Methodological Issues and Emotional Labour in Co-Produced Research

Report from a Workshop with Early Career Researchers at University of Sheffield, 4-5 December 2018

--Tim May, Beth Perry and Charlotte Spring (with thanks to participants who gave their time).

Sixteen people, comprising doctoral and early-career researchers, gathered at the University of Sheffield for a day and a half workshop to discuss methodological issues and emotional labour in co-produced research. Organised with financial support from Mistra Urban Futures, the Realising Just Cities programme and the ESRC-funded Jam and Justice project, it was jointly run by the Sheffield Methods Institute and the Urban Institute, with participants coming from varying disciplines and areas of interest to discuss and share their experiences of co-produced research.

Workshop context: making space to reflect on practice

The impact and engagement agendas, REF and now TEF, embody the need for the social sciences to be both excellent and relevant to users. Research Councils UK defines academic impact as: “The demonstrable contribution that excellent research makes to academic advances, across and within disciplines, including significant advances in understanding, methods, theory and application”. Academic beneficiaries are expected to be outlined in applications, although an exception is: “where academic impact forms part of the critical pathway to economic and societal impact”. Societal and economic impacts are defined as: “The demonstrable contribution that excellent research makes to society and the economy”. ( However, RCUK is one of many funders of research who have different expectations with the ‘value’ of research varying among groups.

In this climate, issues associated with what may be broadly termed collaborative research, require understanding among practitioners. The boundaries between university-based research and differing external organisations and groups are becoming more porous due to external pressures and internal adaptations which lead to particular prescriptions of what is judged to be excellent and relevant research (May and Perry 2018). In the face of these pressures, conventional methods are not immune but collaborative research, although lauded for impact purposes, raises particular issues and leads to the view that: “The main enemy of intelligent and rigorous approaches to understanding the legacy of complex research the assumption that there is one toolkit/process/method that can capture it” (Facer and Pahl 2017: 18). It was, as a result of these issues that this workshop was organised, recognising that there is a dearth of spaces for learning from research practice within university cultures.

With this background in mind, a number of questions informed our discussions during the workshop: for example, who owns the resulting knowledge from collaborative research and who can be attributed with having produced it? These concerns can seem in tension, even contradiction, to the very spirit of its methodology. This raises further questions such as: how are the boundaries between justification and application in research negotiated and understood and from what positions? What implications does this have for the process of research and judgements of value? At the same time the practice of co-produced research, whilst apparently in accord with the need to demonstrate relevance and impact, can be labour-intensive, time consuming and requires constant negotiation in order to build trust, ensure clarity and work towards commonly agreed outcomes. Recognition and the value attributed to such work in academic cultures are variable with resulting tensions between credibility and applicability and the pursuit of excellence and relevance.

The aim of the workshop was to create a context for discussions among early career researchers who engage in co-production. This was informed by a wish to enable collective reflection, in a supportive manner, on practice.

Workshop design: peer learning and group reflection

We asked attendees to prepare one-page reflections, for discussion in groups, on the following questions:

  • What are the topics of your inquiries?
  • How did you become involved in these and with whom do you normally work?
  • From your experiences, what issues and obstacles have you encountered in the conduct of your work?
  • What do you think is important about the work you do and how, personally, do you judge its success?
  • Given the issues identified in your work, how have you sought to address those in your practice and what have you learnt from your experiences?

These questions were intended to provoke discussion on issues that regularly arose, how they are negotiated and with what implications for practice.

During the first day, participants worked in small groups, sharing their insights before coming back to discuss them as a group. Space for informal discussion and networking was enabled by convivial discussions over dinner and the opportunity to pick up on key themes of the day. The second half day was devoted to a talk by Professor Kate Reed at Sheffield University. Kate, a medical sociologist, spoke to the group about her experience of researching the impact of MRI technologies on parents involved in early-life loss and the work of health professionals. This enabled a collective reflection on issues associated with consent, disclosure and vulnerability and the role of emotional labour in the process of social research (for more information, see:

In the text below we offer our summary of the discussion, populated with paraphrased sentiments from those present at the workshop.

