Signing up for a participatory methods class can be a little daunting, but is also a wonderful learning experience. In this post, Louise Sarsfield Collins – an Irish Research Council funded PhD Candidate in the Department of Geography at Maynooth University – reflects on her experiences working on a public engagement research project with other students in the department.
‘Family Homelessness is Getting Worse’ – another morning and another news report about the escalating housing crisis. It seems as if each day brings more reports of soaring rents, lack of housing supply and increasing numbers of vulnerable groups facing eviction, sleeping rough or being forced into inadequate accommodation. The headlines change along with the particular group in focus but it seems increasingly that the story is always the same. It is a story of disenfranchisement, individual blame and a failure by the State to address the manifold structural deficits that contribute to the current housing and homelessness crisis. Against this backdrop, last semester (see note 1) I was delighted to have the opportunity to get involved with a collaborative project between Maynooth University (MU) Department of Geography and one of its partners, the Irish Housing Network (IHN) within the context of a postgraduate public engagement methods module offered on the MA in Geography. This post explores what the challenges and rewards of public engagement are, both as a research methodology and a pedagogical approach from the perspective of a participating postgraduate student. We contributed in a modest way to enact social change, learned about different research designs, engaged in action-based methodology, gained many transferrable skills, and grew personally, despite the limitations of adopting an empancipatory research approach in a classroom setting, which included uneven power relations, time constraints, confusion and frustration. I will not dwell on the outcomes of the partnership and ongoing research project here. That is a topic for another day.
Figure 1. Anti-Eviction Cartoon by Joe Pass, Irish Housing Network
In our project we wanted to draw extensively from Participatory Action Research (PAR) principles which seek to challenge dominant power structures and traditional models of knowledge production. PAR is a methodological approach that involves a collaborative process of research, action and knowledge production (Kindon et al, 2009). Reason (1994, cited in Gatenby and Humphries, 2000) suggests that there are three key features of PAR: commitment to liberationist movements; commitment to the lived experience and knowledge of people involved ensuring their voices are central to the project and; finally a commitment to ‘genuine collaboration’. Researchers work with participants, “to examine a problematic situation and change it for the better” (Caretta and Riaño, 2016:2). PAR and related methodologies, such as ‘Feminist Participatory Action Research’ (FPAR) and ‘Interactive Research’, have been used increasingly by social scientists, with varying degrees of success and varying degrees of commitment to the PAR philosophy (Gatenby and Humphries, 2000).
One clear success for all involved in this project was a commitment and contribution to social change. For this reason, I was both excited and anxious about working with the IHN. My own research focuses on LGBT rights activism and I have a keen interest in social justice issues. In the past however, I have always worked with national and international NGOs. I was eager to learn more about grassroots activism that is not NGO based. The IHN was established in May 2015 and is a grassroots membership network, bringing together like-minded organisations from across the country. Many of the member organisations are local housing action groups such as Dublin Central Housing Action and North Dublin Bay Housing Crisis Committee. Other members are groups with a broader base, often organised around a uniting theme such as SPARK (Single Parents Acting for the Rights of our Kids) and the Anti-Racism Network Ireland (ARNI). All members are equal within the network and commit to sharing knowledge and resources, and where possible acting in solidarity with each other. Decisions are taken, ideally through consensus, but where this is not possible issues are put to a ballot with each organisation, regardless of size having one vote. While the network members describe themselves as being non-political with political affiliations left at the door, it is clear from the guiding principles and the living document – ‘IHN Demands’ that their cause is indeed deeply political, insisting on a transformation in the very way that we do politics in Ireland, including in the relationship between the State and the people living here. IHN view their version of non-political as transcending party politics for a new form of democracy that demands change.
Figure 2. Child holds a banner at the Citizens Commemorations, April 2016, Irish Housing Network
Although I empathise with the people the IHN represent, I was also initially apprehensive in working with its members because I did not think that the issues at stake affected me directly. I was concerned I would be perceived by network members as naïve, clueless or worse, condescending in my empathy. I certainly did not want to become the type of ‘do-gooder’ that is parodied across social media in accounts such as Savour Barbie on Instagram. I must admit I was also initially put off by some of the strong Dublin accents, an issue that was mentioned by people I interviewed with regard to their own experiences in Irish Universities. Just as many of the underlying problems with housing in Ireland can be traced to structural deficits and deep societal inequality, so too does inequality impact on access to higher education for people hailing from so-called ‘disadvantaged areas’.
I need not have worried however. What I found was a group of welcoming people from many walks of life, brought together by a desire to make change happen, that helped me overcome my initial assumptions and helped me learn more about the housing crisis and solidarity. They generously shared their wealth of knowledge and expertise with us. Significantly, I also grew to learn that the issues the IHN seek to address do affect me, as they affect all people living in Ireland. This knowledge has given me the courage to challenge people when they make inaccurate, derogatory or racist comments, especially with regard to the current housing and homelessness crisis.
