I once wrote a politics paper arguing that in striving for replicability, predictability, and proof in the quest for more scientific research we ultimately miss the point: we miss the messiness and complexity of society by reducing rich and crucial details, relationships, and language to a series of categories and causal links. I prided myself on my critical outlook on the nature of knowledge, but I never questioned my entitlement to conduct this research. It was only when I joined Lankelly that I became aware of how blinkered I had been to the ‘conditions of possibility’ within research: the limits around acceptable forms of knowledge and whose voice is credible that together form a ‘regime of truth’ that tends to go unquestioned.
Over two years of postgraduate study (in research methods) I was never introduced to participatory research methods or co-production. This serves to demonstrate how embedded this regime of truth is: there is an implicit hierarchy of acceptable forms of knowledge; the appropriate techniques with which to acquire it; and the language with which this knowledge can be articulated to the relevant decision-makers. And it’s an elite affair. By accepting that these forms of evidence are the most robust, most credible, most true, we fail to acknowledge that these methodologies operate as techniques of power themselves that further marginalise the voices of those that aren’t ‘experts’, that don’t have qualifications in research methods, and whose evidence, knowledge, and understanding are not in a form that can be heard in crucial decision-making arenas.
As part of Lankelly’s inquiry into the role of knowledge in perpetuating severe and multiple disadvantage we are exploring what we know, what we don’t notice, and what might be different if we produce knowledge grounded in our system behaviours. Participatory research is one area that speaks to these behaviours through their emphasis on devolved decision making, shared power, equality of voice, and drawing on the strengths and resources of those with lived experience.
By way of an example, “An Untold Story” lifted the lid on street prostitution in Hull and explored in rich and emotive detail and through multiple creative mediums the intersection of gender, poverty, substance use, and trauma. The book sheds light on the way street prostitution is perpetuated by compounding disadvantage domains, and it was produced with full ownership of the real experts: the women living or having lived it. Emma Crick of Hull Lighthouse who facilitated the project spoke about the (potential and realised) power of allowing their voices to be heard as an antidote to decades of neglect:
“It was ready to burn like it did because the injustices had never really been listened to; never been offered oxygen, never been welcomed to come together on its own land, its own space.
The fire roared up as it did not just for its own sake but most crucially, with the expressed hope from within it that maybe others might get listened to, too. I suppose in that sense, there was no attempt at ‘data collection’ after this point… the dry wood sparked and kindled itself into an embodied voice which became directed and projected for reasons of its own; humans to other humans.
Like fire this voice is living, hot and transformative, and as such transfers a new experience in itself, rather than reducible information per se. In some places, this will be too dangerous for the filing cabinet or the office, in others, a powerful human offering of warmth in solidarity, or a beacon in the distance. But either way, it gets felt; it gets where it needs to go.
Their chosen platform and narrative styles provided the nuance and dimensions of experience that an independent researcher with their prior assumptions, research questions, and methodologies might not have been able to capture. Moreover, it empowered a group of women to speak publically about their experiences and to challenge the dominant discourse that seeks to marginalise and criminalise them.
We must be critically aware of the current conditions of possibility we operate within, and seek to expand its limits. Without diminishing the value of ‘formal’ research, there is room for diversity of method, medium, and voice, and we should have the flexibility and humility to provide the oxygen it deserves, hear its wisdom, and shape systems around it. In this way we can challenge the ‘regime of truth’ in the hope of systemic change.