Workshop discussions: emotional labour at the boundaries

The discussions were characterised by a blending of biographical reflection and engagement with past and live research. There was time to listen to experiences and challenges and inquire into the varying worlds of research topics and communities with whom participants worked. Partnerships were very varied and included a wide range of organisations and topics, for example working with: private sector planning organisations; charities and activists on surplus food redistribution; coproducing digital spaces for multi-sector urban food partnerships; primary schools on the co-design of toilets to improve anti-microbial resistance; children and young people, charities, social workers and police officers in relation to safeguarding and sexual violence; trade unions on transitions to low carbon futures; family carers of adults with learning disabilities; local government on climate change governance; religious communities on the topics of love and sexuality; and water companies to collaborate across the supply chain.

The success of co-production as a process was judged according to a range of measures, for instance, the experience of creating dynamic meetings, building cross-sectoral relationships and generating understandings between communities which could outlive the project. Central measures of success were whether co-production enabled lesser-heard voices to be aired and supporting collaborative working between partners who did not previously know each other. For some, the contribution to the accumulation of skills and knowledge for researchers was an equally valuable concern.

“It’s that feeling that you’ve done something useful, having worked with people to find out what useful is…..feeling like you’ve made a change in practice…enabled space for people to tell their story without being judged… that instant moment of feedback and thanks.”

During the conversations, participants recognised familiar experiences in each other’s accounts, which were often absent from published methodological statements. These included the techniques deployed to navigate organisations, roles and sectors, where expectations varied due to different frames of reference and the ways in which funding inevitably led to particular ways of seeing issues. Overcoming these challenges required reflection on positions, identities and political and ethical commitments in the process. As a result, feelings of performing in ambiguous and uncomfortable spaces were commonplace and exemplified in the expectation that researchers are both translators and mediators in the work they do. This was particularly acute where intimate subjects were at stake, and found expression in the power-laden dynamics of care, welfare, activism, policy-making and private sector interests. A tension between collaboration and competition was a commonly iterated theme.

The fear of co-optation was a recurrent concern. Co-productive and participatory research can be deployed as a means for governments and public, private and voluntary organisations in general, to function in ways that ignore, deny or excuse injustice. Matters of voice and marginality were addressed through attempts to create spaces of dialogue, underpinned by a commitment to recognise those often excluded from consideration. The presumption of consensus as an end-state of research - in the face of real differences involving partners in conflict - could not be maintained when in engaged proximity. Such situations were emotionally taxing.

Conversation then turned to how to project oneself and the integrity of the work in practice, along with the deployment of methods and representational practices. Whilst academic research in general does not respect fixed times during the day, co-production can easily invite an even greater blurring of the boundaries between personal commitments and institutional expectations related to careers. Equally, in destabilising the presumption of knowledge practices having the potential to leading to consensus, just by being immersed in a collaborative process with varying partners, both the facilitation and value of diverse knowledge become issues. In representing this diversity and tackling the issues which emerge, the idea of academic as detached expert is challenged.

“Sometimes it would be nice to have a job you can leave at 5pm. You carry it with you. How do you shed it when you go into your home life, if at all?”

Time and disposition to engage and seek change mix with varying effects on the individuals involved. Participants reflected on how degrees of immersion and the duration of engagement are relational to the contexts and content of the research. Aspirations to achieve degrees of societal change through the work mixed with the realities of academic funding, fixed term contracts and output-driven impact agendas; all of which can affect how participants might view and experience research processes and product, as well as the legacy of the research itself once funding has ceased. Issues of recognition emerged again in terms of what happens when participants do not ‘see’ themselves in our outputs, or in situations where disagreement on how data should be analysed arises, particularly when having opened up the process to diverse others who are situated in varying ways. Ethical issues then arise in terms of how the involvement demanded by co-production could even exacerbate the potential for extractive and exploitative research through, for instance, the failed promise of change or the production of outputs according to university expectations which do not adequately reflect the involvement of partners in the research process.

“When you have disclosures or people are upset, how do you manage your response or other people’s responses to those things?”


Values in Action

During discussions among the group as a whole, a number of questions emerged as a result of the inevitable ambiguity that comes with the displacement and questioning of expertise which is not enacted at a distance from research or through the application of a particular method to a research topic. One of these was: ‘what is co-production’? Should it be conceived as a method, ontology, ethic or ethos? Here, negotiations regarding partners as participants or co-producers need consideration in terms of how people are differently positioned, as well as their expectations of what can and may change as a result of the work. This results in different roles which academics adopt, fluctuating from facilitation that is recognised to be of value, to unwelcome impositions. Whilst engaging with the work itself, participants felt the need to be fully cognisant of the differing resources and capacities of partners to participate, but recognised that this is not always known or knowable in advance. The need to recognise an inevitable and unequal divisions of labour in the process, and an awareness that compromises were not always reached, especially where there are differences in the motivations of partners and the evaluation of funders and organisations.

