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Participatory researchWorking with vulnerable groups in research and practice$

Jo Aldridge

Print publication date: 2015

Print ISBN-13: 9781447305644

Published to Policy Press Scholarship Online: September 2015

DOI: 10.1332/policypress/9781447305644.001.0001

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Participatory research

Participatory research

interpretation, representation and transformation

(p.121) Five Participatory research
Participatory research

Jo Aldridge

Policy Press

Abstract and Keywords

How do researchers undertake the challenge of analysing and interpreting data from participatory studies, and particularly from those that are based on in-depth, individualised approaches? How can personal and political transformations be effected through the use of participatory research? And how can greater clarity and rigour be introduced in research studies that use and promote participatory methods? These are some of the key questions addressed in this chapter. Using the specific narrative example from the participatory narrative study described and presented in Chapter Four, this chapter also demonstrates some of the ways in which different kinds of narrative analyses may be conducted (both from a participant and third-party perspective). It also shows how participant representation and transformation can be achieved through greater emphasis on collaboration and emancipation throughout the various phases of participatory research.

Keywords:   narrative analysis, interpretation, representation, transformation


Writing is an everyday communicative practice, which pervades our lives at an individual as well a societal level. Given the omnipresence of the written word, research into the role of written language in everyday communication is at the heart of understanding contemporary forms of social interaction, between institutions and communities as well as between individuals.

(Barton and Papen, 2010, p 3)

From the perspective of contemporary anthropology, authors such as Barton and Papen have recognised the emergence of writing as a cultural practice in which, importantly from a participatory standpoint, authors and autobiographers are seen as valued contributors in their own right, rather than simply as subjects of study distinct from the ‘professional’ researcher/analyst. Furthermore, contemporary anthropological investigations have also focused on the social and political contexts in which written texts are produced. Indeed, the authors argue that the examination of written works is imperative in order to understand the structures and organisations of societies, as well as ‘how individuals and social groups organise their lives and make sense of their experiences’ (Barton and Papen, 2010, p 5; emphasis added).

These ideas and perspectives are congruent with the principles and aims of the PNR study described in Chapter Four and, more broadly, with the range of PR projects described and discussed in this book. Thus, the same opportunities that Barton and Papen describe with respect to written narratives from an anthropological perspective – for facilitating ‘sense-making’ at an individual level and for understanding broader social and political structures and settings – also present themselves in many other kinds of research that use methods to facilitate and promote participation, emancipation and ‘voice’, and where research participants are more directly and actively involved in (p.122) producing research stories themselves. When considering life story research, for example, Goodson (2013, p i) proposes that the practice of storytelling is a ‘crucial ingredient in what makes us human.’ In this sense, we can see the importance and value of giving the participants in (qualitative) research the opportunities to present their stories or narratives in their own ways, including in written form, as well as in other creative forms such as, for example, visual, oral and textual-visual, thus in ways that confer ownership and control over the methods, form and context of narrative production.

This chapter focuses on processes of analysis and interpretation in PR, first drawing on the narrative example from the PNR study discussed in Chapter Four – Rosie’s narrative specifically – in order to demonstrate some of the ways in which different kinds of narrative analyses may be conducted (both from a participant and third-party perspective). These same approaches to analysing (and co-analysing) and reading data are also relevant to PR more broadly. While there is a need to promote greater clarity and rigour with respect to PR methods, this is not to suggest that there should be a more formulaic or rule-driven method of analysing data that are generated from studies that are purposefully and necessarily varied, individualised or ‘bespoke’. Rather, what PR demands is that participants should be engaged actively in the various processes of research (if that is what they want, and they are willing and able to take on a more collaborative role), including during the analytical and interpretive stages. Such an approach in PR studies also allows academic researchers to address and overcome issues of representation and to promote transformative outcomes by recognising the need, not just to equalise research roles and responsibilities, but to transpose them. Thus, transformation in PR should not just focus on the outcomes from the research itself (and the efficacy of the research methods used), but should also facilitate transformative research relationships.

Analysing and interpreting participatory data

Conventionally, the responsibility for analysing and interpreting research data falls on the academic researcher. In life history and narrative research, for example, individual stories are recalled, retold and later subject to a range of analytical processes undertaken by the academic researcher that can vary according to the methodological design and objectives of individual projects and the intentions of researchers themselves. Methods of narrative analysis can include, for example, third-party content, discourse, thematic, and even line-by-line (p.123) analysis of texts (see, for example, Mishler, 1991; Fraser, 2004). This is also true with respect to many other kinds of data that are produced from qualitative studies. However, in PR, and particularly that located at the emancipatory level (see Chapter Six, Figure 6.1), analytical roles are either collaborative or self-organised, that is, they are adopted and undertaken by participants themselves or in partnership with academic researchers.

While it is most often the case in research that a degree of ‘objectivity’ is required in analysing data through the intervention of a third-party academic researcher, as well as analytical expertise, there is nothing to suggest that participants cannot also engage in these research processes or be trained to undertake them (see the discussion in Chapter Two and also NCAS, 2013). However, it is also the case that certain analytical techniques offer a more flexible, as well as intuitive, approach to understanding and ‘reading’ research data that may facilitate collaboration or much closer working relationships in research, and they can also promote independent reflections and assessments of data by participants themselves.

Taking the PNR study as an example here, the aim of giving the women participants opportunities for writing and producing their stories in full was to emphasise the value of the written (autobiographical) approach as a more emancipatory way of working. But it was also intended purposefully to avoid producing the type of transcript (based on recordings of oral interviews, for example) that was simply a ‘static product’ (Lieblich et al, 1998, p 8). Thus, the intention was to shift from an inert to a more fluid and immediate narrative or storytelling method – to provide a more direct entry into the lived experience of the participant-as-narrator – and to involve the women participants in analytical and reflexive processes in the further stages of the research process itself.

Such an approach is not unique or even new, but it is not a technique that is commonly used in qualitative research, even where personal autobiographical accounts are adopted in qualitative research studies this does not necessarily mean that the form the autobiography takes is as written text, or first-person authored account. As Plummer (2001, p 20) acknowledges, even in long life histories, the approach is often for the researcher to guide participants in writing down ‘episodes’ or tape-recording them for later analysis by an academic researcher (see also Atkinson et al, 1997). The objective in the PNR study was to purposefully avoid the need for sole reliance on third-party interpretation, or ‘amanuensis’ (Booth, 1996), in underlining and promoting a more emancipatory approach to PR.

