Properly prioritising participatory poverty projects isn’t just a tongue twister. It’s a mind twister too. Because taking seriously the transformations in practice that are required to deliver the empowerment of people with lived experience of poverty in the research process means changing the mindsets of everyone involved – participants, academics, advocates, research funders and policymakers.
The Understanding Poverty in All its Forms study is launched this week to coincide with the UN day for the eradication of poverty. The study is an example of the depth and originality of the insights that can emerge when this transformation is achieved. The Understanding Poverty in All its Forms study is a UK research project which brought together those with expertise of poverty through lived experience, and those with expertise on poverty through their work, as co-researchers to lead the study. The UK study is nested within a global research initiative which used similar techniques to investigate what poverty was in all its forms in very different countries (Bangladesh, Bolivia, France, Tanzania, and the United States).
There are some key respects in which the findings from the UK project differ from conventional poverty research, including:
- the absolute centrality of feelings and emotions – including of negative judgement, blame and stigma, as part of the experience of poverty, alongside the material context and impacts;
- the experience of poverty as simultaneously disempowering and an activity of everyday struggle and resistance – in other words, recognising both the agency of people in poverty and the denial of that agency by others – aspects which very often go unrecognised.
Looking across the countries, it is striking that the core dimensions of poverty identified by people with experience of poverty are the same in countries in the Global North and the Global South, despite widely differing material living standards and social norms. There is a universal core to the ‘beings’ and ‘doings’ constrained by poverty, to express it in the language of Sen’s capability approach, while the resources needed to avoid poverty can only be defined meaningfully relative to a specific context.
What enabled these insights to emerge?
- Time – to build trust and relationships and to think, to reflect. Rushing the process fundamentally undermines participation.
- Openness to being changed by the research process – on the part of both participants with lived experience and professional researchers. This is potentially threatening; to work through it needs commitment by all parties, experienced facilitators, and again, time.
- Merging of knowledge: not exploiting the ‘stories’ of people in poverty to provide dramatic quotes and images; nor treating them as a source of qualitative data for others to analyse; but facilitating a process whereby people with experience of poverty can make sense of their experiences, drawing also on the expertise of researchers and others in making connections and unpicking some of the causal processes that lie behind daily realities.
- An iterative process of meaning-making and check-backs, to remain sensitive to the wide variety of ways in which poverty manifests itself in different contexts, but identifying the deeper core which is a shared experience of poverty across very different places: because we are all human.
What can we do with this deeper understanding of the experience of poverty? Will it make a difference? It is part of the ethical commitment of participatory research that it does. It’s early days for impact from the findings from this study. But some encouraging examples were highlighted at the launch event – the North West Glasgow recovery communities, run by people with experience of drug and alcohol problems, and the ‘experience panels’ enshrined as part of the new approach to social security being taken by the Scottish Government. They show that participatory processes can become embedded, reorienting policy towards recognising the shared humanity of people in poverty and recognising the expertise that they bring. Getting our tongues, our heads, and our institutions, around prioritising participatory poverty projects properly – for research and action – is a challenge we should no longer postpone.
Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the Social Policy Blog, nor of the London School of Economics.
Your very first point about ‘time’ is crucial. Participative research cannot be rushed. I have been resident in this small post-industrial village now since 2006. I began my research in 2013 for my undergraduate dissertation. Every year peels away a new layer of misunderstanding and misdirection. Sometimes it’s even quite painful but overall I feel very privileged to be here and the depth of understanding I have gained will one day (I hope) contribute to a greater understanding for a wider audience.