Pass me the LEGO®: A journey through the work of new researchers

At NCVO and VSSN’s annual Voluntary Sector and Volunteering Research conference, the new researchers sessions are always thriving with new ideas and cutting edge research. It was my first year co-chairing the sessions, here are some of the things I took away.

The power of qualitative research

Many of the talks were based on qualitative research. This was especially useful for capturing ‘under the radar’ or more informal voluntary activity, whether in Malaysia or Salford. Qualitative research is great for – to use a very un-researcher term – ‘getting inside people’s heads’, whether they are fundraisers or those in voluntary sector/government partnerships.

What struck me, aside from the richness of the research itself, was the impact of what Kathleen R. Gilbert has referred to as the emotional nature of qualitative research. This is mainly on the researcher themselves, but I think that it also provides a unique insight into people’s lives.

There were several very moving moments in the sessions about the challenges people face in these difficult times. For example, there has been a lot of discussion about foodbanks over the last few years in terms of numbers, but hearing research into the logistics of one in Salford, about the pressures on the person who runs it and the people that depend upon it, was thought provoking.

The minutiae is key here: how the donations are left, where they are stored, what happens when the organiser is unwell. And if a woman needs to leave an abusive home in the middle of the night with her children, the clothes they will need straight away. Things you don’t always think about.

‘I dinnae ken whit yer talkin aboot’

On the subject of qualitative research, one of the most lively and engaging discussions was around how we transcribe vernacular when writing up interviews. Should we capture exactly how people speak or is this patronising? Most of us felt it is important to reflect how people actually speak and I personally think this in itself is empowering.

This was a classic example of where it was great to share our experiences. It is one of the differences between actually applying a research methodology opposed to being taught it in class or reading about it in a book. All of these decisions we must make every single day, which are great to share in a research community.

Innovation, innovation, innovation

I have found in recent years there has been an emphasis on novelty in research methods, but it is sometimes hard to see what they add to more traditional methods. NCVO’s Véronique Jochum spoke to the new researchers on the potential and pitfalls of these from her own experience. Sometimes it can be novelty for novelty’s sake. But in some instances it can add so much.

It is striking when a genuinely innovative method is used in research to gain insight, and the results this can produce, as it did in Liz Dixon’s award winning paper on using LEGO® Serious Play®, which will be the subject of a future guest blog. We also heard about using life mapping and poems. These all enhanced research, adding a layer to more traditional approaches.

Importance of comparative research

One of the most insightful and rewarding experiences is to be asked to summarise your country’s history and political system, and explain where the voluntary sector fits into this. But it is not easy to do in 20 minutes!

It is challenging to do concisely, but speakers managed to in different ways, about Malaysia and Japan. This enlightened me about these countries’ voluntary sectors, particularly in relation to welfare provision. They also made me think of the UK in a different light. It is easy to forget that, for many of the services that the NHS provides for free, this is not the norm internationally.

Comparative research can be closer to home. When devolution in the UK began there was a great deal of talk about a ‘policy laboratory’, with learning shared across the four countries. This has not always happened in practice, although some have tried to address it, for example in this report from the Institute for Government.

There was a strong representation from Scotland in particular at the conference. It was interesting to learn about the Scottish context, including approaches to social enterprise and youth volunteering, and the impact of the independence campaign on voluntary action and exploring the social movements that emerged from it.

Gender differences in voluntary action

Finally, there were several papers where gender was a strong element. We heard about women in Scotland finding alternative modes of ‘volunteering’ and about the differing attitudes of male and female care givers in Japan.

I was racking my brains afterwards about whether gender had been an overarching theme of either a main conference or new researchers’ session I have attended in recent years. It hasn’t been to any great extent, to my knowledge, so it will be interesting if in future years this is a focus of a greater number of papers.

Next stop – 2017

So that’s it for another year’s research conference. I look forward to seeing how many of this year’s new researchers present next time at the main conference. Also, I wonder what fresh subjects and techniques the next cohort of new researchers will bring.


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Avatar photo Andy Curtis was senior research officer at NCVO's Institute for Volunteering Research.

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