I like the quotation by Chinua Achebe, one of Nigeria’s best-known novelists:‘The world is like a Mask dancing. If you want to see it well you do not stand in one place’.
It encapsulates so well what I and many others of those who will meet up at the ESRC-DFID Impact Conference are trying to do, in one way or another. Along with a good portion of the participants who will be present at this conference, I have a particular interest in mixed methods approaches as a way of trying to ‘see (the world) well’. This, I feel, is an approach which arguably has particular resonance when you are working in very poor communities with especially vulnerable groups of people, including women, children and the elderly.
Co-production and co-investigation with communities to strengthen research and impact
‘Co-investigation’, to me, means commencing the research process in communities with the training of community partners - often vulnerable community members who then become peer-researchers, so that they can actively engage in the research process and help develop key research questions for further investigation. This has underpinned mine and my colleagues (both practitioners and academics) approach increasingly over the last decade. Although not without complexities, including various ethical challenges, the co-investigation approach can encourage more active community engagement. And active community engagement is something that can really strengthen the impact of our research.
Peer researchers learn how to lead in-depth interviews, run focus group meetings and conduct a range of other participatory activities by themselves, rather than simply contributing as respondents to researcher-led activities which might be described more broadly within the term co-production of knowledge. We recognise that building new and complex relationships with research participants through this approach will not necessarily eradicate the massive power inequalities that are embedded within global relations, but it may at least offer better understanding of local perspectives.
Working with school children and elderly peer-researchers
I’ve had the privilege of working with both young school-children and older people [60+] peer-researchers in a series of mobility studies focused on building a better understanding of the physical and virtual mobility practices and constraints among potentially vulnerable groups. We’ve been working together to explore diverse mobility issues, from the load-carrying burdens imposed on young people where there is a massive family transport gap (such that children must take the place of infrastructure like water pipes), to the massive potential for virtual mobility now presented by mobile phones.
My hope is that a few of these peer researchers will be able to join the panel discussion in Pretoria on the Co-construction of research with stakeholders/communities.
We have faced challenges when trying to apply co-investigation approaches in the transport arena, where quantitative data still hold sway to a considerable degree and qualitative data have been condemned, on at least one occasion, as ‘corridor rumours’! Needless to say, this has not prevented peer-researchers standing up and challenging transport professionals and government on occasion, drawing on their own research findings and experience. Such interventions are helping to bring older people and children into stronger focus in national transport policy in countries like Tanzania.
Understanding what our work means for reality
So, I’m excited to come together with my colleagues in Pretoria next week to reflect on our experiences, share lessons and think about connecting this with the global agenda. The conference presents a fantastic opportunity for academics working on diverse strands of research under the ESRC DFID umbrella to meet together, not just with other academics but also with practitioners and policymakers from the South, at a key moment as we all begin to engage with the Sustainable Development Goals. For all of us then - potentially and hopefully - a memorable meeting.