(p.124) The PNR method also facilitated a multi-dimensional approach to analysing and interpreting the data produced by the women participants, as authors. First and foremost, it allowed for the women to analyse and reflect on the data they produced (and the PNR method itself). It also enabled the reader, on first reading of the narratives in full (in this book and also in the forthcoming anthology; see Aldridge, forthcoming 2015), to make their own interpretations of the texts in the absence of any third-party ‘explanations’ or analyses; and it allowed for a more flexible approach to third-party ‘readings’ of the narratives. With respect to the latter, Lieblich and colleagues (1998, p 13) recognise the different approaches to analysing or ‘reading’ narrative data: ‘some [narrative] readings ignore the context of the life story and refer to its form, the structure of the plot, the sequencing of events, its relation to the time axis, its complexity and coherence, the feelings evoked by the story, the style of narrative, the choice of metaphors or words …’ (emphasis added). The authors themselves suggest four modes of analysing or ‘reading’ narrative data as holistic-content, categorical-content, holistic-form and categorical-form, which incorporate a range of intrinsic and extrinsic dimensions and characteristics (of narrative form and content, plot, structure, and so on, as well as context; see Lieblich et al, 1998).

In many respects – and helpfully, in PR terms – a strictly formulaic approach to narrative research analysis and interpretation is purposefully avoided. Describing her own approach in the context of social work narratives, for example, Fraser (2004, p 186) rejects analyses and interpretations that are governed by strict ‘formulas or recipes’ in favour of a multi-stage consideration of the story as a whole and as a particular form or construct. This kind of approach includes various stages of analytical examination that are, to some extent, both abstract and intuitive as well as particular. We may consider the distinction between analysis and interpretation here as one that demands an examination of the data product and constitution (through some kind of coding, thematising process) in the former, and the sense- or meaning-making process that lies (perhaps more intuitively) in the latter.

For Fraser (2004), the process of analysing or ‘reading’ texts involves researchers listening to participants’ stories and ‘experiencing their emotions’, note-taking and observing (and in many instances replaying) the start, unfolding and resolution of stories, followed by the transcription of narrative data and examining the specifics line by line – including identifying the kinds of stories told, their directions and any contradictions therein. This kind of approach may also involve researchers deciphering stories, ‘by looking for where each line might (p.125) be seen to begin and end’, which could include numbering each line and ‘naming’ stories, while at the same time scanning ‘for different domains of experience’ (Fraser, 2004, p 191). Obviously, in research that involves participatory methods where participants write their own stories, line-by-line analyses and readings will be greatly facilitated.

There are also internal and external dimensions to this kind of approach, which mirrors similar approaches in other types of PR such as participatory visual methods where some form of content analysis (‘counting’ themes, for example) is also possible, and sometimes necessary (see Banks, 1995; see also Chapter Two). In the participatory photographic projects described in Chapters Two and Three, for example, thematic content analyses (external dimension) of the photographic data were conducted on the datasets alongside analyses conducted by participants themselves (the internal dimension). The approach adopted in the young carer mental health study involved analysing and ‘reading’ the visual narratives produced during the photographic diary phase:

The narrative appraisal and content analysis were separate exercises in the research framework but not mutually exclusive phases in the research process. The content analysis … involved a systematic analysis of all forms of content and was broken down into distinct categories relating to the central aims of the study (exploring children’s caring experiences and relationships in the context of parental mental ill health and gauging the efficacy of the method).

(Aldridge and Sharpe, 2007, p 7)

A content analysis of the photographic data produced in the STH study (described in Chapter Three; see also Sempik et al, 2005) was also conducted in order to identify thematic patterns across the range of data produced. However, in each case (both the young carer and the STH studies) the content analyses conducted by the academic researchers were not considered more useful, valid or accurate, nor were these prioritised over the analyses and interpretations of the participants themselves.

Identifying and quantifying the content of qualitative data thematically can be useful in the context of multi-methods studies and in projects where large datasets are produced, and which allow for a multidimensional analytical approach (thus for both participant-researchers and academic researchers to engage in analyses either together or separately). For Fraser, for example, analysing and interpreting trauma (p.126) narratives involves looking for common metaphors such as ‘“the aftermath”, the “recovery” and “rebuilding”’ (2004, p 193), and then comparisons are made across the range of narrative data (what I have referred to as the ‘collectivising’ of individual narratives; see Chapter One), looking for similarities or patterns in and across findings.

In his discussion of analysing and reading narratives in social work, Baldwin (2013, p 85) refers to the ways in which narratives can be used to ‘cast new understandings of social work practice’, and considers plot, trajectory, characterisation and rhetoric as elements of analysis (through the specific use of case study examples of child abuse, mental illness and disability). He does not consider narrative as only therapeutic or insightful in experiential terms for service users, but as a distinct activity that requires analysis of discourse, form, construct, language, and so on. He asserts:

Storytelling may be a ubiquitous practice, but it is not necessarily a simple one. The material construction of the story involving emplotment, character development, scene placement and such features that are recognisable to most people reveals only part of a complex process … power influences what and how stories are told, as well as who listens to them. This also means that while some stories are celebrated and welcomed, others are deliberately discouraged from being told, with negative consequences for those whose stories are shut down.

(Baldwin, 2013, p 105)

In considering these approaches, both in terms of the generalities and the specifics of narrative analytical methods such as those described by Fraser and Baldwin, we may begin to wonder how different these approaches are from other methods of qualitative data analysis and interpretation (in effect, the ‘data-processing’ narrative). Thematising, coding and even counting are, after all, present in most processes of research data management and the subsequent procedures that involve telling the ‘story’ of the data. In PR methods, however, not only are participants involved as data producers, analysts and so on, but power influences with respect to who tells the story of the data, as well as why and how stories are told, are considerations that are deemed as important as the content of those stories (an issue to be discussed later in this chapter).

For example, photographic data (that produce visual stories or narratives) which are generated from studies such as the photographic (p.127) participation projects described in Chapters Two and Three may be subject to thematic and content analyses as well as consideration given to the form and construction of the photographs, the location, scene, and so on. Equally important, however, from a participatory perspective, are power issues that see participant-researchers as photographers, analysts (to a lesser or greater degree) and also as subjects in the data. Thus, where and why participants choose to locate themselves in the photographic participation process, either as photographers and/or as subjects in the photographs themselves (that is, photographed by someone else), are also important considerations when examining visual data of these kinds, the efficacy of the method itself and the roles and positioning of the participants in the data and research processes.

The different ways of, and opportunities for, conducting third-party analyses of narrative data, whether in the form of written texts, visual images, and so on, are perhaps best illustrated by using Rosie’s participatory narrative as an example from the PNR study, and by ‘reading’ or assessing it using the kinds of analytical procedures that are described and discussed above. In doing so, it is possible to demonstrate some of the ways in which third-party analyses may be conducted rather than showing precisely how this should be done (it is important to note that the analyst here could, of course, be the research participant). Furthermore, in analysing Rosie’s narrative with respect to content, form and context, for example, we can demonstrate some of the different strategies for ‘making sense’ of the narrative, in the same way other forms of narrative might also be assessed and examined by (third-party) researchers. It should be noted, however, that the different analytical dimensions presented below – with a number of accompanying illustrative examples included – are not strictly distinct items, nor are they exhaustive, and they also demonstrate some degree of crossover or inter-sectionality.

