provide only a snapshot of the situation.

Our group discussion reflected on how moving and powerful the film was in highlighting these issues that people are living with all the time. The collective experience was considered, as through the process of developing and critically reviewing the film the participants have become more aware of the issues faced by others in the group and how they might be able to help each other. Participants had been involved throughout the research, for example editing their own transcripts and building on the thematic analysis through group sessions.

Reaching a consensus around the interpretation of themes was not always easy as everyone had different views and circumstances, however it was part of the research process to deal with these divergent ideas. The next step will be to decide as a group how they want to use the film going forward as the current agreement is not to share it publicly apart from for academic purposes.

Finding Home: Raising awareness of the experiences of refugees through participatory theatre in primary schools

PIF event 5 December 2017

Dr Adriana Sandu introduced us to her project Finding Home: Raising awareness of the experiences of refugees through theatre in primary schools. As a City of Sanctuary, Cambridge is working to become a welcoming place of safety for all those escaping violence and persecution.  Within the Schools of Sanctuary stream, this project responds to reports from refugee and migrant parents that their children are being bullied and teased at school and suffer from loneliness and social isolation. Anglia Ruskin University will collaborate with the Cambridge Ethnic Community Forum, an umbrella organisation supporting the City of Sanctuary movement, and Acting Now, a social theatre company aiming to transform lives through theatre production, to develop and pilot a theatre project in a primary school to raise awareness about what it is to be a refugee child, arrive in a new environment and ‘find home’.

Using forum theatre (Boal, 1985), the project intends to create a space for talking about the experience of a refugee boy in joining a new school. A group of professional actors will first set the scene, gradually involving the children to participate and act out how the scene could finish in order to help the boy ‘find home’. This creative participatory method puts the children in the shoes of the boy and encourages empathy as well as reflection on their own actions. To encourage further critical reflection and ensure everyone has the chance to participate, children will also have the opportunity to draw different scenarios and solutions to change the negative experiences of the boy. Finally, focus group discussions will explore issues around finding a new home, while feeling safe.  This has the potential to promote inclusion and social cohesion in the classroom, not only for refugee children but for everyone in the context of increasing diversity.

A lively discussion included issues around the negative effects that forum theatre can have on people, as it is the job of the antagonist played by a professional actor to put barriers in the way the solutions that participants develop through role play. This highlights the importance of researchers working with partners such as Acting Now, who are experienced in using and adapting these methods for working with children and young people to ensure it is a positive experience that works towards positive action. The question of evaluation was also raised, with possibilities of holding a session beforehand covering abstract ideas around refugees and gaining a sense of how the children feel about newcomers to the class. This can then be monitored throughout the project as the theatre technique allows children to build empathy and develop their voice to express what they think about the issue, and then reflect on at the end through drawing – but also potentially through other creative methods such as story boards, posters or poems.

Finally, the group discussed how refugees are portrayed through the project in terms of representing positive experiences, resilience and agency. There are examples of this in children’s literature, and it would also be interesting to talk to refugee children themselves about their own experiences. This may be taken forward in the next phase of the project, which we hope to hear about soon!

Creative Writing through the Arts

PIF event 5 December 2017

Dr Paulette Luff, Dr Mallika Kanyal and Faye Acton presented a project called Creative Writing through the Arts (CWttA). The project is a collaborative arts project between Anglia Ruskin University researchers and academics and primary school teachers. It aims to promote and develop children’s creative writing skills through integration of writing with dance, drama, film, music and visual art activities in primary school classrooms (Foundation Stage to Year Six).

The project, involving 45 schools across Essex, is Funded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation (2016-2019) and supported by the Royal Opera House Bridge and schools from five Teaching School Alliances in Essex. It explores and celebrates the value of working in partnership with the cultural sector to develop the primary curriculum and pedagogy.

The project works by providing professional development for teachers in arts subjects through inspiration day workshops led by an arts specialist with a follow up school visit providing an opportunity for the teacher and specialist to work together to integrate the arts focus into the curriculum and teaching style.

Pupil voice has been integrated into the project since 2017 as a focus for assessing the impact of the integration of the arts on pupils and their writing. Pupil voice is concerned with pupils having a say and having their voices heard and acted upon in relation to their learning, educational experience and progress. University researchers visit the schools and make a classroom visit once a term. The visit includes an observation of a lesson, conversation with the teacher and where possible the pupils. The researcher compiles a written account which also includes photographs of the learning and environment.

