What do we mean by impact in the context of participatory research?

NCRM news
David Shallcross, Impact and Evidence Manager at the Connection at St. Martin
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What do we mean by "impact" in the context of participatory research? What does impact mean to the people who participate in our research? What methods can we use to generate impact for both participants and public policy? This was the nub of the discussion during the second event in NCRM’s 2023 Critical Conversations series, organised by the centre’s Collaborative and Participatory Methodological Special Interest Group in November.

The format of the one-hour event resembled other events in the series this year: as people joined the online discussion space, they were greeted by the sounds of Tina Turner (We Don’t Need Another Hero for this particular event); then, after a brief introduction from the chair, Ali Hanbury, we launched into a rapid sequence of three themed lightning talks, each one delivered by a different presenter in under three minutes; participants could then choose which particular presenter’s break-out room discussion they wanted to join. The event closed with a brief final summary. Throughout the webinar, there was also lively interaction via the Padlet, where participants could upload questions, comments or further resources.

This blog article traces – in a subjective and inevitably partial manner – the work that was presented during the lightning talks and the conversations that ensued.

Lightning talks – the speakers and their work

  • Dr Zainab Mai-bornu: Zainab joined the School of History, Politics and International Relations at the University of Leicester in April 2021, where she lectures in International Politics. Her research focuses on inequalities, conflict, gender and development. In her lightning talk, she presented a short video on a research project that she worked on in Nigeria, Peacebuilding from Below: Why Women’s Voices Matter. She emphasised the importance of understanding community voices (as opposed to the researcher’s voice) and suggested that participatory and visual methodologies are often more powerful and impactful in engaging policy-makers.
  • Dr Hayley Trowbridge: Hayley is the CEO of People’s Voice Media and a research fellow at Cardiff University. At People’s Voice Media, Hayley oversees the delivery of their UK and European research, innovation, civic engagement, education and co-production projects. She is especially interested in using technology to enhance people’s lives, develop skills and capacity (at both individual and organisational levels), and to address social and cultural inequalities. In her lightning talk, she presented a case study on the use of ripple-effect mapping to explore the impact of the Camerados project, which used “public living rooms” in local communities to nurture social capital and grow its value further in quiet ways.
  • Dr Laura Shobiye: Laura is a recent successful PhD candidate in the School of Social Sciences at Cardiff University. In her lightning talk, she described her PhD research, which explored the learning experiences of mothers seeking sanctuary in Wales using a longitudinal, qualitative approach involving creative methods. Her PhD research was informed by critical race theory and intersectional feminism.

Common threads across the discussions

How do we achieve policy impact from participatory research?

Attendees were interested in how to engage policy-makers so that research findings could potentially be taken up in public policy. Some attendees expressed optimism that the vividness and directness of participatory research has the potential to elicit more powerful emotional responses than more traditional research methods and could therefore be extremely effective in shifting policy. There was general agreement that early engagement with policymakers is likely to increase the chances of research having policy impact and that, to some extent, as a researcher you need to be able to think like a policymaker, anticipating questions about economic viability and generalisability of findings.

However, others cautioned about the risk of getting too close to policymakers in how the research is framed, since policymakers are sometimes poorly informed and their particular concerns or perspectives may not resonate at all with the communities of interest. Others sounded the alarm about forms of participation that are insufficiently inclusive and thereby increase marginalisation and inequality – for example, citizen assemblies were mentioned as a mechanism that sometimes attracts a similar type of highly motivated and politically engaged person. Towards the end, attendees expressed a wish to see more examples of good-quality participatory research that have truly been able to set the policy agenda.

What methods can we use to foreground different community voices in impactful ways?

Attendees wished to know more about specific methods that have been successfully used in impactful participatory research projects. In her break-out room, Hayley answered questions about how to conduct ripple-effect mapping and highlighted its strengths as a method for mapping intended or unintended consequences and unpicking relative contribution, as well as its ability to represent data in a highly visual way. Meanwhile, in a different break-out room, Laura described the practicalities of her PhD research, noting that the use of drawing, photos and visual storytelling with sanctuary-seeking mothers had helped to mitigate any language barriers. Moreover, ongoing communication between Laura and the participants over two to three cycles of data collection and analysis had given the mothers a significant degree of control over how their "episodic narratives" were represented, circumventing the trap of producing research that only spoke to "elite" academic communities.

Both researchers also gave examples of how their research had successfully adapted to external constraints. Hayley had managed to conduct online workshops that still gave participants the same tactile reward of creating their own visual maps by mailing out workshop packs beforehand and then collecting the data by return post. Laura had adapted her original “ethnographic” PhD plan to cope with the pandemic lockdowns. If there was a common thread between the different projects described, it was the emphasis on more active, creative methods that could spark conversation and shared learning, and that held rich meaning for the communities themselves. 

What kind of impact does the participatory research process itself create for the participants?

Attendees were curious about how those involved in participatory research experienced the projects and how transformative such projects may have been. Hayley described how the visual representation of the impact of the Camerados project had created a powerful feeling of pride among participants, both at a community and at an individual level. As one respondent put it: "We’re looking out for each other… You can’t see it from a distance but it is there." Both Zainab and Laura also discussed how the participants in their projects had gained new relationships, new awareness and new understandings. All three presenters espoused the belief that the participatory methods that we choose must have a positive impact for the participants. Towards the end of the event, this insight generated a discussion about levels of participation, for example co-design, co-creation, co-production and how, as researchers, we must not assume that all participants will be able (or willing) to commit the same amount of time and energy to a project.