“What happens if you take sides? Are you betraying one set of participants against another?”

The role of varying gatekeepers and recipients of research outcomes not involved in the co-production process were then raised. Process and product lie in tension, whilst it may also be the case that gatekeepers also exacerbate or directly contribute to the very injustices which the research seeks to address. Researching antagonistic, contentious and polarising issues at one level may necessitate taking a position, but at the same time there is also a wish to represent diverse viewpoints. Similarly, the risk of collusion and betrayal speaks to the way co-produced research can ‘act back’ and invite questioning by partners of the value and purpose of research. An expectation that subsequent knowledge is sufficient for resolving issues does not address the assumption that knowledge and action somehow lie in a linear process.

Individual preparation to respond to demands for varying kinds of accountability in face-to-face situations is critical, whilst also recognising the potential for generating critique which may not accord with the self-perception of participants. Consensus may easily be derived from the reflections of a particular sub-set of partners, but the point of research is not to do that, but to make both researchers and collaborators think and even act upon their presuppositions. Negotiations and conflicts are emotionally turbulent: fatiguing encounters require forms of care which, if internalised, become individualised and even unbearable. At what points and under what circumstances is the ‘professional veil’ to be lifted and exposed as unsustainable and even undesirable?

“How can you deliver difficult messages, when partners’ images of themselves don’t square with the data?”

One of the ways in which such issues can be addressed and alleviated is the movement from the ‘I’ of the individual to the ‘we’ of collective reflections and experience, leading to the realisation that what may be assumed to be individual inadequacy is a facet of such work. Learning and constituting the time for such conversations is core to co-production, but often absent. The use of ‘we’ was felt to reflect both the shared nature of concerns and an explicit engagement with the politics of academia and how each person seek to act within its dynamics. Despite the diversity of topics, there was a shared sense that these challenges should not be borne by the researcher alone.

“You can feel like the junior partner, you are doing the work, but there are PhD supervisors and bosses; you might not be the most powerful person in that relationship.”

When research is framed as a collective endeavour, whilst seeking to recognise the unique individuality and contributions of those involved, this can conflict with forms of recognition in outputs such a journal articles. Indeed, the very act of working with others outside academia and acknowledging their contributions as authors can be problematic when being judged according to the international standing of the resulting work. Tensions between a commitment to research that furthers the goal of social justice come up against what is constituted as a successful academic career and here, support from institutional cultures can be lacking.

“What do I say when people asks how this furthers my career, what’s in it for me… it’s not always about academic journals”

Such disjuncture led to an observation that whilst it was acknowledged there are pressures and a need to publish in academic journals, it was not a primary motivation for undertaking the work. Changes in practices and policies were more of a priority. That, in turn, requires recognition of the authority that research carries and strategic thinking about how different outcomes and outputs of the research are deployed. Integrity was core to a personal judgement of success, along with a refusal to distort findings to placate funders or certain stakeholders. Commitments to treating people with respect and undertaking analysis and writing ‘in good faith’ in a spirit of collaboration, were core to judgements of success. 

“I wanted to make sure that at least one of the things that each participant said appeared in the thesis, because they gave their time”.

Feelings of success and even joy could also be apparent through affirmation by collective efforts, empowerment and the forging of friendships. Research is a social process, but academia can be atomising through its evaluation of the success of the individual, separate from such contexts. A focus on publishing processes, and an insistence on the production of novelty through individual effort, often separate from history. Accounts of success dominate, as if failure could not be learnt from, and this did not sit lightly with the ideals expressed in the workshop, including the wish to include marginalised knowledges. At this point, recognition and reward might move to focus on re-contextualising and synthesising knowledge in ways that prompt collective inquiry so that others can act? Close, attentive listening and ‘active translation’ are important values in social research.

