Introducing ‘Project 8’

Submitting my PhD this week marked the official end of the ‘Passage from India’ project and so I have started to turn my attention to the question of ‘what next?’ Gill and I will be working on ‘Project 8’ over the next two years and sat down to talk about the specifics of work. It has has always seemed like the far off project in the distance, answers to many questions over the past couple of years have been; ‘Well that’s for project 8 to address’ and now it’s time to grapple with some of those questions…

The research conducted throughout the CommonHealth programme is designed to explore some of the concepts included in the following model (based on a paper you can find here):

conceptual model

This looks complex, but in its simplest form shows the variety of mechanisms through which a social enterprise might improve health and wellbeing. Although this is based on a variety of  existing theories and concepts, there are very few studies that relate specifically to social enterprises. As CommonHealth researchers our job is to contributeevidence to refine, develop some of the assumptions behind this model. This will be an important aspect of project 8 as we look at some of the emerging themes from projects 1, 2 and 4 and ask how these might relate to various aspects within the model.

One such theme relates to the value of work which has been an important consideration of all the projects thus far. In project 1 Gill noted that Scottish community businesses were often concerned with ‘recruiting people who had been unemployed for many years due to the economic crisis of the 1970s and dramatic changes in the infrastructure of the Scottish economy’. In his work on project 2 Bobby undertook a case study of a work integration social enterprise and interviewed people who placed a huge amount of importance on on their work, knowing that they may not find employment elsewhere. Often their answers related to a sense of purpose and belonging. In my own work on ‘Passage from India’ I have been considering the value of work and whether it lies in the monetary reward or if there are other aspects of work that make it good for health and wellbeing? Perhaps this is one of the key mechanisms by which social enterprises can impact on health and wellbeing?

Watch this space as we start to address this and other important questions about health, wellbeing and social enterprises.

Clementine Hill O’Connor

Still Living and Practicing Social Enterprise (part two)

On Friday 17th June Yunus Centre hosted a workshop ‘Still Living and Practicing Social Enterprise’ here at GCU. It was the second in what we hope will be an annual event that considers the potential for ethnography to explore questions emerging from the field of social enterprise research.We heard from: Anna Kopec, University of Northamption; Richard Hull, Goldsmiths; Aurelie Soetens, Univeristy of Liege; Iain Cairns, Glasgow Caledonian University and Juli Qermezi Huang, London School of Economics.

Thanks to all the presenters and the engaged audience that made for an interesting and inspiring day.In this blog Danielle and Clementine from the CommonHealth team reflect on a second key theme from the day that resonates with our own work which also uses ethnography.

Embracing Messiness

We’ve been mulling over one of the comments from the audience at our Ethnography and Social Enterprise event on 17th June 2016. We were encouraged to think about what is ‘unuttered’ within organisations, to observe surprises and spontaneity and to embrace that this would be an inevitably messy process. In the specific context of social enterprises it is important that researchers consider: complexities of relationships; emotional responses; policy; practice; rhetoric and reality within a whole range of different actors. The question then becomes, how do we present our findings so that they are convincing and useful?

The fieldnotes of ethnographers include typed, written and scribbled notes, photos, diagrams or physical artefacts. It can be messy and daunting for the researcher! We must then step away from the field in order to begin to explore ways to understand what we have seen and identify the best way for us to structure this for an audience.

The style of ethnographic writing allows for some of this ‘messiness’ to continue as we weave a narrative throughout our presentations, papers, articles or thesis. This was shown to great effect in a number of the presentations that relied on powerful descriptive vignettes that gave some structure to the messy data that is generated. The vignettes used highlighted the tensions and contradictions within the field, raised questions and peaked interest before delving into the significance of the events described and putting them in a wider theoretical and empirical context.

Ethnography allows us to consider the messiness of the world around us, forces us to recognise that which goes unsaid and can generate descriptive and detailed accounts of people, places, events or organisation. This is important in the field of social enterprise to allow for nuanced analysis and space for a critique. It also addresses the need to recognise the importance of a smile! Though subtle, this is an important impact, as defined by one of the social enterprises present at the recent Knowledge Exchange Forum (see here), and so we should find ways to capture and present this type of impact. Ethnography, in all its wonderful messiness, might be one such way we hope to do that!

Clementine Hill OConnor and Danielle Kelly

Artistic License

Last week’s blog looked at the relationship between art and social enterprise, and what particularly stood out to me was the idea that art can facilitate community expression.

