Reflections from RGS AC 2016: Participation and avoiding the ‘lab rat’ effect

Honest confession: as someone who did not begin life as a traditional data junkie or geography pro, I was unsure what to expect when attending my first RGS Annual Conference. Most sessions that I attended were (understandably) presented through a purely academic or professional partner lens, including my own. I presented GIS and mapping tools used in my participatory research, Challenging RISK, to the Day 2 session on resilience and vulnerability. I shared the diverse ways that digital technologies are being applied to explore community preparedness for earthquake and home fire in our case study communities.

However, my favourite session of RGS stood out for challenging the traditional presentation approach; ’“Next to us” thinking and doing: universities working with local communities to promote social justice’, chaired by Lee Crookes (University of Sheffield), shared learnings from the same two case studies, but through the eyes of multiple stakeholders – including a unique view from an actual resident of the participating community.

The University of Reading/Big Local participatory project – Better Connected Whitley – examined the project from three perspectives: the lead researcher, a student partner on the project, and a member of the participating resident group. Presentations explored topics from big picture project approach and challenges, to participant motivation and empowerment, to student engagement and relationship-building with communities. What stood out most to me was the way in which the community participant described why other local participatory projects have been less successful in recruitment and retention: ‘when we feel like lab rats, we don’t appreciate it’.

Before the Better Connected project, community members would ‘notice something, have a rant, then walk away’ rather than engage with local researchers to resolve local problems. Despite being geographically near to the participant homes, the university and its associated researchers were still perceived to be outsiders by the local residents.

By comparison, the engaging structure of this project gave group members control of the narrative, forging closer working relationships between participants and researchers. In return for supporting the research through participation, the group gained added credibility to air its concerns through its affiliation with the University. It was also able to use academic partners as resources to ‘translate’ their issues into a way that is more successfully understood and accepted by local government partners. The trust built between the researchers and community members, as equal partners, facilitated actual change to the local bus routes/timetables, with updates released just last week.

The next case study focused on a shopping centre development in Sheffield. Both the lead researcher and student highlighted the shared spirit of co-production within the group, but faced a different reality when the group depended on the student to develop the actual outputs and plans. There is a clear balance to be maintained between researcher and participants, and the presenters had direct experience with the challenges of building and maintaining local trust. When relationships in the group began to face challenges, a key component of public feedback was that the researchers ‘asked too many questions’. On reflection, the position of the group in Sheffield mirrored earlier concerns expressed by the Reading community member presenter about being participant ‘lab rats’.

Overall, this session provided a unique community perspective on participatory research and reinforced to me the importance of trust and respect in the researcher/participant relationship. I saw strong examples of participants rejecting the idea of being researched on instead of with: a valuable lesson to consider for any academic working with members of the public, but particularly for those of us in participatory research.

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