The analytical exercise below simply demonstrates the ways in which a researcher could begin to ‘read’, analyse and interpret narrative data, and how these kinds of ‘readings’ may be transferrable in other narrative contexts, in visual or visual-textual research, for example, and also in PR studies, where research participants are actively involved as, for example, data collectors and co-analysts, depending on the nature and extent of the participatory approach (see Chapter Six for further discussion and also Figure 6.1).

(p.128) Reading and analysing Rosie’s (PNR) narrative

Analysis of content

Domains of experience:

  • Episodes of abuse; perpetration; victimisation; resistance (and strategies for resistance/prevention: ‘I’d often invite friends back to the house…’); expectation (‘always thinking the violence would stop’); aftermath; survival (‘I prefer to think of it more in terms of surviving years of abuse’).

  • Impact of these experiences: trauma – physical (bodily injuries: ‘you threw the plate in my face, chipping a tooth’; ‘you’d stub your cigarette out on my hand’); emotional, psychological (panic attacks; low self-esteem; fear of not being believed: ‘who would believe me?’); silence.

  • Recovery – emotional (courage, pride: ‘I’m very proud of the fact that I went to Uni’); practical (outside help, support from others: ‘my husband has encouraged and supported me …’).

Analysis of form

  • Narrative style: first person, letter; tense usage; sentence structure (note the shorter, clipped sentences as Rosie describes preparing to leave Tom); plot and trajectory (how the story unfolds; linking the unfolding of the story to episodes of escalating violence); use of rhetorical questions (‘who would believe me?’).

  • Scene placement (the location of particular episodes of violence, for example, the hospital, scenes at and outside Rosie’s house).

  • Characterisation: Rosie herself (as victim, survivor, daughter, partner, service user, friend of others); Tom (as partner, perpetrator, abuser, son, friend of others); others (family members, friends, close friend and new partner, professionals, pet).

Positioning (of narrator): context

  • Rosie’s position as writer/narrator: as letter writer, recorder of events, storyteller.

  • Rosie’s role as writer/narrator: recalling; reflecting: hypothesising/speculating (‘if I was a child under 18’); need for reparation; self-assessment (‘it’s not a healthy emotion to keep bottled up’); setting the record straight; positioning in relation to others in the story (p.129) (‘I must have seemed miserable but I never spoke to my parents … the saw glimpses … they were shocked’), and the unfolding of the story; hindsight (‘looking back I think I was in awe of your family’); comparability (‘normally you wouldn’t hit me unless you were drunk’).

It is clear from the above examples of the different analytical dimensions that could be introduced when examining and assessing Rosie’s narrative, that there are some crossovers between and across these various dimensions, as has been suggested, for example, between ‘domains of experience’ and ‘positioning’. A specific example here would be between the items of ‘expectation’ (domain of experience) and both ‘hindsight’ and ‘comparability’ (positioning) with respect to Rosie writing that she was ‘always thinking the violence would stop’. This is both a statement that reveals her response to the episodes of abuse (she believed it would come to an end) and evidence of her positioning herself as a victim/survivor in the story itself, and as a narrator who is assessing her own story with the benefit of hindsight. Thus she considers and places herself in the story as a victim of abuse who believed something then (in time) but, with the benefit of hindsight (as a survivor), and with the passage of time, recognises (now) the futility of such a strategy.

What is also notable when considering the various analytical dimensions above is that certain elements can be more readily subject to third-party analysis than others. Some elements of the narrative therefore generate clear analytical indicators, in content and form, for example. Considering the form of the narrative, it is clear that it is written as a letter, and we can see how the story unfolds based on Rosie’s experiences of abuse from her former partner Tom (content). We can also clearly denote form and structural indicators such as tense changes, the use of rhetorical questions, language, characterisation, and so on. However, other dimensions are less obvious, and in studies that use conventional analytical methods, further consideration by the (third-party) analyst would be needed in order to interpret certain aspects of the narrative such as ‘positioning’.

While it is not in question that Rosie positions herself as first-person narrator in this narrative example, the question as to why she chose such an approach (as letter writer, for example; note Baldwin’s point here about power influences and which stories are told and how – 2013, p 105), we cannot know the answer to this for sure unless she states this specifically in the text. In this case Rosie chooses to do so from the outset as she engages in the process of self-reflection within (p.130) the narrative (letter) itself – ‘I am writing this letter to you as a form of closure.…’ If she hadn’t chosen to explain her choice or intention at that point, then without input from Rosie herself, the (third-party) researcher/analyst would have to make assumptions or interpretations that may not be entirely faithful, either to Rosie’s experiences as a victim-survivor of domestic violence, or to her intentions as letter writer and data producer.

In the PNR study, as stated, participants were asked to consider and reflect on their narrative style and choices as well as on the finished narrative itself as part of the participatory process (this approach is also mirrored in the young carer and STH studies described in Chapters Two and Three). Such an approach was informed by an intention not to speak on behalf of participants or to make assumptions about their narrative choices and their intentions with respect to participating in the study, and thus to avoid the risk of misinterpreting their experiences and their stories (as narratives in their own right and as research data). This is just one example of the ways in which the issue of representation can be more readily addressed in PR.

In research studies that use more conventional approaches to analysing data in narrative or textual form, even when it is based on a more loosely governed or less formulaic approach to ‘reading’ texts, there is still a requirement on the part of the third-party analyst to interpret the data and present some form of findings discourse (which in itself is its own narrative). In the PNR study, and in the other participatory studies described in Chapters Two and Three, as well as in PR generally, the intention is not to rely solely (or indeed at all, in some cases; see the discussion in Chapter Three) on third-party analysis and interpretation, but to engage participants in collaborative and even emancipatory relationships during these processes. From a participatory perspective, it is only by involving participants at this level that the process of ‘making sense’ of the data can be fully realised.

Again, taking Rosie’s narrative in the PNR study as an example here, we gain greater insight into the ‘reading’ of the story and its meaning by involving Rosie directly in the analytical process. From a participatory perspective, without Rosie’s input, not only as author of the full account, but also as analyst and interpreter, there is a danger in misrepresenting her experiences and, in this case, in denying the potential therapeutic benefits involved (for Rosie herself) in producing, reflecting on/analysing and publishing her story in full. Thus, in the second stage of the PNR process, Rosie was invited to reflect and comment on the method itself – on the process of telling and writing her own story – as well as to engage in a degree of thematic analysis (p.131) of the finished narrative (all the women who have taken part in the study so far were given the same opportunities for collaboration). This approach, again, is mirrored in that adopted in the photographic studies described in Chapters Two and Three and indeed, all of these studies demonstrate the value of a multi-dimensional approach to analysis and interpretation in PR.