800px-5397_-_Give_a_hand_against_homophobia_-_L'amore_spiazza,_Pavia_16_May_2010_-_Foto_Giovanni_Dall'Orto

As academic researchers we may strive to collect information from communities that can be objectified and rationalised, using mediums like interviews, focus groups, or perhaps even a bit of participant observation. The community talks to us, we write it down, then we display this in fancy reports or papers for peer reviewed journals in our quest for institutional credibility. However, the combined effort of using big long words and academic jargon can serve to isolate the very population we may be looking at, and they may be left feeling underrepresented by our own bias. This leaves us asking how we can fully represent communities through our outputs, and who is this for? This is a conversation that keeps springing up between Yunus Centre staff, most recently at the Unusual Suspects Festival and our CommonHealth Knowledge Exchange event.

The CommonHealth projects Growth at the Edge and Age Unlimited will both be applying participatory research approaches (design thinking and action research) to measure the effects that social enterprises can have on health and wellbeing. This will allow the research to be guided by the individuals and communities that we will be working with. In using such approaches we hope to potentially encourage creative thinking and the collection of data and documentation using non-conventional visual models, such as drawing, mapping, photography, and maybe even sculpting things out of plastercine, who knows?! Yet this will be ultimately up to the communities themselves to explore the most appropriate ways to express themselves and communicate with the research team. Of course we will be using interviews and focus groups to provide further data, but one of the most important things is to find ways to incorporate the visual outputs from the community members themselves into our findings.

Some social enterprises in the Highlands of Islands of Scotland, like ATLAS Arts in Skye, exist to allow community members to create art pieces that represent their landscape, histories and traditions. These visual art projects are used as a form of individual expression, and represent a persons’ subjective understanding of their culture and the world around them. Therefore in researching the people within such social enterprises, surely we need to utilise the visual artwork they have produced as ways of understanding their culture and context.

This got me thinking about how we can possibly analyse and disseminate the visual data we may collect. Ethnographers have faced this problem for decades of how to understand and aesthetically interpret tangible documents and art pieces to understand the culture from which they emerged. Visual anthropologists use methods of collecting cultural artefacts such as photographs, films, artwork and sculptures and then allow individuals from that particular society to both describe them and place them within history. This may still be viewed as pretty niche in academia, yet we could learn a few lessons from this approach on a wider level.

In terms of dissemination, it may be questionable whether visual arts have a place in academic conferences, perhaps displayed as ‘pretty posters’ alongside theoretical case studies and novel ground-breaking policy contributions? But this could just serve to further isolate research participants from their outputs. Or should we encourage community members to organise their own events that display the visual arts they produced within research projects, with academics in attendance? Hopefully our own CommonHealth Knowledge Exchange events will encompass this viewpoint going forward.

In terms of my own participatory study and the use of action research, my view is very much that we must work with communities not on them, so in fully engaging with individuals their problems become our problems. This goes all the way to research outputs; my papers become our papers, in the same way their art becomes our art.

 

“I have been speaking to people up and down the country…”

politicians

I’m writing this blog on the day of the most interesting election in decades. The old tennis match of British politics, with the ball being knocked across the net every 5 or 10 years, has been replaced by World of Warcraft- a new political landscape which the old guard doesn’t understand and are frantically asking the young people to help them with. By the time you read this there will be more claims of legitimate power than an episode of ‘Game of Thrones’ and the majority of the UK will say they are underrepresented by the resulting government, assuming there is one at all!

Representation is key to politics, candidates are voted for because they represent the views of the voter, and are then tasked with doing so in parliament. Claims of representing the views of the populace then justify, rightly or wrongly, many of the decisions made in parliament. Every party claims to represent the people, so who is telling the truth? How do they know they are representing people’s views? This issue of representation is something that I myself have been grappling with throughout my research. So let’s consider some of the ways in which this can be done.

One of the ways I am attempting to discover how social enterprises impact upon people’s health is through analysing social impact reports. After searching through all available reports, only 17 were found to be written by social enterprises in Scotland which, I would guess, forms only a tiny fraction of the sector. So can the results of my analysis be claimed to be representative?

Perhaps they can in the same way that Ed Miliband claims the existence of a labour surge, based on the people he has spoken to “up and down the country”. Ed is a busy man and can only speak to so many people. Of the total population of people that he is capable of speaking to, the vast majority have told him that they will be voting for him. I recognise that there are other factors influencing who those people happen to be but, limitations aside, is there anything wrong with the conclusion he has derived from his research?

