Curious Spaces

Published on: Author: janerowley Leave a comment

Praxis Orientated Research

During the Covid-19 lockdown a common lament from colleagues and friends working for charities and voluntary projects has been the increased number of approaches they have had from researchers hoping to recruit the people they have been assisting on a daily basis, and how inappropriate this has felt for them. Comments such as ‘’they don’t understand how it is’’ or ‘’I haven’t got time to sit home writing book proposals or bidding for funds to write about what’s happening, I need to do the work’’ have left me wondering how can we build more meaningful connections between researchers and those who provide direct services to people and indeed, those experiencing the lives and deaths often under scrutiny in research?

I encountered death early in life when my mother died suddenly and I spent hours compiling a scrapbook of information and pencil drawings about the brain and sudden death or, as I would learn about later, the nature of aneurysms. The folder still sits somewhere in my loft. Perhaps this was my first literature review because curiosity about how people experience life has been a consistent theme for me and I think led me into research. Since joining the End of Life Studies Group in February 2020, I have reflected on what motivated me to join this research group at this stage of my life. A long career in the social sector as well as teaching and undertaking research means I have always seen research and practice as working towards the same ends. My approach to research could be described as praxis orientated, designing research that offers practical outputs which also aim to investigate and address social injustice. Praxis has been described as the authentic union of action and reflection [1] and will be openly critical, political, or ideological [2]. Sometimes this union of action, reflexivity and criticality is not so easy. There are curious spaces between researchers and social practice; spaces where misunderstandings and value judgments reside.

At times, being viewed as an academic in the social sector space has being difficult. Often I have had conversations around a sense that academic work is often less valued than that of a person who is delivering services and support directly to others. In other cases, academic work is valued but viewed as somehow less ‘real’ or ‘in touch’ with what is happening in communities, which may or may not be the case. I have found myself saying I work across sectors only to be asked which one I am working in presently despite so much work that has been done to build connections and avoid silos. Research and practice are interconnected for me but I appreciate this is not always the case.

As a researcher and working in the social sector listening to the stories of others and thinking about how we can all learn from these has always felt like a useful contribution. The aims of each interaction may differ but, the intention remains the same, to support others and resolve social injustice. This sense of utility has not always translated so easily to colleagues I have worked with. I have lost count of the number of times I have been asked “when are you coming back….to the social sector” as though I have made a choice to do something completely different.

The project I am working on, Dying in the Margins is designed to investigate what it is like to die in the UK in an age of austerity especially when around the world dying at home is often seen as a marker of a ‘good death’. People from more socio-economically deprived areas are less likely to die at home and less likely to die in a hospice or access specialist palliative care. We want to uncover some of the reasons why this is the case and alongside working directly with people at the end of life, the health and social sector colleagues working across these communities will have rich and nuanced insights into this. This project is a prime example of praxis-orientated research.

Building relationships and bridges to and from academic research within the health and social care sectors can only serve to benefit us all. Perhaps gaining a deeper understanding of the motivations of those we collaborate with in the social sector will aid us in building these connections. I would suggest that regardless of professional labels of ‘researcher’ or ‘practitioner’ we are all people involved in listening to others and trying to understand and learn from their experience. We often share the same motivation to improve people’s experience of life and in the case of this project – the experience of dying. As such, we are all trying to undertake valuable work and make our own contributions to address social injustice. Finding ways to share the outcomes of our research and especially how we can share information about projects delivered in the social sector, requires a dialogue that travels in both directions.  As one of my new colleagues Dr Marian Krawczyk wrote in her recent blog: “Together we will learn from each other, and good ideas are always a collective endeavour.” I agree and hope to develop ways to share what we are all learning about dying in an age of austerity in order to promote understanding of each other’s experiences of life and death. 

[1] FreireP. (1970). Cultural action for freedom. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Educational Review and Center for the Study of Development and Social Change.

[2] LatherP.(1991).Getting smart: Feminist research and pedagogy with/in the postmodern. New York: Routledge

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