From a teaching and learning perspective, a core objective of the module was to teach students about publically engaged research approaches, through collaborative work on a research project with IHN involved members of the network and researchers (MU staff and students). In many ways, however, this was a false construction given that students who registered for this methods class did not come to the project entirely of their own volition and had no input into the initial partnership formation and research design. Broadly speaking, students working in the partnership were interested in the current housing and homelessness crisis, but for our class this interest was mixed across the group, and is likely to wax and wane from one group of students to the next as the partnership continues to evolve. Uneven participation and power relations in collaborative research projects are, of course, not uncommon, even in situations outside the classroom (Kindon et al, 2009: 93). For example, often in order to acquire necessary funding for research, a project must be designed well in advance of establishing partnerships with groups (The Autonomous Geographies Collective, 2010), which often results in the “academics” retaining power in PAR collaborations. Importantly, for our class, because the relationship being created was both educational and research-oriented, the “outcomes” were not driven by those required by academic funding bodies (i.e. publications, conferences). While students may not have been involved in the initial research design, the activists (participants) and lead researcher (Module Coordinator) who jointly initiated the project continued to negotiate their shared research needs, goals and timelines, whereas the junior academics (i.e. myself and other students) entered this unfolding process at a later stage. While our group of junior academics left the project in May, a new class will build upon the work we did in the future. At the same time, because a power differential does exist (the senior academic marking the work of the junior academics), the emancipatory nature of PAR, which includes a commitment to facilitating the empowerment of all involved, is difficult to achieve within a classroom setting. For example, while the sharing of information with participants is a critical means of developing understandings and theory amongst all partners involved, there were times that the instructor was reluctant to share information about other student’s work within the team, as well as instances where students themselves were reluctant to share. In my position it was difficult to gauge if this was due to lack of confidence in the students’ own work, trepidation that work well done might be claimed by others for credit, or because of ethical research and/or pedagogical concerns such as confidentiality. Certainly at times, my lack of confidence in my own work caused me to pause before sharing insights with the rest of the team or with IHN participants.
Figure 3. Protest at a hotel used for ‘emergency accommodation’, Irish Housing Network
Due to the time constraints of doing research within a taught module as part of a larger postgraduate degree, while it was possible to discuss PAR in the abstract, it was much more difficult to actually ‘do’ PAR, even though we benefitted from learning through action-orientated methodology. Critics might suggest that for a true PAR model, researchers in this project should have been more involved with the day-to-day activities of the IHN – attending not only occasional meetings as we did, but also engaging more fully in activities such as direct action protests, marches, support groups and regular events. While students could choose to get more involved, and one member of the group did indeed do so and even established a local housing action group, many of us were unable or unwilling to engage at this level for personal reasons and/or for the reason of the lack of time. From a personal perspective, I would also question if the entire research team — myself and fellow students — were truly committed to the three features outlined by Reason and mentioned above. Also, tensions between the competing demands on the time of researchers, be they fully fledged academics or students, are felt in many such projects, as reflected upon by the Autonomous Geographies Collective (2010). Over the course of the semester, the IHN was involved with numerous direct actions, campaigns and events as they responded to hostel closures, evictions, and developments pertaining to modular housing and the proposed sale of large tracts of land by Dublin Local Authorities. Furthermore, many of the activities, especially the direct actions undertaken by IHN, were organised with very little notice because of the way in which circumstances can change rapidly. IHN members were also involved with (ideologically) related, albeit separate campaigns, such as the ‘Save Moore Street’ occupation. The constant demands on their time as well as the changing priorities as they were forced to react to newly emergent crises made scheduling any meetings or interviews problematic, especially with students not based in Dublin. For most of postgraduate students and staff, the week is highly structured with classes, office hours, and time in the library for both reading and writing. Many students also have part-time jobs to make ends meet. These demands on time, coupled with the distance between Maynooth and Dublin (where most of the IHN members we were working with were located), created numerous barriers to heavier engagement. With regard to my individual involvement, after attending an initial meeting with IHN and the rest of the class at Jigsaw (formerly Seomra Spraoi), I also attended a rally organised by ARNI, a member of IHN against racist groups in Ireland. I learned how to engage in digital solidarity and attend protest marches when they fit within my schedule, but was less comfortable with direct action occupations due to the adversarial manner in which they often play out.
