Research: Do democracy and research mix?

Democratising Research – agency or ideology?
Alan Roberts, Policy Development Manager, NUS

One of the questions in our minds at the event centred on democratising research. In students’ unions there was a historical tendency to frame the democratic and policy processes as the way to “find out” what students wanted, and these now sit alongside (sometimes uneasily) our research efforts. So there’s a question for the student movement: how far into our work should our democracy go?

We covered the idea of democracy within the following process, at each stage:

  • Problem identification
  • Research design
  • Field work
  • Analysis
  • Evaluation

Our first presenter referred to a quote from an academic we liked:
“Democratising research – A great idea, but in practice it’s a nightmare.”

I tweeted this, adding “…welcome to my world!” and got multiple retweets from the faithful #stafflife movement, but this made me question – Is this such a big deal? Are we so unique in this kind of concern? How important actually is the form of what we do, over the content and outcomes? Twitter had decided that this was going to be my swan song from the conference, and I hope that this is both irritating and informative.

We are probably more used to democratising the first step – identifying the problem – as our work is, most of the time, politically commissioned by a policy or an elected representative, whereas in academia, the researcher themselves will often come up with a hypothesis or curious about an area to work in grounded theory. This is not to say that SU researchers don’t do this too, but we are much more naturally guided by our democracies.

The criticism about relying on democracy here is about being reactive, narrowly focussed but also, as with any deliberative system, concerned with how much the political commissioners know about the landscape or the options. A useful tool that one researcher used to address this when working with communities in Glasgow was to take a whole range of research into projects, interventions and problems and get the community to classify them – to be involved in the selection process, rating their usefulness against how interesting they were:


This is about enabling the bidding process and facilitating preferences. The challenge we would face in this method, in presenting back the priorities is that – and there’s no nice way to put this – we are generally awful at literature reviews – for us to empower our memberships and leaderships (yes –there’s a political economy at work here where some power is in the researcher) we need to be able to present what’s known, what’s not known and what the options are for a given issue – we need to share some of the power.

More testing is research design and field work, but there is the consideration that we are, more often than not, researching students, and so it’s not beyond the pale to do some development work with said students to bring them up to speed. Analysis is probably much more difficult to democratise, but once again, when we consider options, significance of findings – these are things that the SU researcher would normally frame, would normally exercise their power (that political economy thing again.) The question is how far do you go? Well, it’s down to judgement – how often have you honestly found yourself redacting a finding, or privileging a particular story that the data tells?

Line of sight and oversight are our friends here, and we’re accustomed to using steering groups etc, so rather than dwell on this, let’s talk about why it’s possibly worth all the bother.

At the conference we were offered a case study on researching people with disabilities. This was described almost as a mission: Giving voice to people with disabilities in research, and referred to the book “Nothing about us without us, is for us” (Govan, 1978) Research has evolved from laboratory scenarios to a space where we are considering the idea of democracy within research. Over time the language and method of social research has changed to have increasing subject involvement:

  • Research on – objects
  • Research for – subjects
  • Research with – participants
  • Research by – co-researchers

Once again we might recognise the relationship with our democracies and with the students as partners agenda – but do we truly do it? Do we do it at the right stages? It was argued, and I would second the argument, that research by is not necessarily better than research with – it’s an option, and depending on the case in hand, one which could be taken. But, if there’s anything that the case study on researching people with disabilities tells us, is that, particularly in our movement, form is output and it’s absolutely outcome. It matters how we go about research for wider reasons.

Termed the emancipatory model of research, the nothing about us without us message is absolutely mission driven to give voice to previously excluded groups, for people to become agents of their own research. Not only is this about development and momentum – about the seeds of movement, this is genuinely about authenticity, about ensuring that the research is real and relevant, and continually brought back to purpose. Rather than stripping the researcher of their position of power in their expertise, this is about developing a conversation between the researcher and the research, with subjects becoming agents within the enquiry.

Set this against the alternative, where research is positivist, where we rely on techniques for example in market research that preference quantitative over qualitative, to ensure that truths are absolutes – a method which is about holding power and making decisions, is effectively masculine, in a history which knows research itself as something which has been used to oppress groups of people.

Truth has context, and researchers have power, and we, even as student movement researchers, use that power every day – at each stage of the research process we make decisions that are independent of the political commission. This isn’t a bad thing. That’s possibly called expertise.

What is a bad thing is if we’re blind to our own power, to the overtly political decisions we often make (but never acknowledge this.) When this happens we are not trying to find ways of ensuring that the balance is right; that our decisions and expertise are purposefully described as such and open to account; and that we are seeking authenticity and empowering the groups for whom we are working – or hopefully with whom we are working – by creating spaces for dialogue, negotiation and creativity; establishing clear incentives to participate and building in evaluation – the most democratic tool we have in research – throughout the process.

There is a cost, but authenticity is what it is: authenticity! When we consider the democratisation of our work as professionals, it’s not a choice between agency in terms of expertise or ideology. The pursuit of agency in the student movement profession is part of our ideology – they are not mutually exclusive.

Nothing about us, without us, is for us.

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