Relational practice in research: what is it and why is it important?

Posted in: Leading Public Engagement, Thinkpiece

To meaningfully involve people in research, fair and reciprocal relationships must be grown and nurtured. But what are the potential impacts of this work on those who hold those relationships?

A key finding that emerged during phase one of the Research England funded ParticipatoryResearch@Bath project was that some colleagues from across the sector mentioned that there was a high degree of ‘emotional investment and labour’ in their work supporting people to be involved in research in a participatory way[1].

This felt important.

We wanted to explore the impact of our often ‘relational way’ of working as public engagement professionals in more detail and commissioned an exploratory study from Dr Jude Fransman (The Open University) and Dr Tigist Grieve (University of Bristol).

But before I delve into some of the findings, what do we mean when we talk about ‘relational practice’ and why is it important?

Relational practice

An important way of working to foster a positive culture of public engagement with research has been to build and hold relationships (see our Field Guide to Public Engagement and Culture Change). Whether that is with colleagues at the University of Bath or with groups and organisations external to the University.

For us, this approach has been core to making change happen.

Conversations with brilliant people like Froi Legaspi (Citizens UK) and the work of Immy Robinson and David Robinson (The Relationships Project) over the last couple of years have helped give us the language to articulate this way of working much more clearly.

We can now describe our way of working as a relational or relationship-centred practice.

With its roots in the community organising tradition, relational practice emphasises the importance of building relationships, it is about putting “people before programme”[2] and understanding that “relationships precede actions”[3]. Relational practice is described as:

“positioning meaningful and effective relationships as the first order goal, both an end in itself and how other goals will be achieved”[4].

For us, and I imagine many people across our sector, a relational approach felt like a natural and intuitive way of working to deliver our culture change remit.

However, thanks to The Relationships Project and others, this concept is coming of age. As an indication of that maturity, relational practice can be described beyond instinct and characterised by:

But this way of working is not only down to us as individuals, it also requires organisational processes and conditions to support it.

Why relational practice matters

The importance of relational practice is increasing in our work as research enablers because research funders are placing an increasing emphasis on improving the connections between research and society. Research councils through UK Research and Innovation, for example, want to ensure research better meets the needs of society by enabling and empowering people to inform, shape, participate in, and use research[5].

To bring more people into research, including those who have been traditionally overlooked, have been actively rejected or for whom research simply isn’t a priority or of interest, will require the growing and nurturing of fair and reciprocal relationships.

This will require a step-change in the way research is developed, delivered, and enabled.

It will put more importance on the role of research enablers such as public engagement professionals (just look at the impacts of the development coordinator role in the Ideas Fund)

It will mean focusing less on practices that are instrumental and more on the work that puts relationships first.

But the building and holding of relationships can be invisible and the effort, benefits, and risks of this work are in danger of being overlooked. As a result, we need to anticipate what the impacts could be on research staff, research enablers, and the publics involved.

Exploratory study

To better understand the issues raised about the potential welfare and wellbeing impacts of relational practice during phase one of ParticipatoryResarch@Bath, Jude and Tigist undertook an exploratory study. This involved a rapid review of the literature, workshops with research enablers from 13 different universities and interviews with representatives from four research-related organisations. The full report from the study can be found on the Relational Practice and Welfare and Wellbeing in Research Settings publications page.

Key findings

Due to the exploratory nature of this study, the findings are considered an indicative reflection rather than a comprehensive summary of experiences across the sector. The study generated some really useful insights, some of which are highlighted below.

Firstly, about the experiences of relational work, including:

  • Even though not widely used within research settings, participants felt the term ‘relational practice’ better encompassed their work than more instrumental terms such as ‘stakeholder management’.
  • Academic colleagues did not always value or recognise the importance of a relational approach to enabling research in collaboration with diverse publics.

Secondly, about the impacts of relational work on welfare and wellbeing, including:

  • Building relationships with communities and public groups gave participants a sense of pride, enjoyment, and satisfaction in their work.
  • The negative impacts on participants' welfare and wellbeing were often the result of the tension between relational ways of working (time-intensive, adaptative, and responsive) and the culture (competitive) and funding (short-term) of academia, along with the structures and processes of universities (risk-averse and rigid).

Finally, about the support for welfare and wellbeing in relational practice, including:

  • The focus of the support available at universities tends also to be on corrective measures for those whose welfare and wellbeing is at risk rather than on nurturing supportive environments that promote positive welfare and wellbeing.
  • Participants placed a high value on self-directed strategies and both formal and informal support networks that promote positive welfare and wellbeing. These strategies are often enabled by institutional initiatives, but participants felt these were often ad hoc, time-limited, and lacked strategic purpose.

Starting a discussion

We want this work to start a conversation and this blog is a preview of a discussion paper we’ve put together.

This Relational Practice in Research discussion paper includes a summary of all the exploratory study's findings, a framework to think about welfare and wellbeing and a series of questions we've been thinking on as a result of this work.

If you would like to contribute your thoughts, experiences, or questions about relational practice within research settings and/or its impacts on welfare and wellbeing, we would love to hear from you.

Please check out the Relational Practice in Research discussion paper. At the end of the paper, we’ve added a feedback form where you can contribute.

Alternatively, please feel free to email us ( if you’d like to chat, we can arrange a call.

We’ll also be at Engage 2024 next week and running a session as part of the programme called Looking After Ourselves and Others (on Thursday 2 May 2024) and running a roundtable discussion on Thursday 11 July 2024.

Dean Veall is Deputy Head of Public Engagement at the University of Bath. 






[5]Research and Innovation For All: UKRI’s public engagement strategy (Nov 2023)


Posted in: Leading Public Engagement, Thinkpiece

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