Navigating power dynamics in peer research

18 April 2023

The following blog was written by Lily-Rose Sharry, a peer researcher working on our Care Leavers’ Emotional Wellbeing (CLEW) project. Through exploratory research, this project aims to improve understanding of the help that local authorities provide to care leavers to support their emotional wellbeing. As a part of this, we have carried out a qualitative study with professionals and care leavers across five local authorities in England, working with the McPin Foundation to involve peer researchers in interviews and analysis. You can read the study protocol here, with a project report due to be published in May 2023. 

Peer research is a catch all term referring to the practice of involving people with a specific type of lived experience in the process of carrying out research, where the research area relates to that experience. This practice has become increasingly popular within the field of mental health research; it is seen as a way to bring previously unheard voices into research, particularly voices from stigmatised and underserved populations. My experience on the Care Leavers’ Emotional Wellbeing (CLEW) project has shown me how peer research, whilst beneficial in many contexts, can leave us with a new set of questions when it comes to navigating power dynamics in research. 

Peer research can, to an extent, reduce ‘othering’ in research because it disrupts a traditional research dynamic, whereby a researcher distantly engages with a topic as an outsider. Participants on the CLEW project seemed to appreciate that I, like them, am care experienced. They were honest and frank with me and I wondered whether this frankness was connected to our shared experience. It may have been uninhibiting for them to not have to worry that I may find something they shared remarkable or strange. I also wondered if their honesty could be attributed to the way in which the opportunity to go beyond small talk and reflect more deeply on life can provide catharsis. In my life in general (outside of an interview setting), when somebody learns that I am care experienced for the first time, I can see a look flash across their face as they consider the ‘right’ way to respond to that information. This uncertainty has sometimes led to people changing the subject or falling silent, out of fear of being invasive or making me uncomfortable. This does not offend me – I know it comes from a place of politeness and sensitivity. But for most people who are not care experienced, casual questions about your family and your childhood are asked without such heightened tiptoeing. I therefore wondered whether my participants simply appreciated the opportunity to be asked about their lives and talk with candour, without concern about how I might react. By valuing shared experiences in this way, peer research can help to redress power imbalances in the research process. 

However, even as a care experienced peer researcher, it was not possible to completely transcend the power imbalance between researcher and participant. I have been trying to practice reflexivity and take stock of this during interviews and analysis, and was prompted to reflect on this further during one of my interviews. In this case, the participant said whilst laughing: “all care leavers either end up in prison or trying to fix the system”, further commenting: “I don’t know how I’m not in prison yet”. Having never seriously worried that I might end up in prison, this comment enabled me to consider and appreciate our different experiences, and the way in which no two care experiences are the same. Care experience is one aspect of a person’s rich and varied life, amongst the other cards you are dealt. In order to better understand the participant, we discussed where our shared experience ended as well as began. For example, my ability to be hired as a researcher is no doubt connected to the level of comfortable distance I now employ from this subject matter and the systemic privileges I possess as a university-educated white person. 

As a qualitative researcher, particularly a peer one, listening to and affirming what your participants have to say is crucial. Two of the participants I interviewed told me at length that they had attempted several times to navigate the mental health care system, with little success. They told me that they were bounced around from service to service, slipping through the bureaucratic cracks. But when I asked: “do you think the services should be improved, and if so, how?”, their response was: “No. It’s on me alone to clean up my act.” These responses reinforced my belief that valuable research involves affirming participants, but also contextualising their stories within the broader set of circumstances. Having previously mentally tortured myself with a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality, which describes a tendency to approach problems alone, without outside help, I identified with this pattern of thought. Sometimes when you are in the depths of a difficult situation, it is easier to internalise structural injustices. You are too deep in the forest to see the trees. Conducting peer research provides a unique opportunity to think: “I have previously felt that way”, in a manner that other forms of research may not afford, providing me (and other peer researchers) with the tools to aid participants’ own personal reflection.  

In my personal view, I do not believe a researcher can truly achieve objectivity, whereby one can escape power imbalances and find a universal unbiased truth. I believe that there is value in the messy and the subjective. Peer research embraces this subjectivity with open arms rather than rejecting it. I also believe that everything that has happened to you in your life, you carry with you into an interview. It is by reflecting on, and attending to, these subjectivities and biases, that we produce good peer research.