20th June 2016, words by Oliver French
Revolving Doors Agency has published Refreshing Perspectives: Exploring the application of peer research with populations facing severe and multiple disadvantage. It examines if and how the idea of service user involvement has made inroads into the world of research, and asks where it might go next.
As the report outlines, there is an inherent ethical value in peer research: putting the process in the hands of people who have lived experience of the issues being researched and transferring ownership to them. Peer research is an opportunity for people to challenge the dominant discourse of disadvantage, and the ‘othering’ that results from a clear and value-laden separation between the researcher and the researched: ‘us and them’. Taking an active rather than passive role in research projects can be a valuable process of empowerment in its own right – taking back control, to steal a topical phrase. In this way it complements and reflects wider efforts to reframe the terms of service provision away from people with ‘needs’ being ‘recipients’ of ‘interventions’, towards them being active and equal shareholders in solutions. Participatory research carries strong implications of action: research not just for collecting knowledge, but for making social change.
As well as the ethical appeal of the transfer of power and ownership, there are also practical benefits to participatory research: peers are able to uncover insights during the course of enquiry that white coats and clipboards cannot. Through their own frame of reference based on lived experience, peer researchers can bring an insight and analysis that a purely professional lens cannot produce: the ‘refreshing perspectives’ of the paper’s title.
However, there are inevitable challenges in ‘skilling up’ people with few formal qualifications to carry out research in an ethical and reliable way. Research is generally understood as a highly professionalised industry, usually with good reason. As the review notes, you can’t just ‘abandon all professional boundaries’, and there is a responsibility to keep people safe and supported. The analytical framework of someone’s own lived experience can be useful, but also potentially limiting: there may be a risk of privileging some voices over others, and there is a need for impartiality and detachment. There are some hurdles when we consider the multiplicity of disadvantage too, and in defining what a ‘peer’ really means in this context: is there a minimum level of shared experience in order to generate extra insight? In what ways is a woman who has been involved in sex work and drug addiction especially ‘qualified’ to undertake peer research with a man who has been in prison and experienced mental ill health? So the review is pertinent in asking if and how participatory approaches can meet widely recognised quality standards in research.
Of course, this is not to say that the two approaches are in competition or are mutually exclusive. There is a question of balance on both sides: one the one hand putting the infrastructure in place to develop the skills and approach of peer researchers; and on the other, enhancing the insight of ‘traditional’ research and examining sometimes problematic issues of ownership. As ever, we hope that a spirit of partnership and openness will lead the way forward.
The paper has been produced by the Revolving Doors Agency Research Network, and is available for download here.