With respect to the first of these reflexive strategies – the use of the PNR method itself – during the second phase of the study, Rosie reflected on and described the advantages and some of the challenges in the PNR approach, as well as commented on the reasons behind her choice of narrative style (in the form of the letter to her former partner, Tom):

I found the method of research of benefit to me. I was able to write about my experiences in my own manner. Writing the narrative was free flowing, I did not have to stop and think about what an interviewer meant by their questions or whether what I was telling them was what they actually wanted to hear. I felt that I didn’t have to justify my actions and reactions to the domestic violence I suffered. I feel it is a very non-judgemental, non-intrusive method of collecting sensitive data from participants. The only disadvantage I found with this method of data collection was it was at times very difficult writing the narrative and ensuring it would make sense to the reader. I choose to write my narrative in the form of a letter to my ex-husband. I decided upon this style of narrative as I felt it would help me achieve some closure on my experiences.

What was notable from Rosie’s subsequent consideration of and reflections on her narrative from an analytical perspective was that the key themes she identified herself were wholly negative:

I think that the key themes of my narrative are: Fear – of my husband, of me not being believed, to leave; lack of control; shame; sense of worthlessness; lack of self-esteem and confidence; isolation – from family and friends; male power and control; abuse, physical, mental, financial and sexual; unpredictability; leading a dual life – home and work; lack of support from friends, agencies such medical and police.

(p.132) We can see from Rosie’s thematic assessment here the importance and value of asking participants themselves to engage in reflexive and analytical processes, not necessarily (or just) because their accounts may differ from a third-party analysis, but because other considerations and pressures may be brought to bear on academic researchers from both within and outside the academy (pressure from funders, from policy makers who have different agendas, and so on; see Aldridge, 2012b), to consider or look for outcomes from research findings that simply aren’t there. It is worth noting here that this was a pertinent issue in the early research on young carers, as described in Chapter Two. When these children’s experiences and needs were first brought to public and political attention through the small-scale qualitative investigations undertaken by myself and colleagues in the Young Carers Research Group, for example, while the initial response (from government and from health and social care professionals) was positive – it was recognised that something must be done to help these children – equally, as researchers, we were pressed to consider and identify the positive aspects for children of caring. However, as was certainly evidenced from the early young carer studies, it was clear that these children were simply not telling us about the positive aspects of providing care for their sick or disabled parents because their experiences as the sole (unsupported, unrecognised) providers of informal care were not happy or positive ones.

In many respects, for young carers at that time it was critical that the findings from these early studies were based entirely on what the children themselves were telling us – issues that they considered to be most important in their lives – because without this, the subsequent important changes to government policy, and in health, social care and education practice, would not have taken place. Such changes have helped to transform the lives of numerous young carers and their families across the UK.

Therefore, without input from participants themselves in research that encourages and promotes their participation, collaboration, their views and distinct voices (including their reflexive and analytical voices), there is a very real danger that a different story might be presented from the one originally told. When participants are vulnerable or marginalised, it is even more vital that their views are sought and presented (and represented) fairly and faithfully, especially because these groups are more likely either to be overlooked in (conventional) research or to be included in ways that are inappropriate or ineffective.

In the PNR study, as stated, the women participants were invited to reflect on and analyse their stories in their own ways as part of the (p.133) participatory process, and thus the women described the main aspects or key themes in their narratives that were notable and important to them (see Aldridge, forthcoming, 2015). In Rosie’s case, the most significant aspects of her experiences as described in her own written narrative were those that had the greatest impact on her life as an unsupported victim of domestic violence (see above), and these also correspond with much of the evidence we have to date on the impacts of domestic violence on women before they seek help, as well as the fact that unsupported women victims of domestic violence are often among the most vulnerable.

Rosie was also invited to read and reflect on her narrative account at a later stage, prior to the draft typescript being submitted to Policy Press. She was also given the same opportunities for proof reading and editing that any author would have (and the same is true for all participants who are contributing to the published anthology). Commenting on this stage, Rosie wrote:

I only made minor adjustments to my account, such as spelling and grammar. I also reworded/phrased one or two sentences. Some of the sentences had words missing from them. Also, because I found the writing process very free flowing, sometimes the sentences made sense to me but on reading them later, they seemed jumbled and confused.

All of these stages in the PNR process were important in that they demonstrated the value of collaboration and in giving participants greater access to (and equality in) writing and publishing processes. However, perhaps more importantly, the PNR project reflected the objectives and principles found elsewhere in PR studies more broadly – and in emancipatory projects in particular – that demonstrate clearly the importance of conferring control and ownership of data on to participants themselves, including the subsequent stages of research production. Such approaches provide the same opportunities to participants that academic researchers have in these processes. The benefits of this kind of emancipatory approach are that it can help to equalise or democratise research relationships and to effect transformations, whether these are personal, political, social, community-based, or all of these. The first of these benefits in PR – facilitating greater equality in researcher–participant relationships – has been demonstrated through close examination of the different kinds of participatory projects (for example, visual, visual-textual and narrative) described in the chapters of this book so far. However, this aspect of (p.134) PR also requires some further exploration, especially with respect to the opportunities PR offers for effective role transformations in research.

Equalising relationships and transforming researcher roles in participatory research

In PR, the experiences, perspectives and actions of participants (as storytellers, data producers, and so on) are prioritised over those of academic researchers to try and ensure that participants’ narratives or stories or indeed, themselves as ‘tellers’ or authors, are not ‘shut down’ (Baldwin, 2013, p 105). Thus, in PR, researcher–participant relationships are not only equalised, but they are also reconfigured through a process of role transposition and transformation. In conventional research processes, the role and act of ‘telling the story’ in research is often what marks the distinction between the researcher and the ‘researched’, where the former’s professionalised status is confirmed or underscored by the act of interpreting, constructing and re-presenting stories told in research (by participants) through the final written research story itself (in the form of, for example, end of project reports, books and journal publications written by academic researchers). Even in auto-ethnographic and reflexive approaches, where the intention is to redress power imbalances between researchers and research participants, it is hard to deny or overlook the dominance of the authorial ‘voice’ of the narrator, that is, the voice of the academic researcher-as-analyst/writer etc.

Indeed, Redwood (1999, p 674) makes a distinction between ‘narrative’ and ‘story’ in research processes: while she acknowledges the ‘thrill from entering into another’s story’, and that stories thus become ‘a form of social interaction’, she also states that in terms of the different roles adopted in research and the narratives that are produced, ‘the term “story” is usually used to describe what the actor tells and the “narrative” is the researchers’ account’. Here, then, a distinction is made between who is doing the original storytelling (conventionally, the research participant) and who is responsible for, and takes ownership of, the data and the final research narrative (conventionally, the academic researcher) – a proposition that, as stated, is contested in more genuine participatory approaches to social research. While it is important not to underplay or deny completely the important role of the third-party academic researcher in the research process – in some cases, despite the best participatory or emancipatory intentions, their particular skills and expertise are essential in PR, and particularly in facilitating social change outcomes – what is important to understand is that practices (p.135) that are commonly associated with the ‘professional’ researcher (research analysis, interpretation, writing and writing up) can also be assigned to, or assimilated effectively by, research participants themselves, as demonstrated in the PR studies discussed throughout this book.

