Social Research Methods and Research Practices > Social Research Methods
Through personal anecdotes, this collection has zoomed in on certain aspects of how research is conducted and perceived, many of which often remain hidden in academia and beyond. The main message of the book is that these encounters and engagements matter, not only to researchers but also to the way the research is perceived in and percolates through into the ‘real world’. Rich in illustration of cases across different countries and contexts, the chapters in this volume offer a persuasive account of why it pays those involved in research or users of research to develop a more critical eye towards the research process and its impact. The aim of the book has been to expose the plethora of social interactions and characteristics that are manifested in encounters and the role of researchers, policy makers, industry representatives and civil society in negotiating difference in engagement and impact. A key message of the book is that difference is encountered in many ways, some less subtle than others, during every aspect of research and engagement. However, institutions are ill equipped to recognise and offer support and training in critically engaging with intersectionality and its implications in encounters and encounter spaces. This needs to change. This book serves as a testimony that the things that can shape research are often unexpected to the researchers themselves and that, while they may be invisible to others, they can be unsurmountable to some, shaping and moulding future research and reaching out beyond neatly labelled parts of research work, such as fieldwork and engagement.
This chapter considers the diverse ways in which academics are involved in policy processes, paying particular attention to forms of policy engagement that are concerned with issues of social inequality within academic institutions and in society more broadly. It takes seriously how these engagements constitute a response to the critique that the academy as an institution is woefully insular and too removed from its broader community. Indeed, the notion of ‘the ivory tower’ as a referent for academic institutions powerfully condenses such critique into a spatial metaphor, one that names the privileged position occupied by those in the academy and their capacity to turn away from or even look down upon the broader societal context. Scholars have subjected their own communities of practice to such critiques, articulating from an ethical vantage point the responsibility of academics to multiple publics within and beyond the institution. One arena that scholars have identified as a space where academics can and should engage with more fully in order to fulfil such an ethical mandate is the realm of public policy (see Martin, 2001). Yet there is no consensus on the absolute good of scholarship oriented towards policy, with Jamie Peck 1999, p 131) noting that the relationship between ‘research and the policy process remains in many ways a fraught one’. Some 45 years ago, the geographer David Harvey (1974) cautioned that a wholesale commitment to a policy geography risks foreclosing ethical questions about just what kind of policy geographers should orient towards and, concomitantly, just what kind of geographical thought is best suited to informing engagements with policy. He memorably uses the case of General Augusto Pinochet as an example of a trained geographer successfully putting geographical thinking to use in ways that are nefarious and socially unjust. Indeed, one of the limits of the metaphor of the ivory tower is that universities and academics actually have a long history of grounded engagement and influence in society, and not always in ways that are ethical and socially just in intention or effect.
In this chapter I explore the challenges of conducting empirical research as a female with dwarfism. Within the social sciences, disabled participants are often classed as a vulnerable research group (Good, 2001); however, the vulnerability of disabled researchers has been overlooked. In my fieldwork, concerns around personal safety meant I have had to adapt recruitment strategies, which have therefore shaped my research encounters. I shall reflect upon my positionality in terms of intersectionality as a young female researcher with dwarfism and how this has impacted on my research engagements. Aimed at academic researchers, particularly disabled female researchers, the discussion in this chapter demonstrates the importance of taking into account a researcher’s intersectional identity which can impact upon relationships with research participants and communities. Speaking to a broader audience, the chapter also calls for research ethics to be more considerate about the safety needs of the researcher, taking into account the risk of sexual harassment and assault. This chapter therefore adds to critical discussions concerning researcher safety and to the subject of disability and (hetero)sexuality. Research concerning disability is often characterised by an interest in the personal (Worth, 2008). Being a disabled researcher is often viewed positively within disability studies. For instance, Berger (2013) suggests that being an insider gives the researcher an advantage in knowing about the topic. During recruitment and the conducting of interviews, participants would openly acknowledge that I was someone with dwarfism interviewing other people with dwarfism about their experiences.
Increasingly, career progression and grant funding within academia necessitate working with policy makers, industry and non-governmental organisations (NGOs). For example, the interest in universities’ engagement with industry partners has grown considerably in recent years, from both a policy and an academic perspective (Cohen et al, 2002). This means that infrastructure research – exploring issues around the governance and delivery of infrastructure assets (such as power plants and railways) and services (such as flexibility and mobility) – involves multiple encounters with different types of stakeholders in a variety of encounter spaces, some of which may have distinct institutional settings and norms. While interdisciplinary research in collaboration with policy, industry and civil society rapidly becomes the norm, this type of encounter space is very much still a black box in research on infrastructure, or is considered to be neutral. I argue that such spaces can in fact be hotspots of emotional labour, in particular for early career researchers (ECRs), and that they shape the type of engagement and potential for impact from collaborations. Using personal anecdotes and experiences, I unpack the intersectionalities involved in doing social science research and engagement on infrastructure in encounter spaces between academia, policy, industry and civil society. Positionality and intersectionality play a decisive role in how we are perceived in encounter spaces and in the terms of our engaging with others within them.
