The MA module Social Research for Social Change is designed for students who want to use their social research skills to make a difference in the world. Students learn how to engage with people and groups outside of universities through their research. Each year, the students develop a project or intervention based around developing engaged research outside the university, and reflect and write about their experience.This page showcases some of the short blog posts previous students have produced about their work on the module. All of the pieces below are shared with authors' permission.
Universal Credit Blog
Following the upheaval of the new welfare system in the United Kingdom in 2013, myself and three other postgraduate students teamed up with Project Resilience to produce a literature review on the new benefits system Universal Credit. Since its implementation there has been a 52% increase in demand at food banks which has led to Project Resilience working with Universal Credit recipients to help them manage their money, and stay informed with changes to their benefits to help prevent financial crisis. The literature review we have created is going to be used as a teaching resource for volunteers, and the leaflet we created will be handed out to service users, so they are able to be informed about benefit changes, in order to be prepared and financially plan their money so they do not reach crisis point.
Our research with Project Resilience is this result of charities and non-governmental organisations being left to deal with the consequences of Universal Credit. It is not uncommon for recipients to wait up to 6 weeks for their first payment, which has resulted in people becoming in debt as they are not offered any support in this waiting period. Mental health charities are voicing their concern as more and more of their service users who have been switched over to universal credit are rapidly deteriorating due to the stress that is caused by this change. Recipients of universal credit are finding it hard to manage their money, as for many, their benefits have become significantly reduced. One of the most hard-hit groups that Universal Credit affects are those with disabilities. The disability living allowance has been reduced by up to 50% for those who do not qualify as severely disabled; and parents are now ostracised for being full time carers to their disabled children, changes in policy has resulted in only one parent being allowed to be the child’s full-time carer, the other must find paid employment.
The reduction in benefits is not the only issue with Universal Credit, there also has been a change in payment schedules; money is now paid monthly rather than fortnightly, housing benefit is now paid to the recipient and not the landlord, and benefits are now paid to one household member, rather than individually. Whilst this may seem to be a simplification of how benefits are paid, charities have spoken how these changes greatly effect their service users. The charity Mind have spoken about the issues their users have with managing their money now its paid monthly as budgeting is an issue for their users. The Homeless Link have voiced their concern due to the change in how housing benefit is paid. The six week wait for initial payment will leave claimants with no financial support during this time which may result in eviction, as rent will not have been paid. Women’s aid are worried about the payment of benefits to a single household member, as this will lead to financial abuse in domestic violence relationships. Universal Credit targets vulnerable people who have to rely on charities due to the government’s failure to support them. Charities are campaigning for policy changes, and working with researchers in order to protect, and prevent people from being affected by this new welfare ‘reform’.
The duties and privileges of academics
Academics and members of community organisations do different things; this might seem obvious, yet, as all obvious things, it is the duty of sociologists to try to figure out why and how. It is also the duty of sociologists to try to bridge the gap between the research of the former and the practice of the latter. As part of my MA in the Warwick Sociology Department, I took a module addressing exactly this, called Social Research for Social Change and run by Hannah Jones.
It is this word that has stuck with me from it, ‘duty’ – although, if I remember correctly, it wasn’t used often, if at all, in the lectures or readings. However, out of the many threads that could be followed throughout the module (and the workshop that my colleagues and I organized as part of it), the one that stood out for me was how privileged members of academia are, be it teachers, researchers, students, or any combination of the three. In spite of the continuous encroachment of business logic and neoliberalism on higher education, universities are still places in which individuals may take years to think and figure things out, analyzing, discussing and critically assessing social issues in papers which often seem to be more oriented inwards towards self-discovery than outwards towards changing the world. I say that without the intention to blame: I am much inclined towards theory and thinking myself and I would never disparage the critical reworking of the self that academics, and especially students, can undergo within higher education. I have become a different person across my study, a change which, for better or for worse, I value deeply and consider to be the bedrock of my education.
This self-reworking, however, needs an awareness that academia is a privileged space for doing it, and that others, whose goals are similar to those of social researchers, do not have the time, the resources, or the energy to do it. More precisely: both academics (at least in sociology departments) and community organisations want to change the world for the better; yet only the former can afford to think about how to do it in articles which get years to be published and books which span over hundreds of pages. While coping with peer-reviews, the research excellence framework, and pension cuts is incredibly stressful, it is a different kind of pressure from that experienced by those who are ‘out there’, on whose work people depend daily and who also need to convince local or national governments that they are worth supporting. What’s even worse is that sometimes academics, unaware of their privileges, invasively carry their practices into a world in which they become obstacles. I believe, then, that the academic duty is that of being flexible and changing our ways, of being aware that we are entering a different world, with different requirements, and different responsibilities. As a personal and theoretical commitment, I believe strongly that academia is valuable, and that the duty is not that of renouncing theory in favour of practive, but of changing the way it is oriented outwards. If sociology, as Les Back argues, is about listening, social researchers need to listen to those whose work is different and shape their support accordingly.
