We need to stop shying away from service user involvement in social work research

Service user activist Peter Beresford questions why we've come to believe neutral researchers understand experiences better than those living them

Dear diary: we need to respect people's lived experience. Photo: Fredrik Rubensson/ flickr

Social work has long been attacked for having an inadequate evidence base. There can never be harm in seeking to strengthen our evidence base, but we need to think behind the slogan if that is our aim.

There has been a tendency to place a narrow interpretation on the kind of research that qualifies as offering strong evidence in social work. The recognition that there can be positive relations between service user involvement and quantitative research is not always there – indeed they are often presented as fundamentally opposed and in conflict with each other.

First-hand and eye witness accounts

This, of course, really devalues first hand or experiential knowledge. Yet we know that in ordinary life, we place a particular value on such knowledge, hence the importance attached to first-hand and eye witness accounts. User involvement in social work research, of course, places a high value on such experiential knowledge. But traditional research values grant it less value, credibility and legitimacy.

What this means is that if an individual has direct, lived experience of disability, poverty, oppression, discrimination, of cuts and austerity, when such research values are accepted, what they say – people with lived experience – their accounts and narratives – will be seen as having less legitimacy and authority. Meanwhile the knowledge claims of researchers and others without such direct experience are seen to be stronger.

Neutral, unbiased, distanced

To make sense of this, let’s go back to what I see as an underpinning reason for this – the emphasis on being scientific and objective in traditional social research. This positivist model highlights the need for and possibility of research which is neutral, unbiased and distanced from its subject. Such research, the argument goes, is rigorous and reliable. Research which does not follow these rules and which is not based on this value set has long been seen as inferior, with less valid and reliable results.

Government has often gone along with this, seeing the gold standard of research in narrow terms: traditional models of randomized controlled trials and quantitative research, emphasizing rigour and scientific experimentation.

We can see how currently government and policymakers are determinedly ignoring and excluding such knowledge from their calculations. Because people experiencing hardship will be seen as close to the problem, they cannot claim they are neutral, objective or distant from it. So, in addition to any discrimination and oppression they already experience, they are likely to be seen as a less reliable and a less valid source of knowledge.

By this logic, if someone has experience of discrimination and oppression, they can expect routinely to face further discrimination and be further marginalised by being seen as having less credibility and being a less reliable source of knowledge. So these people are left out of the reckoning and what they know counted as worthless. This further invalidates people who are already heavily disadvantaged.

It’s time to rethink assumptions

Problems only come to be seen as “real” when they are reported by researchers and other experts, and then it is their interpretations and versions of issues and phenomena which are accepted. We’ve seen how powerful people have ignored and rejected the knowledge and whistleblowing of children and young people being sexually abused in large numbers in the past, right through to those experiencing the injustices of welfare reform currently.

It is time rethink the assumptions about credibility and legitimacy in research that the greater the distance there is between direct experience and its interpretation, the more reliable it is. It is perhaps time instead to explore the evidence and the theoretical framework for testing out whether the shorter the distance there is between direct experience and its interpretation, the less distorted and inaccurate knowledge will result.

This blog is adapted from a speech given by Peter Beresford at the Tilda Goldberg Centre Annual Lecture

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