What is peer research?

Peer research is a participatory research method in which people with lived experience of the issues being studied take part in directing and conducting the research1. Like other participatory methods, peer research ‘recognizes that individuals within any community being researched are themselves competent agents, capable of participating in research on a variety of levels, including as researchers’2. It aims to move away from the ‘extractive’ model of social research3 and to empower people to affect positive change by participating in research on their own communities4.

Peer researchers (also referred to as ‘community researchers’) use their lived experience and contextual understanding of a social or geographical community to help generate information about their peers for research purposes5. They may be involved in assisting with research design, developing research tools, collecting and analysing data or writing up and disseminating findings6

Peer research can also be referred to as ‘user involvement’ or ‘service user’ research when it is conducted together with the users of a specific service to evaluate that service7.

Why do peer research?

There are many advantages to adopting a peer research approach. 

  • Access to less heard voices: Because peer researchers are drawn from the community being studied, they often have privileged access to people who might be unwilling to engage with professional researchers8. Peer researchers can use their existing networks and relationships of trust to involve subjects that may not otherwise have been included in the research.
  • Empowerment of participants: Peer research is premised on a commitment to conducting research ‘with and for’ the subjects of the research9. The approach blurs the line between researcher and subject, mitigating the traditional power imbalance inherent in that relationship (Ibid.). 
  • The added value of lived experience: Peer researchers bring with them the advantage of their own lived experience. Their experiential knowledge and inside understanding of the issues being studied can enhance the richness and nuance of the inquiry10.
  • Gathering better data: When those conducting research have experience in common with the people they are interviewing, it reduces the risk of misunderstanding between researcher and subject and increases the likelihood that the inquiry will be relevant to the participants involved11. In addition, participants may respond more honestly and openly to an interviewer they know has personal experience of the issue being discussed, or with whom they are already familiar and feel they can speak more informally12. The result is higher quality data with more depth and nuance.
  • Activating communities: Participatory approaches critique and challenge academic research as the only legitimate way of knowing13. In addition, participatory research strives towards ‘the radical transformation of social reality and improvement in the lives of the individuals involved’14. Participatory approaches create activated, self-critical communities invested in their own wellbeing15 and awaken those who participate to their innate potential16.
  • Benefits to peer researchers: Peer research has the potential to benefit those who participate by providing them valuable work experience and training that may increase their employability in the future17. A substantial body of evidence indicates that people gain confidence and self-esteem by participating in peer research and finding that they add significant value to the process18. It may also promote social inclusion among groups who often experience exclusion and isolation such as those challenged by stigma or marginalization19.

Peer research today in the UK

In an effort to assess the state of peer research in the UK today, the ICS conducted an extensive desk review and identified 48 projects planned, ongoing or completed in the UK over the past 5 years. To read the full review click here. There are likely to be projects that were not documented online so please contact us if you would like to include your peer research project in our review.

Our review revealed peer research to be an emerging approach, largely involving community members without formal academic research training. As such, peer research can face the challenge of proving its legitimacy and value.

There are two main elements of this challenge:

  1. There are no standards for best practice when it comes to peer research. This makes it difficult for practitioners to make their case for the value of the approach and poses technical and ethical problems for all those interested in using peer research.
  2. Policymakers and others in positions of power do not always understand the value of peer research. Currently, no unified case has been made for the value of the approach and there is no guidance on how the findings generated through peer research can best be used to influence policy and strengthen communities. In addition, it is not always clear what kinds of projects peer research is useful for, nor how much time and resource is necessary to commission a peer research project.

To start to address these challenges we aim to use the ICS as a forum to set peer research standards, share learning of what works and start to collect evidence of its impact and effectiveness as a valuable research methodology.

If you are interested in being part of a national network of peer research organisations please contact zoe.dibb@youngfoundation.org