What’s not being said?
Recently I was unable to attend an event I co-organised. My co-organisers filled me in, I read the notes and I listened to the recording, but I still couldn’t conjure up the atmosphere entirely. This got me thinking about communication. Can you really ‘know’ what happened? Whose experiences are you listening to? What biases does their ‘truth’ hide?
Let’s pause here for a moment and look at the wider picture. We’re supposedly living in a ‘post-truth’ society, one that, in the words of BBC journalist Sean Coughlan, is ‘fuelled by emotive arguments rather than fact-checks’. This is a worrying trend. If as a society we are being sold stories as ‘truth’, communication becomes a ‘race to the bottom’ to grab attention, the consequences of which have been as far reaching as Brexit and Donald Trump’s election. What we’re seeing is certain factions of society making any attempt at getting what they want and not listening or understanding other peoples’ ‘truth’. Polarising society as those who are ‘with us’ or ‘against us’ through emotive arguments has left no room for nuanced thinking and no opportunity for a different perspective.
But how does this all relate to the practice of socially engaged research? Let’s backtrack to the event I co-organised. The aim was to bring together academic social researchers and civil society organisations (CSOs) within a workshop setting to see if students could help undertake research that CSOs needed. It was designed to encourage an open discussion and allow participants to listen to alternative perspectives. So far so good. However, two key questions came to mind when I caught-up on the workshop: when does emotion take over the ‘facts’ and whose ‘truth’ are you trying to bring out?
It was clear that the event was emotive for the participants (as is the case for most socially engaged research). It is hard to ignore the sensitive nature of research that is designed to improve peoples’ lives and as a result, it is easy to get stuck fighting for your ‘side’ without stopping to think about the ‘truth’. As social researchers facilitating the event then, it becomes clear we need to spend more time learning how to navigate negotiations against a backdrop of this ‘post-truth’ world.
This is where we can take note from quantitative research methods where a move to end ‘publication bias’ has begun. You can read more about it here, but it is essentially the idea that stronger results are more likely to be published. Challenging this is a move towards a more open form of research, where understanding what hasn’t been published is just as important as understanding what has. If, as socially engaged researchers we’re able to copy this trend, focus in on what’s not being said as much as what is, then we’d be able to have a better understanding of what is ‘really’ happening.
This leaves us with an interesting question next time we undertake socially engaged research: what’s not being said?
Coughlan, S. (2017). What does post-truth mean for a philosopher? BBC News, 12th January. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-38557838
Monogan, J. (2013). Pre-registration in the Social Sciences: A Controversy and Available Resources. Open Knowledge International Blog.
How can student researchers engage with local community organisations to be of value?
This is the question considered by the University of Warwick’s Social Research for Social Justice module when debating ways of working with groups to support collaborative research that could make a difference and also strengthen community-university partnerships.
A report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in 2012, suggests universities should be doing more to help disadvantaged people, which could be achieved by providing access to opportunities, resources and expertise. Students being one source of expertise with time and enthusiasm. Volunteering amongst students has a strong tradition at Warwick but what about research and academic skills we may have to offer? Science Shops were highlighted by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation as being of potential mutual benefit; providing a brokerage service where students could be matched with community organisations that are in need of help with small-scale research and projects. These are not just restricted to social science but disciplines across the university, who want the opportunity to work within and make a valuable contribution to community organisations. Successful model variations have provided 100s of student placements each year at Queen’s University Belfast, Bournemouth and London School of Economics. The group set out to find if there were a need and demand to provide similar opportunities at Warwick.
An initial consultation with Warwickshire Community and Voluntary Action (WCAVA), an umbrella organisation providing support for charities and small groups countywide, gave positive feedback. They believed a Science Shop style brokerage between the university and smaller organisations, could be a valuable resource especially in a climate where the need to provide evidence of ‘impact’ is vital to gain and retain funding.
The community engagement workshop was an important step for creating open discussions with representatives from the university, students and local organisations, such as Citizens Advice Bureau, The Trussell Trust and Extra Care Charitable Trust. The aim was to discover if it was feasible for the University of Warwick to create a similar set-up to Science Shops, which could facilitate projects for students and community partnerships. Was this an idea that all stakeholders would find of interest and be mutually beneficial?