In considering further the role of the academic researcher-as-writer in conventional qualitative studies, while numerous articles, books and so on discuss writing as a technique in research, more usually these discussions refer to the writing practices of ‘professional’/academic researchers (and not of participants themselves) or to reflexive or auto-ethnographic approaches. It is common in these kinds of approaches, and in methodological discussions about them, for the act or phase of writing in research to be aligned with a certain kind of (academic or scientific) ‘professionalism’ or authoritative expertise, which, as stated, is usually assigned to the ‘professional’/academic researcher-as-writer and not the research participant. Plummer’s chapter in Documents of life (2001, chapter 8) on writing life stories is one such example, in which topics such as ‘how to present a life story’, ‘the problem of writing’, ‘writing strategies’ and so on relate to the role of the life story researcher and the challenges they might encounter. However, Plummer’s review of critical humanist approaches in the form of life story research or ‘documents of life’ does lead him to conclude that different, more empathic and democratising approaches in research are needed:

The problems of authors, voices and self then are complex. But they could lead us to consider the possibilities for creating relatively open and democratic texts when they contain a fluidity between subjects, researchers and selves.

(Plummer, 2001, p 182)

A fundamental principle and intention in participatory and emancipatory research is to achieve the ‘fluidity’ to which Plummer refers, and to give the participants in research opportunities for being actively involved in research processes and practices, including data collection, analysis, writing and so on. It is equally important to allow research participants time to examine, consider and reflect on the data they produce. This worked well in the PNR study (as discussed above), and was equally successful in the photographic studies described in Chapters Two and Three. Indeed, I would propose that all research should involve participants in reflexive processes – to provide opportunities for assessing the methods used, the outputs from research, and so on (see also Hill, 2006).

(p.136) Reflexivity in research

While from a participatory perspective such opportunities for reflection in research might be seen not only as important but imperative for those who take an active role in research participation – and certainly in terms of addressing power imbalances and attempting to democratise research–participant relationships – reflexivity is by no means a straightforward process. As Walmsley and Johnson (2003, p 39) propose, researchers often find this ‘much more difficult to do in practice.’ This may be because of uncertainties about the role reflexivity plays in research processes, or it may also be because reflexivity remains a somewhat contentious practice. Furthermore, where academic researchers themselves engage in reflexive practices in PR, without due consideration of the need to equalise and, in some cases, transform research relationships, there is always the risk that researchers’ reflexive ‘voices’ may overshadow or challenge participant ‘voice’, thus fundamentally undermining the participatory principles and objectives of PR. Such outcomes can occur despite the claims made about reflexivity for democratising researcher–participant relationships and addressing power imbalances.

In auto-ethnographic research studies, as well as in other research contexts (and in different practice settings; see the discussion below), academic researchers themselves construct narratives of the self based on their own experiences of conducting research. These personalised accounts can provide ways of ‘making sense of ’ or explicating research processes during fieldwork phases, for example (in the form of fieldwork notes or diaries; see Finlay, 2002), as well as useful observations about the nature of relationships between researchers, participants and the social world. Pillow (2003, p 181) refers to four reflexive research strategies in qualitative studies – ‘reflexivity as recognition of self; reflexivity as recognition of other; reflexivity as truth; and reflexivity as transcendence’ – which, she argues, are interdependent and as such offer the researcher confessional as well as cathartic opportunities, and provide ‘a cure for the problem of doing representation’ (Pillow, 2003, p 181; emphasis added). However, from a participatory perspective, such ‘curative’ opportunities are not necessarily (nor, in some cases, at all) realised simply by encouraging and enabling academic researchers to tell their own research stories or narratives.

While in one sense the contributions of the academic researcher as ‘knower’ and narrator are undoubtedly of value, and can contribute to our understanding of the social world and the ways in which knowledge is produced, looked at another way, the reflexive activities of academic (p.137) researchers may also create ambiguity or uncertainty about authorship and whose story is being told or is of most value or significance. In participatory and emancipatory research methods, specifically, such ambiguity must be avoided; indeed, in PR, as stated, the intention is to transpose roles, or engage in a degree of role transference between participants and researchers depending on the level of participation involved or planned (see Chapter Six, Figure 6.1), and thus the aim is purposefully to deny, or at the very least mute, the ‘voice’ of the ‘expert’ academic researcher.

It is therefore important to note that despite calls by some for greater (academic) researcher reflexivity in social research studies, power dynamics in researcher–participant relationships are not necessarily overcome when academic researchers (as narrators) bring to the table their own lived experiences or knowledge of the social world. As Arnot and Reay (2007, p 318) argue, ‘there are tense and often contradictory interactions between social voices and pedagogic voices, between dominant and dominated voice’, and this can be equally true in respect of the voices of the (academic) researcher and ‘the researched’, even when the reflexive accounts of the former aim to contribute to our understanding of these power dynamics.

This is because these kinds of approaches – where academic researchers adopt reflexive authorial roles – may also serve to further ‘professionalise’ writing practices and, arguably, could help to create further polarity between the (expert) researcher and the (‘non-expert’) research participant. This is particularly true when academic researchers write reflexively about their own experiences in the field and these accounts then become part of the outputs from research, because without similar written representations from participants, the division between the (academic) researcher and the ‘researched’ (as well as the ‘professionalised’ status of the academic researcher) is further emphasised. Furthermore, one could also argue that the participatory and inclusive potential of social research studies are only undermined by an unequal approach to reflexive writing practice.

In feminist ethnography, reflexive practice has undoubtedly generated new and important dialogues about the methodological and epistemological challenges in social science research for the ‘professional’ researcher as well as for research participants. Nevertheless, concerns about the introspective and subjective nature of these kinds of reflexive observations remain. As Nagar and Geiger (2007, p 2) propose, these observations have tended to focus mainly ‘on examining the identities of individual researchers rather than on how such identities intersect with institutional, geopolitical and material aspects of their (p.138) positionality.’ In her discussion about the contribution of ethnographic research in the social sciences, O’Reilly (2012, p 11) also recognises the importance of the accounts and reflexive observations of academic researchers themselves, but argues that research studies within the ethnographic tradition should also aim to promote understanding of ‘social life as the outcome of the interaction of structure and agency through the practice of everyday life [and] with some analysis of wider structures, over time.’

However, some commentators reject completely the need for reflexivity among (academic) researchers, and claim that not only does reflexive engagement point to the self-indulgent, even vainglorious attempts of scholars to impress themselves into the ‘story’ of others, but that it can even serve to compromise the participatory or emancipatory objectives of research (see Patai, 1994; Pillow, 2003). Indeed, in her discussion of Patai’s ‘scathing critique’ of reflexivity, Pillow (2003, p 176) underlines the tensions between what she describes as self-absorbed, ‘privileged academics engaged in the erotics of their own language games’ and how to faithfully represent the real problems and crises of people’s lives. This distinction seems to be particularly apposite when considering participatory and emancipatory methods and principles in research, and the ‘problem’ of representation (in PR, this is overcome by providing opportunities for participants to reflect on and analyse their own data, as shown).

