Creating Participatory Research

Louise Warwick-Booth, Susan Coan, Anne-Marie Bagnall, 5th May 2021.

In previous blog posts, we have discussed some of the methods that we use to collect data when we are doing research.  Mark Gamsu discussed the importance of gathering patient feedback using different mechanisms in his blog in January 2019 (https://chprblog.com/2019/01/14/using-peoples-experiences-to-improve-health-services/). Ruth Cross discussed doing interviews in her April 2019 blog, detailing the many types that are available, as well as the rich real life experiences that come through the data collected within them (https://chprblog.com/2019/04/30/research-interviews/). I also reflected upon the challenges of evaluating services that are linked to health-related stigma in November 2019 (https://chprblog.com/2019/11/21/evaluating-services-that-are-linked-to-health-related-stigma/).

One of our aims in the Centre for Health Promotion Research is to use research methods that support participants to share their experiences in a way that enables them to get something from the process that is beyond just speaking or giving their opinion in a questionnaire. As we are often working with vulnerable and socially silenced groups, we have endeavoured (with varying success) to support their participation in research by drawing on both participatory and creative approaches to capture their experiences (see this blog by Susan and Jenny on using creative methods – https://chprblog.com/2017/09/04/using-creative-approaches-to-evaluate-health-projects/). We have listened to research participants and community members, to hear their ideas about doing research assuming that whilst we have specialist training, we are not always able to see and understand the social world in the same way as them.   It is from this standpoint that three of us decided to write a book about participatory research approaches.  We used our own learning as a starting point, and then drew upon the inclusive research work of many others to develop a book called Creating Participatory Research.  Anne-Marie Bagnall, Susan Coan and I have produced what we hope is a practical and useful introductory guide to support other professionals (community members), academics (researchers and lecturers) as well as students who wish to use participatory approaches in their own research practice.

We structured the book to start by firstly discussing the principles associated with doing participatory research (for example traditions and underpinning values); we then explore the practice of doing such work (different types of data collection methods, and analysis); and end the book with reflections about the reality of working in this way (including challenges such as competing priorities and power dynamics). We have included advice across each chapter in the form of example case studies, reflective questions and top tips for practice.  The book also includes learning tasks throughout the chapters, for those who are supporting students in developing research skills, so that these can be applied in learning environments to facilitate both discussion and reflection.

Three key themes that we return to throughout the book are:

  1. Preparation – this type of work requires strong foundations and researchers should consult existing toolkits, guides and relevant literature to prepare thoroughly.
  2. Time – building relationships and developing research that is truly participatory takes a lot of time and cannot be rushed.
  3. Context – this affects all aspects of the research, from who can participate to what methods you employ and how the research findings will be used.

You can access the full book detail here – https://policy.bristoluniversitypress.co.uk/creating-participatory-research

In addition to the physical book, we also created a companion website which contains supplementary discussion materials, case studies and slides for teaching.  The content of the companion website is linked to each chapter of the book, for ease of navigation. See https://bristoluniversitypress.co.uk/creating-participatory-research-website

Writing the book has been a learning experience for all three of us.  Indeed, research as a process is often very much a learning curve in which we constantly develop ourselves as academics because we are engaged in processes to reflect on how and why we do things, as well as finding out about what we can do better as we ‘test’ our ideas and experience the reality of using them in different contexts.   We have shared much of our learning throughout the book, and on that note ended with a postscript about Covid19 in relation to participatory methods, to reflect the changing context in which we are all now working as researchers.

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