Using a World Cafe format, where participants were encouraged to discuss the notions of community, engagement and research in small groups, allowing the energetic sharing of views, information and experiences. Recording thoughts and discussions onto large paper tablecloths, participants then move around groups to read other ideas and hear new perspectives. The whole group feedback and conversation provided insight on what a university-community partnership should look like and important issues to consider when trying to create meaningful short-term placements. The Science Shop model was highlighted as being an ideal focal point for organisations, which had previously struggled to find relevant university contacts; however, flexibility and the building of trust were seen as vital for successful student-community organisation relationships.
Observations and evaluation developed from the workshop will feed into a wider university community engagement plan and hopefully be the first step towards more coordinated student collaborations that enable research-based relationships with organisations and contributing to positive social change within the local community.
Practice of socially engaged research
Injustice makes me angry. Poverty, poor health care, educational inequality, gender pay gap, social exclusion are some examples of injustices that we come across every day. Yet, these examples are not new. Injustice is embedded deep in our society and most importantly in our consciousness. We see it, we experience it, but most of the time we think that we cannot do anything about it.
Since I can remember myself, I have always wanted to change the world. I have always believed that a small step at a time, a small act could make the difference. But, I was angry that I could not change the bigger picture.
Why all this injustice in the world and what can we do for change?
The answer to this may come from socially engaged research. Inspired by ideas of scholars, I understood that change comes only through democracy and solidarity. But before that, we need to understand deeper structures that promote and maintain injustice. The worst factor in this is our own consciousness. The ideas and beliefs that render us powerless against our oppressors. It is our consciousness that creates power relations, our weakness to seek for truth. As academic researchers, we may feel powerless or guilty and sometimes unable to act for justice. Nevertheless, if we decide to work on issues concerned with social justice, our contribution can be essential in the struggle for change.
As a postgraduate student, I had the chance to become a socially engaged researcher. That was the time when I felt that I can do something to change the bigger picture. As a part of our postgraduate ‘Social Research for Social Change’ module, we organised a public workshop that aims at change. We invited representatives of local social organisations to participate in order to promote research collaboration with the university and contribute in their struggle for justice. Our aims and objectives stemmed from socially engaged theory. The main idea was to promote democratic deliberations for a learning dialogue between stakeholders, in order to provide space for discussions and work collaboratively for change.
While the future possibilities of the workshop are not yet known, the learning experience from the process was unique. The idea to engage people from both the university and the local community and bring them together for learning dialogue is an important step for change. I feel that dialogue between stakeholders can eliminate power relations that might exist, and promote collaboration and solidarity. Despite the outcome and the future possibilities, I passionately believe that the first step for change was through this meeting. Maybe, justice is not only about changing the bigger picture after all, but it can be achieved by small steps at a time. I think that this meeting was held successfully because both sides acknowledge the need for justice and change, and a prerequisite for this is free consciousness. Thus, I am confident to say that where there are free consciousness and free thinking, there is also hope for change and justice.
From Café Discussions to Actual Practice
I have participated recently in planning and hosting a workshop on community engaged research. The goal of this workshop was basically to bring students, academics, and community organisations together in conversation about best ways possible to achieve social change within our community through research.
Reflecting on this now, as the students planning the workshop, we seemed to believe that all of the people who end up attending it do share the desire for making positive change and are working earnestly to make it happen! And I am glad to confirm that we were right!
My favourite part of the workshop which I would like to share with you in this article was the Global Café. Popular in interactive workshops, Global Café is used as a tool to explore ideas and provide space for each opinion to be freely expressed and discussed in a relaxed and friendly atmosphere. Therefore, it makes sense that we thought of it as an effective tool in achieving the goal of the workshop.
In a global café, ideas that are believed to be important to the discussion are framed as questions and each question is placed on a separate table! Then participants are split into groups, with their tees and coffees in their hands (hence the term café!), each group sits around one of the tables and start discussing the questions and write their answers on whatever is covering the table (those white table clothes were brilliant idea!).
Now, I would have loved to say that it took us a long time of thinking and debating to decide on the questions that we think relevant to the overall discussion, however, the truth is , it took us less that 3 hours to come up with what we believed to be the perfect questions! The process went as such: We started by asking ourselves: What are the key questions to ask regarding community engaged research? Hold on, but what does research actually mean? Better yet, what does community mean? And, what are we really talking about when we talk about engagement?! Thus, our three main questions were alive!
We decided that instead of answering these question by ourselves, why not explore the answers together with people whose work revolve around these concepts. Indeed, academics, students and NGO representatives sat together and attempted possible answers. As a participant in this Global café, I can say that we were examining the concepts of Research, Community, and Engagement as if we have been introduced to them for the first time. Through this exchange of ideas and experiences, we were re-defining what community engaged research means without a singular viewpoint dominating the conversation or imposing definite answers.