Figure 4. Crowds gather on a wet day in February to protest a planned Pegida Rally
Despite these challenges of PAR as a methodology and this pedagogical approach, I certainly learned a vast amount over the three months of the semester. In terms of methods, while I have conducted interviews before, I found partnering with another postgraduate to conduct an interview very insightful. The interview for which I took notes on rather than asked questions meant I that I could focus on the interview as it unfolded, without having to attend to issues such as what to ask next, what to come back to, what to let go and so on. This is something that is very difficult to recreate in a classroom situation, as is the subsequent tediousness of interview transcription. I also learned about the generosity needed to make partnerships work. IHN members did make themselves available whenever possible and students were flexible when making arrangements. For example, both interviews that I conducted for this class were chosen at venues close to ongoing protests. Such a shared willingness to be flexible was key to making an endeavour such as the MU Geography / IHN partnership work. The nature of collaborative work does, nevertheless, always result in both joyous and tense moments. At varying instants it is inevitable that people have conflicting demands and different understandings of their role within the team. Frequently, in universities or other work environments this creates an uneven distribution of work which if left unaddressed has the potential to sow disharmony and discontent within the research team. Regular meetings, collective responsibility for outputs and attempts at skill-sharing helped to mitigate against these foreseeable challenges of team work.
The goal of social change is rather lofty, slow to occur and difficult to measure. Certainly to date IHN and Maynooth Geographers have not succeeded in addressing all the shortcomings of the housing system in Ireland. Nonetheless, I would argue that supportive actions have taken place and small changes for the better have occurred at both the individual and collective level. As Reid, Tom and Frisby (2006) argue, in the context of FPAR, action needs to be conceptualised as a “multi-faceted and dynamic process that can range from speaking to validate oneself and one’s experiences in the world to the process of doing something, such as taking a deliberate step towards changing one’s circumstances” (317). I like this definition because it captures the full range of actions that can take place and the importance of the individual as well as the collective. I would contend that this understanding of action is useful not only in FPAR but related methodologies more broadly. The cumulative impact of even the smallest of actions can over time contribute to the social change sought and, in the intervening time, has the potential to gradually improve the situation in question.
Figure 5. Examples of Digital Solidarity, Irish Housing Network and Louise Sarsfield Collins
Reflecting on the power of slow, incremental change at the level of the individual as well as broader society, one can understand our public engagement project as part of a larger goal by socially engaged Geographers more generally. Several people at MU, as well as other leading Irish universities are engaged in researching the spatial dimensions of the current housing and homelessness crisis. Research has focused on the role of financial institutions, public policy, community responses and the development of social housing amongst other topics. A recent edition of the journal, Irish Geography focused on vacant spaces, housing and interim or temporary use of space in Dublin City. Similarly, the Conference of Irish Geographers 2016 included a number of panels that featured papers concerned with housing in Ireland in some way or other. At this conference, I had the pleasure of contributing to a paper outlining the ongoing project between IHN and MU Publically Engaged Geographers. Preparing the presentation and working on my notes, provided me an opportunity to reflect on the depth and scope of the work being done by IHN, which we have sought to contribute to in some small way.
To summarise, the research project with IHN was hugely rewarding as a student, albeit at times frustrating. I am aware that our student teams have really only made a small contribution. I say this, not with a false sense of modesty, nor to detract from the work that we have done, and certainly not to take from the final products we prepared and handed over to the network for their use and further adaptation. I say that we made a small contribution to highlight that as a group of students we have taken much more than we have given. As outlined above the lessons learned were not only useful academically and in our future careers. More important were the lessons about social justice, bias and the opportunity to grow and develop our understandings of issues at a personal level as well as intellectually. All partnerships involve give and take, and, while at any given moment this exchange is not equal, over time most healthy partnerships will balance out. A new group of students will soon take on the baton, building on the work we did and I hope also continuing to grow and nurture this fruitful partnership.
Louise Sarsfield Collins
Caretta, M.A. & Riano, Y., 2016. Feminist participatory methodologies in geography: creating spaces of inclusion. Qualitative Research, Online First DOI: 10.1177/1468794116629575.
Gatenby, B. & Humphries, M., 2000. Feminist Participatory Action Research: Methodological and Ethical Issues. Women’s Studies International Forum, 23(1), pp.89–105.
Kindon, S., Pain, R. & Kesby, M., 2009. Participatory Action Research. In Thrift, N. and Kitchin, R., Eds. International Encyclopaedia of Human Geography. Elsevier, pp. 90–95.
Reid, C., Tom, A. & Frisby, W., 2006. Finding the “action” in feminist participatory action research. Action Research, 4(3), pp.315–332.
The Autonomous Geographies Collective, 2010. Beyond Scholar Activism: Making Strategic Interventions Inside and Outside the Neoliberal University. ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies, 9(2), pp.245–275.
1 – I participated in the project from February – May 2016. During this time, I attended IHN meetings, interviewed members of the IHN and contributed to a set of ‘factsheet’ for the IHN to use