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Supporting community voices: the power of ethnographic, participatory and peer research

Monica Nagore and Rebecca Watterson, The Young Foundation, UK

Community-led innovation has experienced significant growth and support in the past few years, as reflected in the Social Innovation Community (SIC) community-led innovation network – a group of people across Europe dedicated to developing and disseminating community-led innovation tools, methods and ideas.  Monica Nagore and Rebecca Watterson from The Young Foundation are coordinating the community-led innovation network.  In this article, Rebecca shares some insights into how we can support communities to build and tell their own stories, and why this is crucial to community-led innovation.

Community-led innovation looks and feels a little different to more traditional innovation processes, which might be conducted in an organisation, or more structured environment. As a tool for social change, more than any other kind of innovation process, community-led innovation has the potential to include the lived experiences and knowledge of those who would directly benefit from positive change in their communities. 

By supporting community-led innovation, we are recognising people as experts in identifying the issues they face, while also affirming their ability to create bottom-up initiatives for change, that are just as valid, and arguably more likely to be successful than traditional top-down approaches.  Community –led innovation can involve aspects such as co-creation, on which I will be writing a second blog in the coming weeks, and ethnographic and participatory research.

How do we really ‘hear’ the experiences and solutions of people?

Ethnographic, participatory and peer research techniques support community voices to be heard.  These methods focus on real-life experiences and actions, and also challenge the power dynamic of ‘researcher’ and ‘subject’, by seeing both as equal partners in the research process. People are given opportunity to analyse and reflect on the generated research to uncover the narratives of the community they are a part of. 

It can be difficult for grassroots communities, or marginalised people, to have their views heard or feel that they could influence public policy, which can make them feel like they don’t have a voice, or that their experiences aren’t valued. 71% of people in Britain feel they have not much or no control over the decisions that affect their neighbourhood and local community (Commission on the Future of Localism: Polling Findings). Ethnographic, participatory and peer research addresses this through listening as well as action. Communities and individuals are encouraged to think about possible solutions to the social issues they identify, and actions which could be developed as community-led solutions for change. This is one way that we can support communities to articulate their experiences and views and ensure they are heard by policy makers, and also to identify and develop innovative solutions to issues that can be taken forward.

Our Amplify process, has been designed and developed by the Young Foundation in partnership with communities. Amplify responds to the real, lived experiences of people and the communities in which they live and is based on the principles of listening deeply and treading carefully. It combines research, community engagement and action to spark new ideas for tackling the key challenges faced by communities.

An example of this is our Amplify NI programme where we encourage and support ethnographic, participatory and peer research across Northern Ireland communities.  This enables them to articulate their understandings of inequalities, the assets that exist in their communities, as well as their aspirations for change.  We encourage community researchers to uncover the stories and narratives of the places they live, or communities who have similar experiences to them, and then support them to achieve a sense of ownership over this research, as well as the possible actions that could, and do, develop out of it.

Getting people to tell their stories is a powerful way of researching. Stories exist and belong to each person and each community, and as such they are powerful – holding the ability to explain their current realities, as well as holding the power to prompt change.  Storytelling can be either experiences shared in an individual research interview, or it can be a whole community sharing their stories together.  Both are important and valid, and both can identify possibilities for change and co-create means and momentum to achieve that change.

Why ethnographic and participatory approaches?

There are of course both benefits and challenges to using a participatory approach, but in community-led innovation, we are leading the way in recognising people as experts in their own lives, and encouraging them to take ownership of solutions to social issues, both in their local communities and on wider systemic issues.

The benefits of ethnographic, participatory and peer research

  • Recognises people as experts in their own lives: By listening deeply and seeing participants as equal members in the research process.
  • Capacity affirming for participants: Recognises the actions that people are already taking in their communities and offers support to these actions and innovations.
  • The potential to capture voices of those otherwise unheard: ethnography and participatory/ peer research attempts to engage people ‘where they are at’ and as such is able to reach audiences that are possibly excluded from more formal forms of research.
  • Amplifies voices that are often ignored: Not only does it access the ‘unusual suspects’ but by bringing people together to share their stories it gives opportunities for these unheard voices to be recognised and amplified.
  • Empowerment: Allows people to take control of the research process and any subsequent actions.

And some of the challenges

  • Time consuming:It can be quite a lengthy process to recruit participants and collaborators, and to support them through the entire research process.
  • May replicate existing power structures within communities:
  • Often involves small groups of people and therefore the findings may not be generalizable: Due to the focus on individual experience, and lived-realities which may be specific to a certain place/ community.
  • May be difficult to reach a consensus:because each person has different lived experiences.

Where do I start if I want to do ethnographic and participatory research?

There are many different methods and techniques that can be used in participatory research such as:

It can often be useful to begin with some ‘appreciative inquiry’ techniques such as:

Amplify NI has developed an appreciative inquiry toolkit to begin to explore communities, and discuss things that are loved, as well as things that offer opportunities for change and social action.

We would love to hear about different approaches you are using, or perhaps you have a toolkit that you would like to share with us? 

In the following weeks we are holding a webinar on an introduction to ethnographic, participatory and peer research methods.  If you are interested in attending, please let us know sending an email to monica.nagore@youngfoundation.org.

If you are interested in discussing this article, please let Rebecca know (rebecca.watterson@youngfoundation.org).

Sign up to be part of the SIC community led innovation network here!