What is it Like to be a Peer Researcher?
In our qualitative research focusing on understanding lived experiences, we aim to make the research process more inclusive through participatory methodologies. One such example is our project exploring the lived experienced of displaced children and young people, which uses peer research methods. For this week’s Monday Interview, our peer researcher Diana Nikitina, in conversation with our Senior Social Researcher Ekaterina Aleynikova, discusses her experiences of being a peer researcher on this project. Diana is from Odesa, Ukraine and has arrived in the UK in Spring 2022 on the Homes for Ukraine scheme.
How would you describe what peer research is?
Peer research is an effective method of collecting and processing qualitative data. A “peer” is a person with a lived experience which is relatable for the group that is taking part in the study. They are involved in conducting the study as they have a better understanding of the participants’ experiences, and can adjust it to any possible differences and nuances within the studied group. For instance, on this project, I conduct interviews with the young people and their parents, who came to the UK for their safety the same way I did.
What difference do you think it makes for the research process?
Being a peer researcher makes you a trusted person which leads to a great number of benefits. First of all, it breaks the ice of the “you don’t understand me” attitude. People share less information if they feel that they are going to be dismissed or their message will not be heard. Also, in peer research there is a lesser chance of gatekeeping as the information is being shared technically within the community. By having similar experience, the researcher can ignite a deep conversation and even touch on the most sensitive topics. Second of all, peer researchers are likely to speak the same language that the interviewees speak. That helps to avoid difficulties in expressing thoughts and challenges of miscommunication. In addition, an opportunity to speak a mother tongue reduces stress and makes an interview setting more relaxed. One of the interviewed parents noted that a chance to share their story and talk in native language gave them a great feeling of relieve. Last but not least, the format of peer research is great for creating a safe space where thoughts can be shared without judgement. Given the cultural differences of each studied group, there is a big chance of facing different perceptions of various things. Needs and values that are prioritised in western countries may not have the same role in the lives of people from different cultures. Thus, it was important for me to reassure the interviewees that any criticisms they may express will be seen as an expression of their needs, rather than as them being “ungrateful” or rejecting what they have been offered. And that is just a surface of what peer research can bring into a study.
What would you say are the challenges in doing peer research? Have there been any challenges in your experience?
The fact that a peer researcher is an insider of a studied group is not only about the benefits. The most obvious challenge is that the process of a study can bring up traumatic experiences. The researchers have to deal with a great amount of an emotional labour to not be affected by the consequences of it. In addition, you have to be in a constant mode of developing your personality in order to stay free from judgement and assumptions. It is extremely easy to fall into prejudice when both the researcher and the respondents share some experiences. Also there always is a problem of power dynamics. Even though we all have similar backgrounds, we may be in different positions, so the challenges of a daily life will differ as well. It is crucial to know how to give a correct emotional response in situations when interviewees may ask for help that the researcher cannot provide. On top of that, such situations are casting a shade of frustrating emotions because those cases have to be taken as a fact rather than a problem to solve.
I cannot say that my experience was challenge free. I found it challenging to hear participants describe problems or ask for advice, as I needed to not only show sympathy, but also explain that such cases go far beyond my competence. As I mentioned earlier, the power dynamic makes us the responsible ones who are in charge of making decisions, but only in the eyes of interviewees. There were times when I had to step out of the situation no matter how badly I wanted to help it. As researchers, we can signpost research participants to other support services, but we have to accept that we cannot offer professional help ourselves, even if an interview process itself could be a helpful way for someone to let their feelings out. Another experience I had was not particularly challenging but made me question the process. I needed the reassurance to know if I was doing everything right. In one of the interviews, I asked several leading questions. This is where the assumption and the understanding are getting dangerously close. Luckily, it turned out to be just fine as I was reassured that the questions were asked from the position of emotional intelligence.