From the perspective of more inclusive approaches in PR, and particularly when working with vulnerable or marginalised participants, I would argue that, at the very least, reflexive exercises that are undertaken by researchers within the academy should contribute new methodological knowledge as well as new insights about researcher roles and relationships, and should not take precedence over participant perspectives. In PR specifically, the ‘voices’ of academic researchers should not subsume or be prioritised over those of research participants themselves; indeed, quite the opposite should be the case.

Taking my own research as an example, including the PNR study discussed in this and the previous chapter, as well as the research described and discussed in Chapters Two and Three, this represents to a large extent a journey through research processes and practice – through research design, methods, ethics, praxis, and so on – and hopefully contributes something new to knowledge and understanding about PR and working more effectively with vulnerable or marginalised people.

However, to some extent, what is also missing from my story or narrative as a researcher working within the academy, and specifically as a participatory researcher, are detailed descriptions of the time, (p.139) energy and space needed to develop trusting relationships based on mutuality, understanding and empathy with research participants. One of the reasons for this is that this process is, in many respects, an intuitive one that cannot readily be taught or relayed in a formal, rule-driven way outside the field, so to speak. So while this process demands researchers who are appropriately skilled and experienced, it also requires a degree of instinctual knowledge, insight and empathy (or mutuality). These factors are essential to the success of the participatory project, and also critical in helping to foster and develop relationships of trust between researchers and participants, as well as understanding on the part of the academic researcher about their roles and place in these research relationships.

In order both to promote and achieve emancipatory objectives in PR, the processes described above often also necessitate (academic) researchers taking a step back in research relationships, in order to facilitate more genuinely inclusive and emancipatory approaches, as evidenced in the PNR study described in Chapter Four. Thus, embarking on this research journey, in many respects, requires the academic researcher to contribute new methodological, practical and other kinds of knowledge and insights that may be helpful to others. But it also demands recognition of the point at which authorial, analytical and reflexive expertise and precedence must be conceded to others who are the participants in research, and whose voices must be prioritised, especially if participants’ lives and experiences – and data – are to be more faithfully presented rather than re-presented.

This kind of recognition and understanding about the nature and importance of research relationships in PR relies, then, on the expertise and particular skills of the experienced academic researcher, but also requires understanding and insight into the wishes and needs of participants, including their ability and willingness to take part in research studies that enhance participatory and even emancipatory principles and objectives. There is, of course, a considerable difference between people’s ability and willingness to take part in research – including the numerous phases involved in research processes, from research design, data collection, analyses, writing up, and so on – and in many respects the former can be addressed and resolved by using different or less conventional methods that have been designed and discussed with participants themselves, in order to arrive at agreed methods that best suit their needs. The latter, on the other hand, becomes an issue of personal choice and, as has been argued throughout the preceding chapters, should be addressed through careful negotiation between (academic) researchers and participants, as well as through (p.140) the application of appropriate ethical processes and ongoing dialogue and communication in more democratised researcher–participant relationships.

Transformative participation

The aim of PR, and PAR in particular, is, in the main, to be transformative with respect to social, political and cultural change that has a structural rather than a simply subjective element. However, where PR involves multiply vulnerable or marginalised individuals and groups it may not always be possible – or necessarily a specific research objective from the outset – to achieve these kinds of transformations. In some cases, the aim in PR may simply be to achieve personal transformations for participants themselves at a subjective or individualised level through, for example, the use of new and/or bespoke research methods themselves, as we have seen from some of the research projects described in previous chapters. In this sense, ‘testing’ certain research methodologies may be a fundamental aim of PR studies, that look to ascertain whether and how certain methods may bring about personal transformations – as was the case in the PNR study – and whether the success of these are reflected in practice settings, or are transferable in these contexts. In the PNR study, the therapeutic benefits of the participatory narrative (writing) method itself were clear, and indeed this was a key message to emerge from all the women who took part in the project. In Rosie’s case, for example, the opportunity to write and publish her own story in full and to participate in the act of writing gave her a sense of closure on her experiences of domestic violence, as described above. One of the other women participants, Carla, also described (in writing) the PNR method and writing process as useful strategies for helping her name the abuse and to recognise it for what it was:

Writing it down makes me realise it did happen and it does happen. And it shouldn’t happen. I don’t find it easy talking to anyone about this, writing about it felt easier in a way in that although I know someone would be reading it eventually, it still felt private in a way and they don’t know who I am and I could write how I really felt and I was in control of writing it, no one else and that’s important to me. And I know what I’ve written isn’t going to be changed and it’s mine; it’s my story and it’s real.

(p.141) Notably, the importance of naming and recognising abuse among women victims of domestic violence, as well as using writing as a therapeutic device in practice as part of this naming process, are clear in the domestic violence literature and in broader literatures on trauma counselling, for example. Thus, outcomes from the PNR study with respect to the success of the method in helping women recognise, name and come to terms with the abuse reflect outcomes from domestic violence practice where similar methods are used (see, for example, Seeley and Plunkett, 2002). In terms of using these methods more broadly in other kinds of PR studies, there are also important synergies and opportunities in terms of the transferable nature of such methods – within and across different disciplines and in practice, for example.

More creative techniques for eliciting the experiences and perspectives of service users have also been used in therapeutic practice as a way of illuminating and addressing aspects of vulnerability, and as a way of gaining important insights into trauma and abuse issues, for example (see Bolton, 1999, 2010; Thompson, 2010). The use of personal stories or narrative methods have also been effective as pedagogic tools in health and social care practice, where professionals construct their own reflective narratives about their approaches to their work, and use these to inform and underpin inter- or intra-disciplinary practice. These types of approaches are commonly used in educational action research and in health or clinical settings (see, for example, Pennebaker, 2000; Bolton et al, 2006; Bolton, 2010). Bolton’s (2006) work on reflective enquiry in educational practice, for example, engaged both professionals and students in poetry and story-writing as a critical learning experience. The intention was to use action-learning sets to examine teaching and learning experiences. Bolton concluded that this more personalised and creative process ‘stimulated clarification of personal values and priorities, created a context for peer support (which doctors often seem to resist), and fostered recognition of opportunities to make constructive changes in their professional lives …’ (2006, p 216).

Pritchard and Sainsbury (2004) describe ways of using creative writing techniques in practice with child and adult victims of abuse through the use of journal writing and compilation, and poetry (for similar approaches in sports-based research, see Sparkes and Douglas, 2007; see also Poindexter, 2002). In many respects, the process of story-writing/narrative construction in these settings, as well as the more immediate and direct involvement of service users in ‘telling’ their stories, are considered more important or of greater value than the end product itself, at least in the initial stages. Participants (whether (p.142) these are service users, patients or professionals) are encouraged to write first and foremost for themselves, and not for an imagined readership or audience (see Bolton et al, 2011). Pritchard and Sainsbury’s work with abused and traumatised children and adults thus fosters a process of objectifying traumatic experiences but also enables participants to ‘regain control over their feelings and, thus, their lives’ (2004, p 11).

