Government and third sector bodies are increasingly willing to acknowledge that the expertise of people with direct experience of social exclusion is unique and invaluable. User involvement or coproduction approaches are increasingly sophisticated and prevalent, with examples of people with lived experience getting involved in running organisations, designing national programmes, training and recruiting staff, shaping commissioning and political influencing.
Peer research is a distinct type of service user involvement extending the expertise of experience into research. Often, it is propelled by an academic body or third sector organisation having a particular interest in coproduction approaches. In peer research people with direct experience are involved in designing, delivering and shaping research. Peers generally take on the role of the researcher in studying the target group; they are often researching their peers.
The report, entitled “Refreshing Perspectives: Exploring the application of peer research with populations facing severe and multiple disadvantage” is (typically) thorough; it starts by considering key concepts of peer research including:
- What defines a peer?
- Who creates knowledge?
- Blurring the boundaries (us and them),
- Power imbalances,
- Promoting social change, and
- Who and what is peer research for?
It goes on to look at practical considerations; in particular:
- Which stages of the research process do peers get involved in?
- Legacy and dissemination,
- Which stakeholders should be involved in peer research?
- How does peer involvement bring about benefits to research?
- Improving quality,
- Training and development,
- Recruitment of peer researchers, and
- Personal benefits of being a peer researcher.
Before looking at ethics in peer research.
As someone who has made extensive use of peer research over the last fifteen years, in particular to understand local drug markets and explore the experience of being on probation, I was particularly interested in some of the key insights generated by the literature review. I discuss some of these briefly below.
The report summarises learning from the literature about what is needed from professionals who want to get involved in peer research:
There are a number of skills and qualities required for professionals to work with peer researchers, which include a willingness to be challenged and to give up one’s voice, and a commitment to reducing stigma and exclusion.
In my experience, this is absolutely right. If you want to get the benefits of peer research, it’s important to trust the process and act on the findings of peer researchers. My experience is that full involvement of peer researchers makes this process much easier — where individuals have been involved in deciding on research questions and designing questionnaires and interview schedules, any misunderstandings or differences of opinion can be resolved in an open, respectful way.
Revolving Doors identifies the critical issue of what happens once the research is completed:
How can projects use the expertise of experience to disseminate the findings? Possible approaches include user-led training, public speaking, and community organising.
One thing that I’ve learnt from my experience of training peer researchers is that many participants are least confident when it comes to presenting their work. Even individuals who appeared confident and were prepared to argue strongly for their point of view tended to suddenly be unavailable on the day when they were due to present their research.
I learnt to dedicate plenty of time to practise and rehearsing presentation skills and to share presentation with as many peer researchers as possible so that everyone was in it together and only had to focus on presenting one or two slides. Interestingly, once participants had survived the formal part of the presentation, most were much more confident at responding to questions from even quite “senior” figures in the audience.
The sense of achievement also meant that public speaking in other forms was much less daunting going forwards.
Recruiting dissatisfied service users
One of the key benefits of working with peer researchers is that it allows you to reach the people that other methods cannot. As the report puts it:
Many areas of social policy enquiry would benefit from access to a more diverse sample and participants who do not necessarily engage with services.
When reviewing, for example, a drug treatment service it was even more important to get the views of those not using the service than those who did. Peer researchers typically had many friends and acquaintances who were actively using drugs but not in treatment and were well-placed to gain their views. In this situation, it’s very important to make sure peer researchers are well-supported and make careful choices about where to undertake interviews. It’s imperative not to put any peer researchers in recovery in situations which might prompt a relapse.
The future of peer research
The report concludes by hoping that the debate is moving on from “should we do peer research?” to “how best can we do peer research?” and ends with a strong commitment to its importance:
Peer research is ethically imperative – and should be done in an ethical manner. This includes transparency, and professionals taking care to avoid excluding difficult voices and /or being tokenistic in how and why people are involved. In this sense, peer research echoes wider considerations of service user involvement. At its most ambitious it can challenge power dynamics, bring considerable personal benefits to peer researchers themselves and create powerful new knowledge in the field of multiple disadvantage research.
Recovering drug and alcohol users looking for employment in the substance misuse sector might be interested in the apprenticeships currently on offer with RAPt – details on the jobs board.