What do we consider to be ‘good’ research? How is it developed, what does it explore, how is it presented – and who’s to judge? Historically, academic and specialist institutions have led the way. But the picture is evolving. Community approaches and peer-to-peer methods are growing in popularity and reputation, increasingly recognised for bringing deep insights and drawing diverse voices into what has, all too often, been a narrow profession.
The impact of Covid
Within a few months of coronavirus hitting the UK, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) launched the Kickstart scheme. Fearing a wave of youth unemployment, this sought to create new jobs for 16- to 24-year-olds on Universal Credit, who were considered at risk of long-term unemployment. At The Young Foundation, the scheme was a way to reach and support young people into social research – which wasn’t a career many in our target demographic had considered before or knew about. Among those that had heard of social research, all too often, they saw it as an opaque, ivory-tower profession, locked within research institutions and universities.
Covid lockdowns pushed everyone out of the workplace, forcing employers to consider different ways of working. For the research profession, that often meant moving out of buildings and into communities, generating ‘good’ research that was closer to, and more representative of, those whose voices it sought to elevate. Peer research methods can, in the right circumstances, deliver more authentic insights than traditional ‘top down’ research methods. At the same time, peer researchers often connect with people who may not otherwise be involved in research, including groups who are ‘less heard’ and ensuring their voices influence decision and policy making informed by peer research.
Shaking things up
We saw Kickstart as a chance to shake up our own approaches to social research and recruited a cohort of 22 young people from a broad range of backgrounds to become full time peer researchers embedded in our team. From May 2021 to July 2022, we worked with three cohorts of peer researchers supporting them to build skills to design and deliver research. They led their own work, creating reports that covered issues from fatphobia to financial literacy and a lot more besides. As an organisation, we have learnt a huge amount as a result of growing and diversifying our research team during this period. Feedback from the peer researchers has informed our hiring, onboarding and training processes. Five young researchers have been employed post-Kickstart, and they are bringing new and diverse perspectives to various projects across The Young Foundation.
What works (and what doesn’t)
Beyond our own team, we are striving to shift the dial on what ‘good’ research looks like via our Peer Research Network. This is a space for organisations and individuals to come together and share learning on what works (and doesn’t) when conducting peer and participatory research.
The Network was created based on learning from our scoping report, Peer Research in the UK, understanding what ‘good’ looks like in peer research being delivered across the country. This review of almost 50 peer research projects revealed that, while peer and participatory methods are being embraced as ways to meaningfully involve communities in generating evidence, a lack of evaluations of this type of work makes it hard to know where research is high quality and what impact these methods are actually having. We are addressing this through piloting a peer research evaluation framework with Partnership for Young London.
Time to diversify
In a (post)-pandemic world, where hybrid and remote work are increasingly possible, greater opportunity should be blossoming for a range of people to conduct ‘good’, robust, representative research – regardless of their location or circumstance.
We know the social research profession desperately needs to diversify, and our experience shows that peer research methods can reach a broader range of people with the talent and ambition to excel – and an approach that delivers deep and honest insights.
We recently published an evaluation of our Kickstart experience. If you are evaluating a peer research project, or interested in doing so in future, we would love to hear from you. Please sign up to our Peer Research Network.