Collaborative Research for More Democratic Policy
“…politicians don’t live our lives and have no intentions of living our lives – you with me? They just make decisions about our lives, even though they know nothing about it.”
This was Jane, a participant in our Everyday Life in Salford project. Politics feels very distant to the experiences of a great many people at the moment, myself included. Jane’s statement is far from unique. We heard similar sentiments in north Manchester a few years ago for our research with marginalised majority communities, where one 32 year old man told us that ‘politicians promise you the world and then drop you on your ar*e’. This disconnect is not just felt with elected officials, but also with more faceless policy elites who shape the world around us.
As researchers, we can see it through the way that ‘evidence based policy making’ is framed. It has become an ‘essentially quantitative agenda’ that leaves little space for perspectives generated from lived experience. The insights from people who are living with a low income, or who have been through a particular intervention remain de-valued. Being more inclusive of such evidence could add to our knowledge and collective ability to positively deal with social issues.
So, what can be done? As our contribution to addressing this, my co-Director Amina and I set up the Social Action & Research Foundation to explore an alternative approach to develop policy that is closer to the people who are directly affected by it. It is something I am also doing through my PhD at the University of Manchester on the politics of poverty and policy evaluation.
Collaborative research is one way that we can make policy more democratic. For me, academics and policy researchers should aim to produce work that is ‘both responsive and relevant to the public with whom they work’ (Lassiter, 2005: 6). In an increasingly complex world, it is not possible to ever fully represent the full range of human experiences, and so in an attempt to do as best as possible, we need to draw upon all the different insights available. This gives us more opportunities to develop alternatives. Through collaboration with people that have lived experiences of marginalisation, together with our sociological analysis, there is better hope. This can develop into what Michael Burawoy identifies as ‘mutual education’ in which we share our different knowledge and capabilities to generate knowledge and ideas for social action.
SARF has always aimed to support communities to share their lived experiences and connect this to issues of public policy. The work presented in Everyday Life in Salford does exactly that. As a result of workshops, photography and discussions with six people over a period of three months, the book reveals some of the intricacies of the authors’ lives while connecting these to wider structural injustices that are made visible through the daily challenges that they confront.
Each participant took photographs that reflected their sources of everyday support and also issues that caused struggles or anxieties, and then shared the story behind their photographs. Through these stories, we also considered how personal troubles were collective issues that related to wider social issues that affected the whole community. The group then worked with a graphic designer to represent this through a series of coproduced infographics.
The Everyday Life in Salford project supported participants to recognise their own assets more clearly. One of the participants, Glyn noted that “sometimes you only look at the negatives and don’t see the positives, but by going out and taking these pictures it reminds you of what’s good about your life”. It also supported the group to identify actions to get involved in with the aim of generating social transformation at a local level, and was seen as a way to support other ‘everyday people’; Jane hoped that, ‘…it will make people realise that they aren’t daft buggers – that they are normal, that there are other people who go through similar things”. Politically, the work has been shared with the local council and will help to inform the local anti-poverty strategy. The response from elected officials has been positive, with them stating that the way it has been presented can encourage empathy among policy-makers and that provides a welcome addition beyond statistics.
Politics is undoubtedly distant, but decisions that are made by elites affect our daily lives, especially those of the most vulnerable in society. Theresa May has spoken this week about ‘everyday injustices’ but the detail on what these are, or the causes behind them are yet to be elaborated upon. Work like Everyday Life in Salford can add in-depth understanding and can make policy more democratic.
As policy researchers, we can work collaboratively with people experiencing hardship to document individual problems and connect this to public issues to begin to develop alternative approaches to address poverty and marginalisation.
First published by Public Policy Institute for Wales