Another method I am using is to focus on case studies of three organisations in an attempt to understand context-specific factors relevant to the work and impacts of social enterprises. This process of focusing on very few areas and attempting to garner data which is relevant to the entire country appears very similar to UKIP’s election policy. Nigel Farage tends to focus his research on certain constituencies and is truthfully told by residents there of their support for him. He then generalises those findings to the whole country. Is there anything inherently wrong with this method?

My third stream of research involves interviewing ‘industry experts’ regarding their views on the potential cross-overs between public health and social enterprise. I am considering them as interested parties who have a strategic knowledge of each sector and the ramifications of any decisions affecting them. It is not difficult to see the similarities to David Cameron’s use of the open letter signed by thousands of small business owners claiming to represent the sector and warning of the dire consequences of voting Labour. Are the Tories wrong to use this result for campaign purposes?

The answer to the above questions is no. Their methods appear valid and there is nothing to suggest the results have been tampered with. So why have they arrived at three different conclusions? The difference between me and these politicians is that I would like to arrive at one particular conclusion and I don’t know what it is yet, whereas they want to arrive at three conclusions knowing exactly what they want them to be. They are conducting research to arrive at a result which is already known. Which begs the question, how is it known? How do they know they are representing the people without knowing what the people want? One hypothesis is that they don’t know what the people want, they don’t care about representation and they are justifying their own ideological standpoints through a façade of research.

But I would need to test that hypothesis so I don’t get labelled a hypocrite, or even worse, a politician.

(Stop Press! In light of the monumental differences between the opinion polls and today’s result, perhaps it’s not just politicians that need to consider their research methods!)

Objective or Subjective?

                                    

Objectivity is the hallmark of quality research for many. However, those of us that rely more on qualitative methods often have to question this assumption and think more carefully about the value of objectivity and subjectivity, and the overall position of the researcher in the writing and analysis.

I’m in the process of writing up my PhD at the moment, it’s a hard slog but I’m enjoying getting words on the page and feeling like I’m making some real progress. The difficulties come when I’m writing about one of my research participants and trying to introduce her experiences into my description and analysis. How can I be objective when I’ve shared tears, joy and cups of tea (sometimes all at one!) with the subjects of my writing?

As I write I can feel those I’ve worked with looking over my shoulder and I worry about what she is thinking as she reads her words and my reflections upon them. She has given me consent in the ticking of boxes, her signature on a piece of paper and in a verbal agreement. Sometimes she has asked me not to report on something she had told me, so I think she understands what it means to be part of this project. What I didn’t give enough attention to is how I would represent her within my final write up. At that stage I didn’t know what she would tell me, where my analysis would take me, or how much I would come to care about her. Now it’s starting to feel like a big responsibility to find the most appropriate way to represent her and what she’s about, what if I come across as patronising, resorting to stereotypes or just plain wrong?

I’m secure and confident in my analysis and the claims I am making but I want to be sure I don’t fall into lazy or condescending cliches when I’m describing those who have spent so much time and energy talking to me about their lives. It’s challenging me to be thorough, thoughtful and clear in my writing. I’m considering and reconsidering each word: What do I mean by that? Is that what I want to say? How could that be misunderstood? To me this is an important process in honouring the stories I’ve been told and the women who have told them.

This process is teaching me that research ethics have to be considered long after the collection of signed consent forms and that the role of objective researcher is not one that I can be expected to play within the type of research I have undertaken. Equally I can’t make this all about me, that has not been the point of my research and I doubt I’d make an interesting subject for a PhD thesis! It’s a fine balance that I think many researchers have to consider; how do I create a persuasive and well researched piece of writing without ignoring my own subjectivity and close involvement with the research participants? It’s something I’m still working on….

Rambling and subjective -the stuff of History?

A pioneering study in oral history and the recovery of ordinary people’s memories
A pioneering study in oral history and the recovery of ordinary people’s memories

My previous post may have suggested that I spend all my time in archives working on my academic pallor, this was slightly misleading, occasionally I venture out into the world and talk to people…

 Recently I’ve been recording oral histories with people who have made their careers in the field of social enterprise. Recording someone’s personal memories and experiences so they can be stored and revisited by subsequent generations is a daunting task for both researcher and participant. Participants often worry about how valuable their testimony will be for historical research, which has left me wondering how best to reassure them that there are no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answers.

