By Clare Cochrane
I’ve long been concerned with the involvement and empowerment of people whose lived experience is the topic of research and decision making – but who are all too often side-lined in designing policy or research. Some of my passion came out of personal experience as a service user in the health service, and some of it came out of working with homeless people whose lives were being determined by service providers without any consultation. But I’ve also worked alongside professionals, and I know that decision makers and researchers often have the greatest intentions to involve people with experience, but face great challenges in doing so.
At CSEL, as an independent research centre we are concerned about the quality of research; and as a psychology research centre, ethics and the dignity of all people are at the heart of what we do.
We have been asking ourselves: “How can academic researchers and refugee women work together to produce knowledge (research evidence) about refugee women’s experience, that is credible and useful, in ways that are meaningful and ethical?”
We have been wondering whether these two objectives have to be in opposition to each other, or whether, through carefully facilitated conversation, we can find common ground, and even come to see that these two objectives can be complementary.
On 1 October we held the Sharing Knowledge, Sharing Power event, at which we brought together: refugee women with some experience of research (whether as interviewees, peer researchers, or academics), academic researchers (some psychologists and some sociologists), and professionals from the voluntary sector experienced in supporting refugee women to take part in research.
Some of the refugee women who came said they had never participated in such an egalitarian event; one woman said that she had always been wary of academic researchers, due to her negative experiences of participating in research, but that she really felt that her concerns had been heard now. Another woman said that “from today, my life will be different – I don’t have to feel like I am always in the victim role.” For some of the researchers who came, the conversations of the day presented challenges to their ways of working, and there is still much work to be done to uncover deeper, underlying concerns about shared understandings (and possibly misunderstandings) of what ‘research’ is. We’ll be producing a report from the day, referencing the research conducted earlier this year for the Producing Knowledge on Migration conference.
It was a truly amazing day, and we are grateful for everyone who came along. The wide range of organisations - including Survivors Speak Out, Royal Holloway University of London, NatCen, Asylum Aid, Leicester University, Scottish Refugee Council, Leicester City of Sanctuary, Evelyn Oldfield, Refugee Women's Strategy Group, Freedom From Torture and others - demonstrated the value that people in all roles in the research process place on deepening our relationships and our capacity to communicate with each other.
In my experience, it is very rare to collect together in one place such a diverse group of committed people with such varied experience and expertise. It’s not easy to leave overcome our habits of holding onto status or mistrust and enter into conversations with such honesty and respect. So to all who took part, a very big thank you. A big thank you also to Comic Relief, for funding this project as part of our grant. There is much to follow up on from the day, I hope that the funding can be found for this work.