Researching together: The value of collaboration between researchers of poverty and low income during COVID-19

Posted in: COVID-19, Evidence and policymaking, Welfare and social security

By the ‘COVID-19 and low-income families: researching together’ Special Interest Group as part of the Covid Realities project

COVID-19 has changed the way we work as researchers, not only in terms of fieldwork, but also perhaps in terms of collaboration. In a global public health emergency, there is an imperative to collaborate to produce the best possible evidence - in social science as well as medicine. We are all in uncharted territory and there is mounting evidence of the adverse impacts in our substantive area - families on a low-income – therefore, we can make the clearest impact on behalf of families by working together.

Underpinning the COVID Realities research programme is a commitment to ensuring that we adopt a sensitive and ethical approach to research with low-income communities during the pandemic. This includes providing resources and support for the research community; as well as making sure that ethical concerns are foregrounded in the participatory work we do with parents and carers living on a low income. It also includes our collaborative work as a collective of researchers who were already carrying out research on families living on a low income at the start of the pandemic.

Our collaboration is rooted in a commitment to thinking sensitively about how we adapt our research to the new context. This includes seeking to reduce additional burdens on people taking part in research; ensuring research efforts aren’t needlessly duplicated; and seeking to maximise the policy impact of our collective and emergent evidence base. The project is foregrounding collaboration over competition or incidental co-operation over research, which can be unusual in academic research and the publish or perish culture.

What are we doing?

A collective of 15 different research projects, including academics and researchers from the voluntary sector, the ‘COVID-19 and low-income families: Researching together’ are working together as a Special Interest Group (SIG) to support the generation of data specifically on COVID-19, and then synthesising and disseminating relevant findings to policymakers and other key audiences.

We meet once monthly as a team and then Kayleigh Garthwaite, convenor of the SIG, has individual check-ins with each project. Our projects are taking a range of methodological approaches, including quantitative, qualitative, longitudinal, and participatory approaches, involving online (Zoom/Skype) interviews; telephone interviews; diaries; national surveys, both postal and online; asset mapping; and Zoom discussion groups with parents and carers living in poverty, alongside community stakeholders and practitioners from national support organisations. As such, we have a strong collated and co-produced evidence base to draw on, in order for us to give an insight into key issues facing parents and carers on a low income at this time.

Early on, as a group we developed a core set of values that underpin our collaborative work. The first one focuses on the importance of ‘Communication and negotiation’. For instance, it is easier to presume shared meanings than to probe: we regularly ask; do we all mean the same thing? We seek to strike an important balance between being available for regular and open communication, and investing time to enable this – but, also being realistic and recognising that everyone is busy and has only limited time, especially in the current context with the additional pressures of working at home, and juggling caring responsibilities. Flexibility is another guiding principle; some projects may have the time/space/ability/desire to be more involved in the core group than others. Having a degree of openness and responsiveness around this is key. Finally, in terms of ethics, not only do we have a duty of care to all participants, ensuring basic ethical principles of ensuring all shared findings will be anonymised, we also have a duty of care to each other as researchers working in new and often difficult contexts.

To date, there has been huge value across the SIG in taking a collaborative approach, but it is also not without its challenges – working with various research teams both inside and outside of academia requires a serious amount of planning, consideration, negotiation, and above all, time. Important concerns can arise over data ownership, outputs, and key messaging, which need to be carefully thought through on an ongoing basis. But this process is already proving to be a really important way of collaborating, at a time when we are adhering to social distancing measures and working remotely, mainly from our own homes.

For example, we held an ideas sharing workshop around digital technologies and remote interviewing in July where we shared tips on what worked and what didn’t, and members of the SIG have shared interview schedules and ideas across the group via a shared Googledrive. There are examples where SIG members have learned from each other and adapted their practices; for instance, the Following Young Father’s Further (FYFF) team liked a comment made by Kate Pickett about some of the research questions they posed. Kate’s team were interested in understanding where people got their key messages about COVID from, so a question was built into FYFF to generate similar data that can be fed into the synthesis process, and Qualitative Secondary Analysis (QSA) workshops which will take place as part of the SIG.

We’ve already worked together to submit evidence submissions to the Women and Equalities Committee on ‘Unequal impact? Coronavirus and the gendered economic impact’, drawing on emerging findings across our diverse studies. For us as a group, conducting ethical research into poverty and low income at this time means we need to try to create clear and effective chains of policymaking engagement and dissemination. We know this isn’t easy; but we’re all doing our best to make sure that evidence generated can help inform current and future policymaking – regionally, locally, and nationally.

What’s next for ‘COVID-19 and low-income families: Researching together’?

Going forward, we are keen to highlight the key issues that are emerging across our diverse range of studies, to emphasise commonalities of experience and offer timely policy recommendations for change. To this end, our first thematic workshop will take place at the end of November, informed by the themes emerging from a conceptual mapping exercise which looks at demographics, initial research questions, and identifying the key issues facing parents and carers on a low income during COVID-19. This will be the first step in building an overall synthesis of findings from across the projects, which we will then use to inform policy and practice, at local, devolved, and national levels.

We also plan on working together with project partner Child Poverty Action Group to bring together a document that presents 15 case studies from our collated evidence base. Through this process, we can identify key issues that parents and carers have been facing so far, and also identify any collective learnings and reflections. We also want to explore the possibility for the aggregation and secondary analysis of the data generated across the diverse research contexts we are working in. This will be achieved using a model of secondary data analysis workshops (Tarrant and Hughes, 2019) both with the COVID Realities team, SIG members, and other interested projects. There is existing expertise in the SIG in strategies of data re-use and collaborative QSA, which is something we want to build on as we develop the synthesis process.

Another key element of the SIG is that it is offering a place for support, troubleshooting, and sharing experiences about how best and most ethically to conduct research with people in poverty during the pandemic. The team at Covid Realities are trying to offer support to projects to enable them to think through how best to conduct their research ethically and with sensitivity, and this complements other elements of the wider COVID Realities programme, which includes a webinar and blog series, and a range of resources on the project website.

Overall, our shared willingness to highlight the experiences of COVID-19 for families on a low income in order to (try to!) influence positive change in terms of policy and practice is a fundamental driver of what binds our evolving network together. We are looking forward to working together over the next 12 months, and to sharing our collaborative efforts with not only the wider research community, but also with practitioners, professionals, and those in positions of power.

Learn more about the Covid Realities project.

All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of the IPR, nor of the University of Bath.

Posted in: COVID-19, Evidence and policymaking, Welfare and social security


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