The Balancing Act for Barnwood Researchers
Relationships, robust analysis, and answering complex questions.
We’re an unusual research team, having spent several years working right alongside the people we interview. Now we’re at the stage of analysing all the data we’ve gathered, we are having to think really hard about how we do justice to the information we’ve generously been given.
It’s no easy feat to provide findings which are useful and timely, and honour the hard work, time and trust of the people we’ve developed relationships with. It means being as objective and thorough as we can – while also being as concise and clear as possible. This is a really exciting opportunity but it’s tricky for a number of reasons; not least because it’s complicated material which doesn’t lend itself well to short, simple answers.
Analysing your workmates: How to do research when you’re super involved
I’m sitting in front of a screen, reading through an interview for probably the fourteenth time; thinking hard. Next to me are Roz and Dan, who are doing exactly the same thing. We’re surrounded by Post-It notes and mind maps, scribbled notes and ballooning spreadsheets, and half a dozen cups of increasingly tepid tea. All of this reading, thinking, writing, re-writing, organising and reorganising our thoughts – as well as the truly heroic tea-drinking – is all part of the exciting (and sometimes exasperating) stage of the research process called analysis. This is where the magic happens, where we can weave together strands of mysterious information into understanding – but sometimes, it can feel as though the rabbit is clinging to the bottom of the hat, stubbornly refusing to come out.
There’s a lot for us to think about. Always at the top of our minds is trying to do justice to the stories that people have so generously given us. The people who have come into contact with the Trust in one way or another have shared with us their experiences: of passions discovered, of communities made, of joys rekindled; as well as, of hardship, of isolation, of pain. In talking to people, we have often felt how much people wanted to give back to Barnwood – and by sharing their experiences with us, they have indeed given something of real value.
We feel keenly our responsibility to recognise and honour that value, and the emotional impact for the people who shared with us.
We are also lucky to have had so much generous time from our colleagues, who over two or three years have regularly shared with us their developing practice, their triumphs and anxieties, and the unfolding stories of the people they work with. We have inevitably developed personal relationships with our colleagues over this time, which has been really wonderful – we’ve met pets and visited homes and gained gardening tips and sometimes life advice; we’ve made, dare we say it, good friends. This puts us in quite an unusual position as researchers and gives us much to think about.
It’s pretty unusual for an organisation like ours to have such a long-term, embedded qualitative research programme. Being ‘insider’ researchers is a massive privilege, and means that we’re able to work in ways that external researchers might not be able to as easily. We’re able to build relationships with people, to have regular engagement over a long period of time, and to develop a much richer ‘big-picture’ understanding of Barnwood and all its programmes of work. It’s also more complex, for a number of reasons. We’re researchers employed by the Trust, researching the work done by our colleagues and friends, and evaluating the programmes of our own employer – programmes about which we inevitably have developed personal views and thoughts.
All of this means that in this mysterious, alchemical analysis phase, we need to be as thorough, objective, and accurate as possible. It’s worth saying, though, that our aim to be as ‘objective as possible’ is not actually that straightforward – it may not even be achievable, for any researcher! We’re not computers, we’re people, and we have lived different lives in different places with different heartaches and achievements – and no matter how hard we might try, we of course will bring all of that to the analysis. Sometimes, this can actually be useful: our understanding of a particular situation might be richer if we’ve experienced something similar in our personal lives. Sometimes, though, it might mean we’re at risk of bias. What we do try to do, though, is to acknowledge and reflect on how our own identities and ideas might interact with our analysis, to be as transparent as possible about how they might make a difference. We have also found and built in ways to explicitly identify and name our own assumptions so that we can check them against the data we have in front of us.
Our processes are really grounded in the data itself – we work hard to see what’s actually in there, rather than what we expect to be there; we constantly remind ourselves to be open-minded about unexpected findings. Above all, we’re staying as faithful to the data as we possibly can. This is the best way we can find to really honour the time and emotional energy that our colleagues, and the people they have worked with, have poured into this work.
No shortcuts to learning: How to avoid easy answers and embrace messy reality
As researchers we’re aware that, as well as being thorough and objective and sensitive, our work also needs to be useful – and that means that we need to be timely, concise, and clear, and to feed into programmes of work that want our input at a time that makes sense for them. Balancing out the need for thoroughness and detail – to deliver the fullest understanding possible – with the need to provide concise findings at a reasonable time can be a challenge; one we’re still working through (and are making good progress towards!). It can also be tricky to plan our timings, as sometimes the data throws up surprises and takes us in directions that we hadn’t expected.
What can be one of our most significant challenges is providing concise, definitive findings. Questions like ‘Does Community Building work?’ or ‘What’s the best way to support somebody starting a new activity?’ seem simple – but the answers are often really complicated. This is because we’re dealing with people – and people, funnily enough, are all different, have different lives, and tend to respond in different ways. What ‘works’ for Jack, who lives in Westgate, uses a wheelchair, and receives care from his mum will obviously be very different to what ‘works’ for Julie, who lives outside Cirencester, has anxiety, and is a single parent of two young children.
Then there’s the more fundamental question: What does ‘this worked’ mean? For Lola, who is lonely and hasn’t used her sewing skills for years, starting a new sewing group and meeting two new friends is a wonderful outcome. For Simon, who has long-term mental health challenges and spent several years too anxious to go out, being able to walk to his doctors’ appointment alone may be just as momentous. But without knowing the context of Lola and Simon’s lives, you might conclude that the activity which led to someone starting a new group and making new friends might ‘work better’ than the activity which led to someone walking to the doctors.
And that’s before we even get started trying to worked out to what extent Barnwood’s activity is the thing that made the difference – what if at the same time as working with Barnwood, Simon had started seeing a new mental health professional, or changed his medication? What if Lola had just been given a new council house in a more vibrant community?
Our challenge is to avoid trying to provide the tempting ‘easy’ answers – to measure one outcome against another, and declare one way of working as the winner – but instead to explain and explore how different activities have worked in different ways with different people. As Toby Lowe describes in his excellent blog on evaluation, ‘We’d all feel more comfortable in a simple world where progress could be tracked in a linear way. But everyone knows that’s not the reality: the world is complex… So… what if we abandoned the pretence that the world is simple…?’
Our aim is not, after all, to provide answers; our aim is to provide learning. And we passionately believe that there is profoundly valuable learning to be found in exploring all the messy, real complexity of peoples’ lives and how they interact with what Barnwood offers them. We think we’re discovering some real treasure here, and we can’t wait to share it with you.