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Research made simple?

7 June 2023

By Peter Beresford

White background with a turquoise icon of a person holding their hands to their head with question marks over them. The words on the image read: You've lost me.

This is the first in a series of blogs about a research project which Shaping Our Lives has carried out jointly with King’s College London. You can also read a report we have written about the project, Match Making In Research but the aim of these blogs is to offer an introduction, not just to the project, but to research and our involvement in research as service users, survivors, disabled people – more generally – and to try and make this as clear and readable as possible.

Keep it simple!

I believe in keeping things simple. Or as one brilliant research officer we used to work with once said to us, “KISS – keep it simple stupid!” There is no better advice. Research can get very complicated. Or put it another way, some people seem to be good at making it as complicated, inaccessible and frightening as possible. We want to do the opposite – and for a very good reason. If people in difficult situations or who have had difficult lives, are kept frightened and uncertain, they will for sure be even more disempowered. And that means other people will be more able to abuse and manipulate them. The whole point of Shaping Our Lives is to do the opposite and to challenge that by enabling people to speak and act for themselves. We believe that getting a grip on research is part of this.

Let me explain. Research is often made obscure, difficult to understand, incomprehensible, even irrelevant. Some people say all it does is grow dusty on library shelves. And sometimes that’s true. But research is also used to control people, to frighten them, and to give more power and authority to people in control. That can’t be a good thing. Researchers may tell us that some fact or opinion has been proved by research and is therefore that much more true and right.  And if we don’t know much about research, then it is very difficult to disagree with them and show they are wrong.

Two helpful points here to reassure you. When I was first doing a PhD  – a big research study – my supervisor said to me that if he read something, some book or journal article, and he couldn’t understand it, then he just thought it was rubbish and ignored it. I didn’t like to point out that he was a world famous sociologist but I was just a student and I doubt if anyone would have been impressed if I had used that argument. But he was right. I learned to show things I’d written to my mother. She came from an immigrant family and had left school at 14. So I thought if she could understand what I had written, then probably it was reasonably clear and reasonably sensible. It was a very good rule and I’ve tried to keep to something similar since. So when you read something, do your best to understand what’s in front of you, but if it still isn’t clear, blame the author, not yourself (but maybe just think that quietly to yourself!).

Of course you can make anything complicated and difficult if you want to, but here my aim is to keep things simple. Not to oversimplify, but to try and be clear for as many people as possible. Obviously, people who can’t read or have other access requirements, will need those to be addressed as well. We try and do that in Shaping Our Lives routinely.

What is research?

Now let’s get back to research. Let’s be clear about what research is. It means finding things out. Getting new information and knowledge, or information and knowledge that hasn’t been available to you. It also tends to mean trying to do this in as careful and reliable a way as possible, so you can trust what you find out. But one of the things research soon reminds you, is that there isn’t necessarily one simple truth. Different people see things differently. Different vantage points result in different things emerging or coming to be known.  

I want to end this first blog by highlighting one thing. Research tends to be a good idea. It isn’t generally a waste of time, as some people think – unless people are demanding more research to delay and stop anything useful being done about a problem we really already know about – like global warming.

To put it simply, it’s really like the old saying: ‘Time spent in reconnaissance (checking things out) is seldom wasted’. Which is a bit like what wood and metal workers say: ‘Check your measurements and mark-up before you cut anything. You can change things once you do that. Once you’ve cut you’ve cut!’ So find things out carefully before acting. Of course there’s loads more to research as there is to any human activity. But essentially it is just about trying to find things out reliably and accurately.

In the next blog we will get down to a bit more detail about the Shaping Our Lives/King’s College London research project. But again, I will try and keep it clear and straightforward and not assume you have lots of knowledge about research.

Peter Beresford is a long term user of mental health services, Co-Chair of Shaping Our Lives and Visiting Professor at the University of East Anglia