The ‘Designing and Undertaking Participatory Research: Practical Issues, Successes and Challenges’ BSA Early Career Forum event was convened on Wednesday, 9 December 2020.

Originally taking place at Sheffield Hallam University in April 2020, the event was rescheduled following the lockdown and reformatted into a digital conference. It was designed to bring together academics, who are pioneering participatory approaches and research methods to share their ideas, expertise and experiences. There are diverse approaches to participatory research and no single method for incorporating participatory practice into research. The common underpinning philosophy behind participatory approaches is a commitment to equalising research relationships and doing research collaboratively and co-productively with people. This event was a forum to discuss and share best practice.

The event consisted of three panels each featuring 2-3 talks of 10 minutes followed by a Q&A. The day concluded with a workshop (capped at 30 people) in which all attendees could share their experiences of using participatory methods and reflect on themes to have emerged during the day. Everyone was given the opportunity to provide feedback at the event to feed into and shape how events such as this could be held in the future.

During the panels we heard 8 talks from Barbora Adlerova and Alice Taherzadeh, Rachael Black, Jessica Langston, Chella Quint, Thea Shahrokh, Jake Sallaway-Costello, Laura Wright and Simona Manni. The diversity of research topics, methods and experiences shared reflected the breadth of participatory approaches and the wide-ranging application, reach, and impact of these methodologies.

The importance of reflexivity to participatory research practice was a core theme throughout the day. Presenters shared experiences of building collaborative research relationships and reflexively considered the successes, challenges and constraints when doing so, and offered their reflections on how to build reflexive practice into the research process. The additional ethical commitments that arise from doing co-production were also considered.

Creative and arts-based research methods, such as zines, storytelling, film and video, art and drawings, or play, also took centre stage. We heard reflections on the collaborative capabilities of these methods and how for participants in research they can facilitate greater input and ownership over their contribution and the research dissemination. Each talk offered a unique contribution to considering how participatory practice is implemented within research. A key conclusion was the importance of having spaces to talk about participatory research and engage in reflexive discussions together.

The closing workshop featured small group discussions in breakout rooms followed by feedback to the whole group. There were discussions on the challenges of taking a participatory approach and then the successes. We considered the tensions that can exist between participatory research principles and academic structures and institutions, and the ways in which this can restrict participatory practice. An example of this discussed was research disseminations, and how conventional academic practice and requirements do not always fit with producing things collaboratively. We agreed that participatory practice sits on a spectrum and where full co-production is not possible, researchers can build in elements of participation. Reflexive practice allows us to evaluate this and acknowledge where participation has and has not been possible.

Reflecting on the positives of the approach, we felt participatory research can help to give voice to people and deliver research which is beneficial to them. We also felt it enabled greater access to different viewpoints and was a method for building a stronger relationship between academia and wider society. As in the panel discussions, we felt it was positive to have spaces to discuss the approach with fellow researchers.

The conference was a really positive day, and it was great to meet and speak with everyone albeit virtually. The ten-minute length of presentations received positive feedback with attendees reflecting that it was a good length for remaining engaged when attending online. The downside of this was that there was less time to hear from each speaker but keeping the Zoom meeting open during the scheduled breaks enabled people to carry on their conversations. A suggestion offered, that could be carried forward in future online events, was to have break-out rooms during the breaks to recreate the smaller coffee break chats that are so enjoyable at conferences.

Following consultation with the presenters, it was decided not to record the presentations. This facilitated a more relaxed, conversational style to the event and meant it was a forum to test and develop ideas with each other as well as share fully fledged ones. It also allowed research materials to be shown in presentations that were not yet ready for a wider audience. Unfortunately, this did mean that people who were unable to attend could not catch up on the presentations and there had been requests for this. There are benefits to both recording events and not.

During the panels there was some discussion over the Zoom chat function. Originally, the chat was to be closed and used to contact organisers or to post questions for the Q&A (if preferring not to ask over microphone). There were requests for it to be opened which was subsequently put to all attendees. A compromise was reached of having it closed during the presentations and opened for the Q&A. Feedback provided after the event was mixed with some feeling it should have been fully open and others preferring the compromise. The move to digital spaces raises new questions around conference etiquette and engagement. It was really positive that this could be discussed and negotiated together.

The event adapted well to moving online and it was encouraging to see that remote attendance did not dampen the conviviality of the event. More people were able to participate then would have been possible in person and there were attendees from across the country and abroad. It will be positive to think about how to host future events both in-person and online, to suit different needs and styles of event.

Thank you to all of the speakers and attendees and to Yanna Papadodimitraki for help with hosting on the day. Thank you to the BSA and to Sandria Charalambous and Donna Willis for their help with the event and this blog.

Ruth Beresford is a Research Associate in the Department of Psychology, Sociology and Politics at Sheffield Hallam University.  Twitter: @reberesford