Available Open Access under CC-BY-NC licence. Engagement with non-academic groups and actors – such as policy-makers, industry, charities and activist groups, communities, and the public – in the co-production of knowledge and real-world impact is increasingly important in academic research. Drawing on empirical research, interdisciplinary methodologies, and broad international perspectives, this collection offers a critical examination of the liminal space of interactions between policy and research as spaces of difference and engagement, showing them to be far from apolitical.
The authors consider what, and who, are present in these encounter spaces and examine how pre-existing perceptions about differences in social identity, positionality and knowledge can affect engagement, equity and research outcomes.
This book develops critical and original perspectives on research engagement and impact. It uses first-hand accounts from social scientists to unpack and highlight the intersectionality of their work and experiences in engaging with policy, industry, civil society and other academics. With a personal and reflexive take on experience and the politics of research engagement, including notions of social difference, power and inequality, we respond to the growing agenda and the desire of academic research for real-world influence. Our aims for this collection are, then, to provide critical reflexivity to understandings and applications of research engagement and impact strategies, within academia and with other stakeholders, namely policy makers, industry and civil society. In this introductory chapter we outline the contemporary landscapes of impact and engagement; identify important spaces of research engagement and encounter; outline key ideas about intersectionality, identity and positionality; and provide a taster of the themed sections and chapters that follow. Academic engagement with non-academic groups and actors – such as policy makers, industry, charities and activist groups, communities and the public – is arguably more important now than ever before. From public engagement activities such as talks, exhibitions and festivals, to the co-production of knowledge for and with interest groups, the imperative for real-world influence has moved from being an ideal in academic research to something of a normative expectation (also see Banks et al, 2019; Hardill and Mills, 2013). Indeed, such engagement, or rather ‘impact’ on industry, policy making and public opinion, is increasingly being formalised, as another marker of esteem and credibility upon which academic institutions, their staff and increasingly students are promoted, measured and ranked.
Intersectionality has gained popularity since the end of the 20th century as a way to both describe and explain inequities in society, including disability. We understand intersectionality to be ‘an analytical and political orientation that brings together a number of insights and practices developed largely in the context of black feminist and women of color political traditions’ (May, 2015, p 3). Central principles include understanding the experience of lived realities as a set of connections across multiple categories of differences; linking individual experience to wider social, political, cultural and economic processes; and refusing a preconfigured experience along any axis of power (after Moraga and Anzaldúa, 1983; Cho et al, 2013; Hankivsky, 2014). Disability justice and radical accessibility are two streams of the disability movement that use principles of intersectionality. Disability justice involves picking at, undoing and dismantling ableism as a system of oppression in concert with other forms of oppression such as racism and sexism. Radical accessibility, an intersectionalist political strategy, challenges all forms of oppression. It seeks to go beyond the inclusion of disabled people and to create communities where difference is not an organising principle of social order. Thus, access is as much about wheelchair ramps as it is about shedding light on the privilege arising from one’s social positioning in society (see Withers, 2012). Yet the mobilisation of intersectionality as a way to inform disability theory, practice or policy does not always succeed in holding the complexity that intersectionality is so good at identifying.
Within my academic practice I have always worked with the notion of ‘participants as experts in their own lives’. As a qualitative social researcher, I state plainly that the people involved in my research know more about their lives than I do, and I embrace the partial, yet rich and detailed, insight gleaned from such work. This seems logical. Indeed this seems ethical, and it supports approaches that participatory researchers across the social sciences would champion. There are various tactics academics can employ to account for this, and these often revolve around visual, narrative and creative research methods (see Mannay, 2016, for example). They are often deemed innovative by research institutions – and can attract funding as such – yet they operate as everyday practice in more applied and arts-based settings. This chapter opens with important questions that should be considered when engaging with policy, research and crucially the idea of participant empowerment. First, does a ‘post-expert’ era change the role of academic knowledge? Second, is it always ethical to absolve expertise of responsibility? I hope that, in answering these questions, this chapter proves of interest to students, fellow academics, policy makers and practitioners alike. I draw from my experience of working on geographies of gender and generation in post-industrial, intergenerational and post-colonial settings. I problematise the notion of ‘expertise’ within these spaces of engagement to acknowledge the important role it has played in shaping how I, as a researcher, have encountered other actors, groups and stakeholders.