Oral history is the process of recording someone’s life story so that it can be stored as a historical record. This technique was established in the latter decades of the twentieth century as groups of historians turned increasingly to social history and the study of the lives of the working class. It has often been advocated as a useful technique for capturing the testimony of those whose lives are overlooked in the great sweeps of History and has been an important part of the development of women’s history and studies of migrant people.

Today, oral or life history interview techniques are not only used by historians but by many other researchers interested in collecting qualitative interviews. The appeal of this form of data collection to researchers is its aspiration to let participants talk as freely as possible, for them to lead the interview, and have the opportunity to have their views and experiences recorded. I use the term aspiration, because the researcher always has a role in shaping this encounter and pointing the participant in certain directions. Researchers are likewise aware that interviewees want to do a good job and that may also shape their responses on tape.

This brings me to my recent work. I do my best to reassure oral history participants that I’m interested in their experiences that an oral history interview is not a test of how well they remember recent history. However this often does not put people’s minds at ease. One participant, on reading the transcript of their interview replied that it was ‘difficult to understand how something so rambling and subjective can be of value’ to research. In turn I replied that rambling and subjective was perhaps a good description of History.  Upon reflection, it may have been more accurate to say that I think historians should take more notice of the rambling and subjective. That the most valuable testimony for researchers is not succinct answers to the questions posed, but the answers that meander and deviate and ultimately open up new questions. It is precisely the point of doing oral history, that we don’t yet know what will be important for the telling of history in the future, but we should have access to a range of voices in order to being to piece together the story.

Perhaps this tells us something of people’s perception of History, that it remains in their minds the story of kings and queens, and lists of dates, rather than the story of people just like themselves that we can all claim to be part of and even direct.

In search of ‘The Answer’

The wall of conceptual models which has 'helped' to 'guide' my 'thinking'
The wall of conceptual models which has ‘helped’ to ‘guide’ my ‘thinking’

“But what is social enterprise?”

“Well, it’s ambiguous”

“And what is health?”

“Well, it’s vague”

“Please explain…”

The above exchange has taken place on numerous occasions over the past year, with me having played both roles depending on who I’m speaking to. This post is about some of those conversations.

The first took place in my job interview. I was the respondent, sweating while giving textbook answers about the different methods of delivering social impact and the difference between salutogenesis and pathogenesis. Things often seem easier when you think you know the answer, so I learned what I thought were the answers.

And then I became the questioner, to establish what I considered a necessary foundation before the real work started. I had just started my first job in research, entitled ‘A contemporary analysis of social enterprise as a public health intervention’ and I needed to know what those things meant. As is often the way in academia, very soon you realise that everything you thought you knew (the aforementioned ‘answers’) is in actuality full of gaping theoretical holes. As I tried to wade through the mountains of literature, all contradicting each other, all I wanted to know was “What is it?” because I thought that was how you found the answer, and I thought that’s what I needed to do.

But what if it wasn’t? Everyone has theories and opinions, some of them are written in journal articles and some aren’t. So without an answer (and fearing being asked the questions in case I was found out) I ventured out into the field, once again playing the questioner but with a very different perception of the answers I received. People at the top of the public health and social enterprise sectors seemed far less adversarial than academic papers and theories. They compromised and welcomed differences, taking on differing views and opinions. They didn’t have answers to the questions, and often they weren’t looking for them. They were far more concerned with what worked, and how, and less about what it’s called.

So what about a new approach? Don’t ask the questions at all? And don’t worry about the dearth of answers? Use an accepted definition of social enterprise as a means to an end, use a theory of the ways in which health can be improved, find examples where the former does the latter, and ask how they did it. This involved examining why and how certain processes were undertaken, who was impacted and in what ways. What has emerged are a number of processes undertaken by organisations that could be considered social enterprises, leading to a number of outcomes associated with health.

This tentative result appears unremarkable, it doesn’t even answer the initial questions. But it has the potential to form a contemporary analysis of how social enterprise can act as a public health intervention, which is, fundamentally, what I’m employed to do. So when someone asks me the questions again, and I answer them as above, I’ll do so with much more confidence than I did in my interview. It’s funny how academia does that, makes you very proud of knowing less than when you started. But crucially, leading you towards what you need to know.