Researching pupil voice is inspired from the recommendation of the international monitoring body for the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNRC), who in 2008 advised UK schools for greater implantation of Article 12 detailed below along with Article 13, which is also pertinent to pupil voice:

  • Article 12: Respect for the views of the child. When adults are making decisions that affect children, children have the right to say what they think should happen and have their opinions taken into account.
  • Article 13: Freedom of expression. Children have the right to get and share information, as long as the information is not damaging to them or others. In exercising the right to freedom of expression, children have the responsibility to also respect the rights, freedoms and reputations of others. The freedom of expression includes the right to share information in any way they choose, including by talking, drawing or writing.

Evidence from the pupil voice visits is collated and evaluated by thematic analysis at the end of each term. This produces an overall report at the end of each year drawing out main themes such as self-assessment, love for learning, feedback, communication, etc.

Evaluation of the creative learning and impact on writing takes place through three avenues. The first involves teachers submitting writing samples for selected children in their class, these are analysed in detail and compared across the year to assess the impact on the child’s writing development. The second is interviews with head teachers. The third is via collaborative action research between the academic staff and teachers.

The teachers complete a 300-1500 word narrative which sums up their experience of the CWttA project in their classroom, these are shared and analysed as a group at termly twilight sessions. This helps to ensure teachers are valued as co-researchers throughout the project. Completing the narratives also helps teachers to see themselves as writers (Graves, 1983). Teachers have diverse attitudes towards writing and writer identities, and their engagement with writing and conceptions of writing vary; …teachers’ conceptions of writing, and these adults’ practices, preferences and identities as writers (and as teachers) are likely to impact upon classroom practice and the identity positions offered to younger writers in school (Cremin, 2016).

The open question and answer session that followed included discussions regarding consent, experience of participating teachers, the different artistic methods and the attitude of both the teachers and pupils towards the different art forms.

Please contact, or for further information.

Blog post written by Faye Acton

Participatory Inquiry Forum networking and planning session

PIF event 18 July 2017

Many thanks to everyone who attended the Participatory Inquiry Forum (PIF) in July. We had a great mix of longstanding members of the Participatory Research Group and PhD students who are newcomers to participatory research, which made for an interesting and useful networking and planning session.

To start with, we reflected on the lively and varied events we have held over the last academic year:

  • In the first PIF, we heard from Dr Nick Caddick from the Veterans and Families Institute about his work using peer-led recruitment strategies for engaging older veterans living with limb loss in a pilot study researching the independence of older limbless veterans.
  • We also heard from Professor Maritta Törrönen, our Marie Curie Individual European Fellow, about her Participatory Action Research with young adults in both the UK and Finland about their experiences of leaving care, which sits within the field of reciprocal social work.
  • In the second PIF, we held a round table discussion on planning and using participatory approaches in doctorate research, from developing the proposal, to considering ethics, to the practicalities of fieldwork and finally defending participatory approaches in the viva.
  • In the third PIF, we welcomed Dr Tina Cook, Reader in Inclusive Methodologies at Northumbria University, who talked about different types of impact and different trajectories to impact through participatory research with those whose lives are the subject of the study.

Posts on all of these events can be found on this blog – please do get in touch and leave comments!

We also discussed the research that everyone in the room was involved in or planning. In doing so, we returned to a common theme of participatory versus participative research, whereby participatory research would involve participants in all aspects of the research, from developing the research question right through to dissemination while participative research would involve participants as and when is appropriate for both the research project and the participants themselves (see Position Papers from the International Collaboration for Participatory Health Research for further information). It is important to consider the claim we are making with our research and we need to justify how and why something is participatory, participative, or simply informed by these approaches.

Turning to planning for the next academic year, an important issue came up around raising the profile of participatory research and the Participatory Research Group within the university as well as externally. The Participatory Research Blog has provided a platform for this, however further suggestions included:

  • Sharing the blog more widely and building a following of both staff and students internally and externally.
  • Establishing an online forum through the blog for interactive discussions around issues in conducting participatory research.
  • Developing short ‘vodcasts’ of researchers discussing participatory methodology or participatory research projects that are currently happening across the university.
  • Developing and collating further shared resources on participatory research together, such as articles, websites, methods, etc.
  • Running a session on participatory research for the Doctoral School so that students are aware of this approach as an option.

These suggestions will be taken on board and the Participatory Research Group will look to implement them in the near future – please do get in touch with any further suggestions!

Finally, we thought about what to focus on in the Participatory Inquiry Forums in 2017/2018. It was agreed that the PhD session was a great success and we should hold another similar event on participatory research throughout the PhD journey. Other ideas included writing grants for participatory research projects and the use of creative methods in participatory research. Dates and further information on these events will be shared in due course – watch this space.