  • 1. Lushey, C. (2017). ‘Peer Research Methodology: Challenges and Solutions’ [online]. SAGE Research Methods Cases. https://dx-doi-org.ezproxy.is.ed.ac.uk/ 10.4135/9781473994614.
  • 2. Higgins, J., Nairn, K. and Sligo, J. (2007). ‘Peer research with youth.’ In: Kindon, S., Pain, R. and Kesby, M. (eds.) Participatory Action Research Approaches and Methods. London: Routledge, Ltd., 104-111.
  • 3. Kindon, S., Pain, R. and Kesby, M. (2007). ‘Introduction: Connecting people, participation and place.’ In: Kindon, S., Pain, R. and Kesby, M. (eds.) Participatory Action Research Approaches and Methods. London: Routledge, Ltd: 1-5.
  • 4. Wadsworth, Y. (1998). ‘What is participatory action research?’ [online]. Action Research International, Paper 2. www.scu.edu.au/schools/gcm/ar/ari/p-ywadsworth98.html
  • 5. Edwards, R. and Alexander, C. (2011). ‘Researching with Peer/Community Researchers - Ambivalences and Tensions.’ In: Williams, M. and Vogt, W.P. (eds.) The SAGE Handbook of Innovation in Social Research Methods. London: SAGE Publications Ltd., 269-292.
  • 6. Lushey, C. (2017)
  • 7. Beresford, P. (2007a). ‘User involvement, research and health inequalities: Developing new directions.’ Health and Social Care in the Community, 15(4): 306-312; Edwards, R. and Alexander, C. (2011).
  • 8. Elliott, E., Watson, A.J. and Harries, U. (2001). ‘Harnessing expertise: involving peer interviewers in qualitative research with hard-to-reach populations.’ Health Expectations, 5: 172-178; Smith, R., Monaghan, M. and Broad, B. (2002). ‘Involving Young People as Co-Researchers.’ Qualitative Social Work, 1(2): 191-207; Guta, A., Flicker, S. and Roche, B. (2013). ‘Governing through community allegiance: a qualitative examination of peer research in community-based participatory research’ [online]. Critical Public Health, 23(4): 432-451. https://doi.org/10.1080/09581596.2012.761675
  • 9. Lushey, C. (2017); Edwards, R. and Alexander, C. (2011)
  • 10. Beresford, P. (2007a); Dixon, J., Ward, J. and Blower, S. (2019); Edwards, R. and Alexander, C. (2011).
  • 11. Smith, R., Monaghan, M. and Broad, B. (2002)
  • 12. Littlechild, R., Tanner, D. and Hall, K. (2015). ‘Co-research with older people: perspectives on impact’ [online]. Qualitative Social Work, 14(1): 18-35. https://doi-org.ezproxy.is.ed.ac.uk/10.1177/1473325014556791; Tanner, D. (2012). ‘Co-research with older people with dementia: Experience and reflections’ [online]. Journal of Mental Health, 21(3): 296-306. https://doi-org.ezproxy.is.ed.ac.uk/10.3109/09638237.2011.651658; Burns, S. and Schubotz, D. (2009). ‘Demonstrating the Merits of the Peer Research Process: A Northern Ireland Case Study’ [online] Field Methods, 21(3): 309-326. https://journals-sagepub-com.ezproxy.is.ed.ac.uk/doi/pdf/10.1177/152582…; Fleming, J., Goodman, C. and Skinner, A. (2009). ‘Experiences of peer evaluation of the Leicester Teenage Pregnancy Prevention Strategy’ [online]. Children and Society, 23(4): 279-290. https://doi-org.ezproxy.is.ed.ac.uk/10.1111/j.1099-0860.2008.00178.x; Kirby, P. (2004). ‘A Guide to Actively Involving Young People in Research: For researchers, research commissioners, and managers’ [online]. INVOLVE Support Unit. https://www.invo.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/InvolvingYoungPeople…; Dixon, J., Ward, J. and Blower, S. (2019). ‘“They sat and actually listened to what we think about the care system”: the use of participation, consultation, peer research and co-production to raise the voices of young people in and leaving care in England’ [online]. Child Care in Practice, 25(1): 6-21. https://doi.org/10.1080/13575279.2018.1521380; Harding, R., Whitfield, G. and Stillwell, N. (2010). ‘Service users as peer research interviewers: why bother?’ [online]. In: Greener, C. H. and Kilkey, M. (eds.) Social policy review 22: analysis and debate in social policy, 2010. Bristol: Policy Press, 317-335. http://irep.ntu.ac.uk/id/eprint/26065; Vaughn, L.M., Whetstone, C., Boards, A., Busch, M.D., Magnusson, M. and Maatta, S. (2018). ‘Partnering with insiders: A review of peer models across community-engaged research, education and social care’ [online]. Health and Social Care in the Community, 26(6): 769-786.
  • 13. Maguire, P. (1987). Doing participatory action research: A feminist approach. Massachusetts: University of Massachusetts Press.
  • 14. MacDonald, C. (2012). ‘Understanding Participatory Action Research: A Qualitative Research Methodology Option’ [online]. Canadian Journal of Action Research, 13(2): 34-50. file:///Users/carolineyang/Downloads/37-Article%20Text-89-1-10-20120913.pdf
  • 15. McTaggart, R. (1989). ‘16 tenets of participatory action research’ [online]. http://www.caledonia.org.uk/par.htm#4.
  • 16. Selenger, D. (1997). Participatory action research and social change. New York: Cornell University.
  • 17. Dixon, J., Ward, J. and Blower, S. (2019); Dowling, S. (2016). ‘Finally someone who doesn’t judge me!’ Evaluation of peer research method for the YOLO study: Transitions and outcomes for care leavers with mental health and/or intellectual disabilities.’ Belfast: Queens University Belfast; Thomas-Hughes, H. (2018). ‘Critical Conversations with Community Researchers - Making Co-Production Happen?’ [online]. Bristol: University of Bristol and AHRC Connected Communities. https://connected-communities.org/index.php/project_resources/connected…
  • 18. Burns, S. and Schubotz, D. (2009); Dixon, J., Ward, J. and Blower, S. (2019); Harding, R., Whitfield, G. and Stillwell, N. (2010); Kirby, P. (2004); Minogue, V., Boness, J. Brown, A., and Girdlestone, J. (2005). ‘The impact of service user involvement in research’ [online]. International Journal of Health Care Quality Assurance, 18(2/3): 103-112. http://dx.doi.org.ezproxy.is.ed.ac.uk/10.1108/09526860510588133; Littlechild, R., Tanner, D. and Hall, K. (2015); Thomas-Hughes, H. (2018)
  • 19. Tait, L. and Lester, H. (2005). ‘Encouraging user involvement in mental health services’ [online]. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, 11(3): 168-175. https://doi.org/10.1192/apt.11.3.168; Littlechild, R., Tanner, D. and Hall, K. (2015); Minogue, V., Boness, J. Brown, A., and Girdlestone, J. (2005).