25 Sep 2020

The problem of language in collective evidence with communities

In 2020, the Institute for Community Studies published Safety in Numbers? a research agenda co-created with three thousand people from across the UK. This process generated a large range of priority research activities, which focused explicitly on ‘What Matters?’ to communities.

The Institute for Communities model is challenging and inventing a new way of expanding what counts as evidence; bringing together:

  • A rapid evidence assessment of the academic and grey literature
  • A call for evidence of examples of innovative or unpublished practice, intervention, research or evaluation, where communities are included at the heart of efforts to strengthen local economies
  • And data collected from communities by our peer research network

By triangulating evidence from communities, experts and existing published research, we aim to provide a more rounded understanding of the issues that matter to communities, and how to address them effectively. 

We are only part way through the pilot of this process, diving into the question of economic resilience within communities – which was ranked and prioritised highly in our agenda setting process with communities. This is an innovative process and it is revealing new and highly interesting challenges about how we blend different kinds of evidence together. But most importantly, it highlights the ways in which academic language, and perhaps therefore ultimately focus, excludes certain nuance and meaning which is inherent in community responses, experiences and perspectives.

In order to build more complete, useful evidence to support policy and practice, we have to find better ways of bringing those two worlds together. Our call for evidence that is unpublished, cutting edge or has not had its destination as a peer reviewed journal is a key part of this – recognising there is a huge body of grey literature and other forms of data and knowledge available from those who care about this subject, which may be closer to how communities’ describe their experiences and the challenges. Only time will tell as we continue our review.

In short, and it will not come as a shock to anyone reading this, the ways in which academic evidence talks about challenges and social issues is very different from how ‘ordinary’ people reflect and articulate experiences in their own lives. And this has a profound impact on the usefulness, credibility and efficacy of that research in genuinely tackling social, economic and environmental challenges – because it is about what is missed out, or seen as less important in the evidence base, but which makes a huge difference to whether it actually addresses communities’ issues.

As we continue our work, we want to share this insight in more detail, for all those working to develop innovative methodological practice.

 

Starting with a rapid evidence assessment

A rapid evidence assessment is a formal review method that follows a clearly defined series of steps, to ensure what is produced is rigorous, transparent and replicable. The method systematically summarises the available, published evidence on a particular question, in this case our current work is focused on: ‘What is the evidence on what works to strengthen local economies in the UK, and what is the role of communities within this?

One of the first steps in this process is defining the terms used to search databases of academic papers – essentially breaking the research question down into topic areas with associated key words, phrases, synonyms & alternative spellings, so you don’t miss a paper that is relevant because you only used a narrow subset of all the words that are used in the relevant literature. Only searching for ‘economy’, for example, instead of employment, work, market, etc. limits the amount of relevant articles that the search can yield. We are not restricting our search to the academic literature, but also sourcing and examining the grey literature on this topic using these search terms and paying careful attention to terms which may have developed through interventions and expert communities of practice – such as ‘community assets’ or ‘commoning’.

As is usual, good practice at this stage of a rapid evidence assessment, to define our search terms, we gathered input from subject matter experts familiar with the academic literature on local economic resilience. As set out earlier, the search terms we settled on marked a departure from the language used by communities in the agenda to describe their concerns about their local economies.

Our initial list of search terms for the evidence review tried to include this language, but when it was cross referenced with the language from subject matter experts, not everything was suitable for a review of academic literature. For example terms such as ‘poverty’ or ‘healthy’ are very generic and would have yielded either a large amount of material irrelevant to the review question, or no material at all. 

 

Academic search terms & community experience

As we progress with the search what we have noticed is how limiting the academic search terms are for capturing the experience of communities. What we can’t be sure of until we have finished the analysis, is whether academics and communities are using different language to say the same thing, or whether they have an inherently different focus on the same issue.

Based on what we have seen so far, we think it is the latter.

Academic search terms and their synonyms, such as ‘sector’ (or retail, leisure, high street, shops, hospitality, construction, manufacturing) don’t capture the specifics of communities’ concerns about “economic risk in the reliance of the town on major employers and jobs coming from investment into the local area do not go to the local community”.

Similarly the term ‘role’ (or participate, engage, involve, contribute), doesn’t get to the nub of “how lack of suitable employment can also pose challenges for people who leave but later wish to return, either to care for elderly relatives or to reconnect with places where they feel a strong sense of belonging.”

Where we use ‘strengthen (or revitalise, renew, grow, sustain, regeneration)’ to find relevant academic literature on an improved local economy, communities talk about the day to day realities ofworking multiple jobs to pay the mortgage or rent”, and “concern about the longer term implications of unstable or contract work.”

What we can already see at this stage, is how the academic language about local economic resilience does not capture the experiential aspect of what strong local communities might feel like. People cite things such as a sense of belonging, the sense of pride that accompanies a thriving local high street, the emotional and familial ties to home that young people miss out on when they have to move away to find work.

Part of how communities saw a thriving local economy was having access to good jobs in a place not constantly having to travel to a big city; mobility within a place not between places. Local communities don’t just want to see more jobs in their area, but high quality jobs, a diversity of jobs, jobs that are accessible, suitable, that allow young people to do fulfilling work that they are qualified for closer to home.

People across the board cited concerns about ‘in-work poverty,’ and how the type of local jobs available are not just about employment but about a ‘quality of life’. Communities tell us they need jobs that provide them with what they need to survive without constantly worrying about the precarity of their situation.

In the same way, the idea of local investment is more complicated than how much money is flowing into a community. Community members want to know whether investment will actually go to the community and whether jobs created by big companies in the area will  go to local people. They also are keen to be involved in the decision-making process when it comes to how money from outside investment will be spent. Local economic resilience is therefore not just about the amount invested in local areas but the community’s ability to have a say in how it’s spent.

The importance of this disconnect that seems to be emerging, between how research language discusses the challenges of local economies, and how communities’ describe their lived experience of them, is in whether a complete or collective picture of the challenges ends up influencing interventions, investment and policy. If some of communities’ experience is missing or if we are talking about different issues, not just in different languages, then we risk tackling the wrong part of this problem.

As we move onto the next stage of the review, mapping and synthesising the academic and grey literature, we will no doubt see more nuance than what is captured by the search terms, perhaps revealing a greater connection with the concerns expressed by communities. But what we see here left us reflecting on whether communities themselves would recognise their lived experience of their local economies in the academic literature? We don’t think they would.

Written by our ICS research associates: Caroline Yang, Caroline Stevens and Kerry McCarthy.