Participatory research and impact: partnerships for change

PIF event 12 April 2017

We were delighted to welcome Dr Tina Cook to the Participatory Inquiry Forum to talk about participatory research and impact. As a Reader in Inclusive Methodologies at Northumbria University, Tina began by stating that the way we do research determines what we get out of the research. With a background in working with people with learning disability and their families in the field of education, Dr Cook now works mainly in health research. Using qualitative approaches, particularly collaborative/participatory action research, her work centres on ways of fore-fronting voices of those directly involved in a situation as a means of improving the quality of their lives and the quality of the research.

Participatory research

Participatory research was defined and discussed as a research paradigm, rather than a method or methodology – it is a set of underlying assumptions, values and ethos about the world and how it should be studied in collaboration with the people whose lives or work is the subject of study. Tina promoted the idea of ‘authentic participation’ (McTaggart 1997) and presented the following key tenants of participatory research:

  • Knowledge constructed without the active participation of those with lived experience can only be partial knowledge.
  • People with lived experience have agency in research and those traditionally ‘researched’ become researchers.
  • Research is built on relationally based critical communication to provide multiple perspectives for new ways of seeing.
  • The relationship becomes a strong collective for challenge and learning, which facilitates changes in thinking and acting.
  • Impact is an embedded and expected part of the process.

It was raised that this often involves not only persuading funders of the importance and requirements of authentic participatory research, but also changing the perceptions of participants to realise that they have the knowledge and are the experts on their own lives and experiences – it is not just the history of research to see the researcher as the expert, but also the history of society to give experts the power.

Impact through participatory research

Impact is considered by HEFCE as ‘an effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, beyond academia’. Thomson (2015) suggests that this call for research to make a difference to communities beyond knowledge collection could be the ‘time in the sun’ for participatory research. However, this call sits within a dominant framework that preferences certain ways of recognising and capturing that difference – ways of conceptualising impact that favour predetermination and measurement against ‘norms’. Evidencing impact is sometimes measuring something that is not measurable – but we can still demonstrate impact.

Tina suggests that in participatory research, impact is embedded throughout and often starts occurring long before the end of the research process when participants are asked what the issues are and begin to think critically about them. It can also continue far beyond the end of the research process as changes in thinking may take a long time to influence changes in acting. Impact includes both the intended and unintended consequences of the research process, for example:

  • Individual and community transformational learning and increased social capacity, in the form of individual and collective empowerment to make decisions concerning practices.
  • Strengthening of organisational structures.
  • Extending relationships and acquiring new partners.
  • The creation of new and multiple forms of local knowledge and evidence for that knowledge.
  • The creation of a product that is used within the community.
  • The advancement of existing theories or development of a new paradigm.
  • Policy change and social movements.
  • Increased confidence of participants both in themselves and that change can happen.

These changes may be major, but Tina emphasised that they may also be minor improvements to everyday action or practice that cumulatively over time lead to more major changes. They may be subtle or even hidden as they occur within people and do not necessarily lead to external changes, or are only visible in the long-term. They may also cause a ‘ripple effect’ leading to lots of minor changes or a cumulative major change.

There was some debate around whether learning and new ways of thinking always brings about changes in acting. Participatory research however, taps into tacit knowledge that has always been there but has not always been expressed, which allows for a more critical reflection on actions. This sometimes leads to the reframing of the research question, for example rather than asking ‘how do I stop smoking?’ critical reflection on the situation may lead to the question ‘why do I smoke in the first place?’ which in turn leads to a very different set of answers that get closer to the root cause of the problem.

Trajectories to impact

Tina put forward that the most important trajectory to impact is through partnerships. Bidmead and Cowley (2005) define partnership as ‘a respectful, negotiated way of working that enables choice, participation and equity within an honest trusting relationship based on empathy, support and reciprocity’. However, Tina adds the element of challenge into this equation, arguing that ‘the quality of a partnership lies in the disruptive nature of co-labouring as a catalyst to forging understandings for practice’ (Cook, 2017). This challenge and disruption is described by Tina as a pivotal point in the process, as through the ‘mess’ of different perspectives and knowledge the answer eventually becomes clear.