How perfect it would be to take such a conversation further and with the same openness and transparency seek to design a research approach to social change within the community starting with the very basic concepts we all thought that we understood! Based on what I have witnessed, I believe that we can do it, together!
The Social Research for Social Change module provided a space for us to share our hope and anger and how this motivates us towards social justice research. We quickly realised how many social issues we were passionate about, and how unsurmountable they often seemed, and so started to uncover what role we might be able to play as student researchers. We started by considering what socially engaged research should look like, and how universities and researchers can better collaborate with their local communities, and made this the focus of our public workshop. One of the issues raised at the workshop was the view that research which truly seeks to engage the community, and work to solve social issues, should start not from the point of research but from the point of collaboration. In other words, the researcher should not approach the community itself or groups working in the community with a research interest, but should participate in their lives and work in order to uncover what research would be of use to them. Failure to do this risks perpetuating unequal power dynamics and could limit the impact of social justice research. For research to be able to advocate and enact real social change, researchers must draw upon the expertise of communities experiencing social issues. In this respect, an additional responsibility of researchers concerned with social justice could be relinquishing control over elements of the research process itself.
Systems within universities currently often do not help facilitate more collaborative forms of research, particularly for postgraduate student researchers. Ethical approval processes require formulation of research topics prior to approaching groups or participants and as such limit potential collaborations. They also fail to fully acknowledge the agency of collaborators and participants as the focus on reducing harm fails to consider the possible benefits of research participation, or allow groups and individuals to weigh this up for themselves. The limited nature of current research frameworks for enabling collaboration reinforces the importance of honesty and communication throughout the research process. These issues can be overcome, providing there is sufficient honesty about limitations from the outset.
A key factor we had considered theoretically prior to our event was how to avoid fatigue from over-consultation and the importance of recognising the value of organisations time and resources. This has impact not only on participation in research itself, but on ability to attend consultation and workshop events. It is important to remain wary of this and ensure that efforts are made to engage a broad variety of community groups. We were limited by our own time and resources in our ability to do this, but future longer term projects would benefit from investing time building relationships and providing more hands on support. In contrast, collaboration can assist in minimising fatigue and wasted resources in research through ensuring a common or compatible vision from the outset. Discussions at the workshop reinforced this, and reminded me of the importance of considering all stakeholders. Working with community groups and individuals on research relating to social change enables representation of relevant concerns, rather than topics which may solely be of academic interest, and encourages concrete outcomes.
Naomi Rose Barker
Without Reaching the Community, How Can You Impact It?
Since starting my postgraduate degree at the University of Warwick, every time I am faced with a
reading that is written in a high level of sophisticated English that needs ‘’decoding’’ to be
understood, I ask myself: Who does even read this? Then I wonder if it is only me feeling this way
because I am a non-native speaker. Not until I discussed this topic with my English class-mates and
some confirmed that even them think the someway sometimes.
The second term, I took a module called Social Research for Social Change (Because why not change
the world if you can, right?) and then, my questioning about knowledge, research and academia took
another level. The disconnection between academic knowledge and the ‘’real world’’ is not a matter
of language or accessibility alone. It is a matter of practicality and relevance as well.
It all started when I read ‘The impact of the “impact agenda” – the research collaboration between
academia and civil society organisations’ by Eiri Ohtani. The article questions if academics and CSOs
are allies striving to achieve the same goal with both having a different theory of change and
approach to social justice issues. It opened my eyes to the fact that our research might not be as
beneficial to the CSO as we might think it is. Furthermore, to achieve a successful, really beneficial,
collaboration, we have to be flexible and adjust our plans to fit in the CSOs’ agenda that we often
After that, we as a class created a workshop to strengthen the links between researchers at the
University of Warwick and civil society organisations (CSOs) in Coventry. The outcome of this
workshop was that the power-dynamics between researchers and CSOs have to change first.
Academic institutions should not only find their roles in local communities but also accept the
knowledge produced from CSOs as significant for creating change, although it might not fit in the
mould of mainstream academic knowledge. If we to bring communities into our research, we have to
leave our academic bubble.
In my head, I could even hear David Attenborough narrating: After observing the community from his
ivory tower, the academic wrote research on community's struggles that sat on the shelf of the library
Academics invest significant efforts in producing input that cannot reach everyone in society and only
can be read by the elites, who are a minority that either has access to it or can afford to purchase it. I
think, even social media influencers, can influence change better than us. They have the ability to
reach out to a broad audience by communicating their message through Social Media platforms like
Facebook and Instagram. Isn’t that; reaching people, what we should aim for?
The responsibility of change is on us, academics. Our efforts should be put towards finding out ways
to make academic research impactful and to influence positive social change.
How can our research target and reach a broad audience? And how can we make academic knowledge
accessible to everyone?