These different ways of eliciting individualised narratives or stories (or narratives of the self; see Chapter One), through creative writing and storytelling practices in health, social care, education and in social work (see Fraser, 2004; Baldwin, 2013), can have personal health and therapeutic benefits for those who take part. Furthermore, such outcomes can also translate into social and political transformations, both for individuals and groups or communities. Haaken, for example, uses feminist psychoanalytical perspectives and storytelling techniques to uncover women’s experiences and accounts of domestic violence and other forms of abuse as a way of making both personal and political transformations. In her book, Hard knocks: Domestic violence and the psychology of storytelling (Haaken, 2010), evidence was gathered from more than 200 interviews with women victims-survivors of domestic violence, with the outcome that ‘storytelling served as the portal of entry to [background] knowledge – that might be termed the social unconscious of the movement – and to forms of collective remembering that may be useful in thinking through present dilemmas’ (Haaken, 2010, p 3). Thus, although Haaken does not make participatory claims about her research, the women’s individual stories, as well as her analyses of films, novels, self-help books and so on, are used collectively and in a transformative way to consider contemporary debates and dilemmas in domestic violence epistemologies and practice (see also Allen, 2011).

Taking the domestic violence movement as a case study, Lehrner and Allen (2008, p 220) note ‘the central role of meaning-making’ in facilitating social change, and the way in which understanding of domestic violence has shifted from an individual issue or problem to a broader social, and political concern, which is intrinsically linked to patriarchy and issues of inequality. On the face of it, this would appear to contradict or create a point of tension in terms of the kinds of qualitative research methods that have emphasised individualised, even subjective, approaches, such as those used in the PNR study, for example. However, there is also recognition in broader analyses of social movements that there is a commitment to shared narratives, or what Fine describes as ‘a bundle of narratives’ (1995, p 128, cited in Lehrner and Allen, 2008). Thus, we can see that, in terms of social change objectives in research and in social movements and social activism, there (p.143) is some synergy between research that seeks to facilitate ‘voice’ at an individual level, but which also attempts to ‘collectivise’ evidence in order to facilitate social change, and social movements more broadly that seek to do the same. As Lehrner and Allen conclude, ‘researchers have emphasized the role of individuals in shaping the ideology of their setting and of the larger movement’ (2008, p 222).

The parallels are clear, then, between individualised approaches to eliciting information based on personal experience that are used in practice or in social movements – for facilitating voice and influencing personal transformations – and PR methods and approaches that aim to do the same. These parallels represent, in effect, the ‘virtuous circle’ of research and practice, that is, they show how the qualities and potential of PR and different inclusive and individualised (bottom-up) methods can have considerable relevance and value in practice settings, and vice versa. Thus, individualised participant-, patient- or service user-led approaches such as storytelling, life history or autobiographical and creative writing and visual methods not only facilitate a process of ‘coming to know’ the ‘self ’, but also a process of understanding, and influencing the ‘system’. They also allow individual voices to be heard and understood in broader social, political and cultural contexts. Similar processes and outcomes are also mirrored in practice. For example, in Seeley and Plunkett’s (2002) Standards for counselling practice in domestic violence work, the authors used information provided by individual women victims of domestic violence about their counselling experiences, undertook a comprehensive literature review, and set up a consultation process in order to formulate the practice standards. The authors also state, ‘this process was informed by the reports of victim’s/survivor’s experience of counselling, research data and current theoretical perspectives and the field experiences of the researchers’ (2002, p 2).

Transformative potential of participatory research: some issues and challenges

It is important, however, not to get too carried away with the idea that less conventional participatory methods may lead to social, political or cultural transformations for individuals at this broader level. In many cases, researchers may have to content themselves with transformations on a much smaller, subjective scale, and there are a number of reasons for this. At an individual level, for example, despite the best participatory intentions of academic researchers, some participants may be unable or unwilling to engage with more creative methods that put (p.144) them at the heart of the ‘storytelling’ process, or to recall and relate their experiences in narrative ways (either in written, visual or visual-textual form, for example). Thus, in PR, methodological decisions will need to consider and take account of participants’ cognitive abilities, as well as their literacy and motor skills, and also whether they have been given the necessary educational opportunities in order to describe, write about or translate their experiences in the ways that the methods demand. As discussed in Chapter Three, consideration of participants’ cognitive abilities are important in terms of ascertaining whether, and to what extent, they are able to translate ideas or thoughts, based on knowledge about their personal experiences and the social world, into the spoken, written or visual form. Where research and (academic) researchers do not take account of such considerations and issues, the transformative potential – both personally for participants themselves and politically, culturally, and so on – will be considerably reduced.

Alongside such practical considerations, it is also necessary to address more abstract and philosophical ideas and arguments. Some commentators have argued, for example, that there is a natural distinction in both human nature and character that means some people are ‘natural’ narrators and others not. Despite arguments from social anthropologists, sociologists and psychologists that people are inherently storytellers and that telling personal stories (in whatever form) is a natural social process (see Ellis and Bochner, 1992; Lieblich et al, 1998), others claim that some people simply do not translate personal experience and consciousness into stories or in narrative ways. Strawson (2004), for example, argues that the view that human consciousness or ‘self ’ is invented or created through storytelling or narrative expression is only partially true for some people and entirely false for others. In fact, Strawson claims that ‘there is a deep divide in our species’ between narrators and non-narrators. The first are ‘intensely narrative, storytelling, Homeric, in their sense of life and self ’, and the second are ‘those who live life in a fundamentally non-storytelling fashion, who may have little sense of, or interest in, their own history’ (p 15).

However, Strawson’s view that narrative constructions of human experience can also be psychologically damaging, and the idea that somehow human subjects would be better off without self-reflection or memorial focus, fails to offer an alternative way of living or eliciting human consciousness and experience, and also seems to suggest a rather pessimistic outlook for the human condition. Furthermore, this perspective overlooks entirely the evidence that storytelling (including writing and reflexive practices, as well as other visually-based (p.145) approaches in research and in practice) can be personally transforming and beneficial therapeutically for many people, including those who may not have thought of themselves either as ‘natural’ narrators or storytellers. This is certainly clear from evidence from health, social care and education practice as well as from research studies such as those described in this and previous chapters of this book (whether this be in the form of oral, visual or written narratives), and in particular those that adopt an emancipatory approach. Indeed, one of the fundamental ways of addressing some of the challenges in PR is to work with participants, to engage with them in ongoing dialogue and consultation in order to identify ways of facilitating memorial and narrative performance using the most appropriate methods.