In this way, participatory research delves beneath the stories that are usually told and disrupts traditional notions of experts; instead, it develops change-makers of the people in the room. Emotions are an important part of the trajectories to impact as the participants are the most motivated to answer the research question – it is after all their question. Further trajectories to impact include:

  • Epistemology and ontology – the theory of knowledge and view of reality, underpinning our theoretical perspective and methodology.
  • Methodologies – strategy, plan or design linking the choice of methods to the desired outcomes, deliberately using methods that provide context for the logical progression to impact.
  • Time and space – ensuring there are opportunities and resources for public engagement and dissemination throughout the research process.

Finally, in order to demonstrate impact from participatory research, stories from the participants themselves give access to accounts of the diversity and ambiguity of human experience from the perspective of those who are living that experience. Participants can get involved in the writing process – whether it is a traditional report or more creative ways of representing the research. Although rarely documented and risk branding as ‘anecdotal evidence’, participant stories and participants’ representation of the research are unique and insightful. They can become the catalyst for embedded change and can even become the starting point for further research or action.


Dr Tina Cook

Reader in Inclusive Methodologies: Northumbria University

Visiting Professorial Fellow: Liverpool Hope University

With a background in working with people with learning disability and their families in the field of education Dr Cook now works mainly in health research. Using qualitative approaches, particularly collaborative/participatory action research, her work centres on ways of fore-fronting voices of those directly involved in a situation as a means of improving the quality of their lives and the quality of the research. She has published on methodological issues in relation to the quality and practice of participatory research. She is an editor for the international journal Educational Action Research, an executive committee member of the International Collaboration for Participatory Health Research and lead for the UK Participatory Research Network.

Using participatory approaches in doctoral research

PIF Summary 23 February 2017

Record numbers attended the Participatory Inquiry Forum round table discussion on planning and using participatory approaches in doctoral research. Doctoral students came from across different Faculties (and campuses) and their research spanned across a huge variety of topics. Some were at the early stages of planning their study, while others were preparing for fieldwork or had completed their doctoral. Professor Carol Munn-Giddings, Dr Melanie Boyce and Dr Niamh O’Brien led the session, covering some of the points that need to be considered at different stages of the doctorate process.

Participatory research

Participatory approaches to research are about people with direct experience in the research area having more voice in the research process – from defining the issues to working out solutions. Bennett & Roberts (2004)

There are many different types of participatory research – action research, participatory action research, co-operative inquiry, practitioner research, user-led research – and it is important to explore the literature on these different types and decide where your own approach in the doctorate fits.

Proposal stage

  • Suitability of a participatory approach to answer the research question – it may align with your personal values but do not force it to fit with the research if another approach would be better.
  • Leaving space for co-development of the research – the proposal needs to find a balance between offering a robust research plan and not being too prescriptive so participants can input.
  • Being realistic and open-minded – you may set out to use participatory methods but your participants may not want to be so involved or may prefer more traditional methods.

Ethics stage

  • What are people actually consenting to and how often – ethics committees need to know the details of your methods, so if the participants will be helping you to develop these then you will have to make additional ethics applications or substantial amendments further down the line.
  • Who owns the data – if participants are fully involved, your doctoral project can begin to blur with the group’s or organisation’s project so it is important to be clear about this from the start.
  • Working with vulnerable groups – it is important to ensure you are putting across their voices and being explicit about collaborative interpretation of data and how you then write it up.

Fieldwork stage

  • Building relationship and trust – this is fundamental to participatory research and can take a lot of time as you may need to identify gatekeepers and gain access and trust through them.
  • Maintaining momentum and managing expectations – you need to keep participants engaged and excited about the research, but also highlight what is realistic and possible in terms of the impact and discuss the ending of their involvement right from the start.
  • Resources constraints for you and your participants – participatory research can be very time-consuming and costly so it is important to be transparent about this throughout.

Viva stage

  • Assessment is focused on originality, independent critical thinking and contribution to knowledge – this contribution may be to the subject area and/or the methodological process.
  • Examiners will have a methodological preference – know how to position your approach in relation to theirs, but the doctorate is your contribution so it doesn’t have to be the same.
  • Build rationale into the thesis wherever possible – you can elaborate on this rationale in the viva, but make sure you have examples to back up any claims you are making.

It was great to hear how these and other issues related to everyone’s own research as despite substantial differences in research topics, there were many similarities in the issues that students faced. For example, the group discussed the difference between participatory research, where participants are involved in all aspects, and participative research, where participants are involved at certain points, and how some studies are better suited to each approach. The group also discussed the importance of building trust and relationships with participants, particularly in the case of conducting research abroad where the researcher is unfamiliar and may have limited time.

During this lively event, one thing we all learnt was that discussing your work with peers can be an invaluable way of reflecting on your approach and strengthening your work – so take every opportunity you get to talk about your research!