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Starting with history

27 June 2023

This is the third in a series of blogs by Peter Beresford 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

Hello again,

We’d started to talk about research and next I want to go on to tell you more about this research partnership between Shaping Our Lives and King’s College London. I want to do that by putting it in context.

Historically research that has been valued has been carried out in universities or research institutions by university researchers and the like. This is where the high status research has been undertaken, very much, if we are honest, by important-seeming white men in white coats. There have always been built in biases, because research like everything else reflects the times it is carried out in and the values and assumptions of such ages.

First it was carried out in the natural sciences – physics, biology, chemistry and so on and then in the arts and social sciences, that is areas like economics, sociology and cultural studies. But that emphasis on science, scientists, experiments and experts has remained. That’s perhaps why people make jokes about we need a researcher to tell us if something is true, it is not enough to think or know it ourselves. And indeed, there is some truth in that. Research is seen as a field of expertise and experts and, as a result, for many people it continues to be mysterious, frightening and indecipherable. And the fact that often it is associated with big words and lots of numbers has encouraged this. And of course there has been that element of other people telling us, as if we couldn’t know for ourselves.

A quiet revolution

But over recent years there has been a quiet revolution in research. People have challenged the power of old research and its authority. People and groups who feel that it has been used to misrepresent them, their lives and identity, make them out as inferior and/or deviant; from women and Black and minoritized people, to disabled and LGBTQ+ people, have all contested taken for granted research findings about them and moreover begun to carry out their own research and demand the chance to do more of this.

But this revolution is far from over. Rather we are still in the middle of it. Progress is being made. But there is also powerful resistance. Partly this is just the inertia that stops things changing. As they say it is like getting a massive oil tanker to change direction. But there are lots of other barriers in the way. These are barriers to do with getting used to doing things differently, not wanting to do things differently(!), actively resisting doing things differently, wanting to keep your own power and also needing to make a whole range of changes if we are to do things differently! It is quite a list and hopefully during the course of this series of blogs I will be able both to highlight some of these blocks and difficulties and suggest how we may overcome them.

A service user researcher

Just one last thing before we get down to detail, I should say just a little about myself, so you know where I am coming from and can make your own decision about how much notice to take of what I’ve got to say. That’s something I’ve certainly learned to do as I’ve gained more confidence as both a researcher and a service user.

That is how I identify – as a service user researcher. It’s not necessarily a comfortable badge to wear, but I have to say I wear it with increasing pride. My background is as a long-term user of mental health services – I like to identify as a psychiatric system survivor and someone who has been fortunate to go through training to become a researcher, but a researcher coming from a service user/survivor perspective. For me the two are indivisible. I’ve worked as an academic and researcher, an educator and also spent years on benefits, which as many readers will know is an experience that deserves its own medals!

However, the two worlds I have inhabited – being a service user and a researcher – traditionally, have not often been encouraged to sit comfortably together. That’s why the partnership research initiative between Shaping Our Lives and Kings College London is so important. For us it has been a demonstration project for trying to make that happen, the difficulties to be encountered and how we can deal with them. In my opinion, this is something vital for research and knowledge development for the future. See you soon for the next episode in this story of research collaboration where you will learn more about the history of such research and how we got to where we are.

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