In terms of broader, structural contexts, there is also the issue of the perceived value and ‘credibility’ of data that are, for example, produced and analysed by participants themselves. There is undoubtedly some tension between these kinds of data and those that are collated, analysed and presented by the ‘professional’ academic researcher. This is particularly apparent in certain applied fields (in social policy research, for example; see Walker et al, 2008) where statistical (quantitative) evidence that is collated, analysed and interpreted by academic researchers is often accorded greater ‘scientific’ status than (qualitative) data based on individualised accounts provided and presented by participants themselves. This may be even more apparent when such data are collated and presented by vulnerable or marginalised participants – for example, people whose stories may not be ‘welcomed’ or believed, or are ‘shut down’, as Baldwin describes (2013, p 105).

It is also more likely that the value and even the accuracy or ‘truth’ of research accounts and data that have been collated and presented by research participants themselves are more likely to be questioned or be subject to closer scrutiny than the reflections and research narratives (including ‘data’ and ‘findings’ narratives) of ‘professional’ researchers. It can, of course, be argued that the credibility of research methods and research projects themselves are ‘tested’ in other ways, for example, considerations of methodological rigour through peer review processes.

Of course, there are valid reasons for demanding research be subject to independent assessment and analysis by third-party professional researchers, which are inevitably influenced by assumptions and expectations about objectivity. The value of PR, however, lies in the opportunities it presents to involve participants in different ways that enhance collaboration – including during data analysis and reflexive stages – as well as the potential for conferring ownership over research data and processes within, for example, larger, multi-method studies.

(p.146) Furthermore, the advantages of PR and its associated methods also lie in its capacity to challenge conventional research approaches that over time become a matter of custom or common practice. Such set ways of thinking can mean that the authenticity, value and credibility of participant stories or narratives (in whatever form), particularly those collated using less conventional methods and conducted among small numbers of individual participants, may be called into question, or may not be considered sufficiently or appropriately ‘scientific’. As Crosby and colleagues (2010, p 3) suggest:

It is important to consider whether there is a tendency within our discipline to overvalue findings derived from large samples and undervalue findings stemming from small samples. Such bias could inadvertently steer research away from studies involving under-served and hard to reach populations.

While there is clearly a danger in making presumptions about authenticity in research that works more inclusively and directly with participants themselves – as Ezzy (1998, p 169) has argued, qualitative methodologies more generally ‘often assume reported data accurately reflects the realities of lived experience’ – at the very least, participatory approaches that promote participant ‘voice’, and that allow for subjective experiential data and interpretations both to underpin and inform our understanding about social words and knowledge production, can and do make important contributions here. They can certainly help steer research more generally towards, rather than away from, studies and methods that enhance participation among multiply vulnerable or ‘hard-to-reach’ populations (see Crosby et al, 2010, p 3).

Thus, while research evidence that has been produced by participants themselves (including multiply vulnerable individuals and groups) may not always be considered credible or of equal value to the kinds of evidence produced by the ‘professional’ academic researcher (and particularly in certain applied contexts), there are other ways of addressing and enhancing the transformative potential of PR. One way of doing this would be to consider more long-term objectives – transformative outcomes need not always be immediately tangible or non-contingent, and may involve academic researchers taking an active role in trying to effect change. For example, research on developing or emerging subjects, and particularly when it is conducted among vulnerable or marginalised populations, can take time to evolve and transform thinking, policy and practice, as well as people’s lives.

(p.147) To give an example here, Ezzy’s (1998) narrative study of the experiences of vulnerable people living with HIV/AIDS focused on the personal account of just one man, Scott, who was living with HIV/AIDS at that time. Meaning-making, identity and selfhood were explored through Scott’s written narrative which allowed for a ‘reconsideration of how [Scott] sees his past as a consequence of a changed understanding of the future’ (1998, p 174). While the study focused on just a single case study, Ezzy was able to use the data to contribute new knowledge in terms of developing public health discourses, and other evidence, on HIV/AIDS over time as a result of further consideration of existing and developing evidence and knowledge about the impact of HIV/AIDS.

With respect to these and other kinds of transformations in PR, there are a number of other ways of addressing and overcoming the inherent challenges and dilemmas that arise when attempting to conduct PR with vulnerable or marginalised groups in order to effect change (see also Aldridge, 2013). These include:

  • Enhancing the role of researchers (whether these are academic or participant-researchers) as advocates in PR where necessary, and appropriate, and specifically in helping to communicate the messages from research (see also the discussion in Chapter Three).

  • Introducing participatory methods with vulnerable, marginalised participants in multi-method studies to facilitate different analytical and reflexive processes, as well as different strategies and approaches to communicating the messages from research.

  • Looking for patterns across datasets in PR studies to contribute new knowledge and effect transformations over time.

  • Promoting the wider use of PR that is clearly and rigorously designed and implemented using appropriate and recognised participatory models (see Chapter Six).

The above principles and actions are not only relevant in the context of the PR studies described and discussed throughout the chapters of this book, but also to PR more generally. However, the issue of clearly designed and rigorous participatory methods with respect to formal PR models is something that I address specifically in the sixth and final chapter of the book.

(p.148) Conclusion

Booth has argued that, despite the best of intentions, (academic) researchers are often drawn into ‘betraying their subjects by representing them’ (1996, p 243), through the process of (third-party) interpretation or ‘amanuensis’. While analysis and interpretation are both recognised and necessary processes in any or all kinds of research, whether in qualitative or quantitative studies, there is, undoubtedly, a role for participants to play in helping to address the tensions that present themselves here. This is certainly the case when participants are given sole or co-analytical roles in research and when they are given opportunities to reflect on the data they have produced. Furthermore, from a participatory perspective, there is undeniably a loss of immediacy, evocation and, perhaps more importantly, faithfulness, with respect to the analysis and interpretation of personal stories or narratives in research through the intercession of a (third-party) academic researcher.

In many respects, PR methods and approaches rely on and demand a degree of flexibility in research processes, including a less structured or formulaic approach to analysis and interpretation (see, for example, Fraser, 2004; Poindexter, 2002). Furthermore, with respect to standard or conventional tests of research in terms of their reliability and validity, Booth (1996, p 253) argues that these ‘are neither appropriate nor adequate when lives are not consistent, biographical truth is a “will-o’-the-wisp” and stories inevitably reflect something of the teller.’ Thus, as has been shown, PR has an important role to play in facilitating individual voices and stories, especially when such voices are more likely either to be overlooked or silenced in conventional research studies.

With respect to the transformative potential of PR, there may appear to be somewhat of a contradiction between methods and approaches that allow for a degree of subjectivity as well as analytical freedom, and the call for greater rigour with respect to PR design and principles. However, it is important for researchers to understand the distinctions here, particularly when working with and including vulnerable or marginalised participants in research. As stated, such participant groups need to be included in research in ways that are appropriate and effective for them which requires researchers to take a ‘bottom-up’ (even bespoke) participatory approach to research design and implementation. However, this does not mean that researchers (whether academic researchers or participant-researchers) should surrender research objectives and principles that are aligned to recognised models of working just because the methods used are not conventional or customary within the qualitative field. This is an important issue to which I turn in the following concluding chapter.