“You want to celebrate and cherish everything people have shared with you”


Workshop Reflections: Taking Engagement Seriously

A collective concern reinforced a sense of how much important work remains to be achieved. Participants spoke with clarity and humility, combined with an honest expectation of what can be achieved by different partners in co-production. The workshop space was marked by an accompanying vulnerability that comes with sharing and mobilising knowledge through co-production. Throughout the day a variety of emotions were shared. Mapping these reveals the iceberg of feelings expressed by participants.

Not all were negative; although the space was acknowledged as an much needed and unusual space for expression of difficulties and challenges (marked in gray), the up-side of co-production was given voice in personal satisfaction, feelings of joy and privilege and a sense of usefulness that comes from positioning oneself clearly as part of a social change processes (marked in yellow). This was accompanied by recognition that some emotions are neither positive nor negative (in blue); yes, co-production can be disempowering for academics engaged in such work, but isn’t this part of its very nature, even intent? Uncertainty and a lack of control characterise such spaces. But we can learn how we choose to respond to such issues, recognising their place in research which explicitly seeks to give voice and power to others.

There is a long history of how the role of emotion in research becomes marginalized with consequences for the insights subsequently generated. It can appear as an embarrassing aside from the pursuit of reason, through a slavish adherence to the application of method. Emotion does inform the research process: it does not have the last word, but such recognition can lead some down the path of denial and denigrate those who wish to consider the importance of emotion. On the contrary, starting from an awareness of commitment and the standpoint that oneself and others in the world have, is argued to lead to improved accounts of the world (Harding 1991; Smith 2002). The inverting of what has been termed the ‘hidden equation’ in research (May 1993) was itself an explicit aim of the workshop in order to contribute to more supportive cultures of inquiry in universities.

The building of trust in such situations is crucial to success and that takes time; it means addressing prejudice and opening up curiosity and understanding about the potential of other voices and views. That can mean dealing with resulting uncertainties about the fixity of past assumptions. It is both the intensity through proximity to differing views, and how to mediate those in situations of co-production, which leads to both its novelty and difficulty. The legitimacy of knowledge as received by various audiences acts as a distance from the producer, whilst co-production takes the extension of social scientific knowledge into arenas where it is inevitably contested. What has been called this ‘problem of extension’ (Collins and Evans 2009) leads to questioning of the individual expertise of the researcher who is committed to and immersed in co-production. Such a commitment needs to take account of other interests and represent and even articulate various values held by participants in a role as an ‘active intermediary’ (May and Perry 2017).

The ability to listen and learn from those involved in this work and its implications for practice and career aspirations was found to be helpful not only in terms of sharing experiences, but also assisting with the realisation that issues were not confined to the realm of personal inadequacy, but a general feature of such work. That, in turn, led to a conversation concerning fatigue among the public who saw no benefit from the tokenism that could easily accompany consultation. Equally, in conditions of austerity, policy-makers are said to require research to move into ever quicker time frames for the purpose of informing policy development. Yet, at the same time, policy-makers will say they are time poor and learning is at a premium. For such reasons, creating ‘third spaces’ for learning among groups within the university is argued to be as a basis for its distinctiveness in the current climate.

These arenas of collaborative knowledge generation and learning can be set up in universities at cross-institutional levels as experiments in which research staff from different disciplines come together to work on common issues. It was noteworthy in the workshop itself that disciplinary differences faded more into the background as participants focused on how they were bound up with their research and a focus upon common experiences, issues and the ways in which they sought to overcome or address those in their practice. The time and effort needed for this purpose often came up against evaluations of academic careers that presupposed more linear trajectories.

Creating such spaces can lead to more co-productive bid-writing involving diverse groups in the proposed work. At the same time, this enables an exploration of expectations of the work and what it might achieve. Here, modesty among participants was apparent in contrast to the assumption of permanent innovation in research that is often no more than a forgetting of history. Indeed, incessant demands for novelty perhaps need to make way for the validation of knowledges that may be excluded from consideration and yet which persist as part of the realities that inform contexts. These, in turn, can be written or presented in ways that can be understood by varying audiences with the use of art and exhibitions being ways in which such outcomes can be achieved.

The workshop itself demonstrated a need for support networks and spaces to talk about the challenges of co-producing research. Indeed, given the impact agenda, there was a sense in which institutional structures, cultures and processes needed to change to better enable environments where assumptions of predictable and linear modes of research are displaced by multi-partner projects and a need for adaptability and flexibility. This is particularly the case with issues of finance, as well as ethics and evaluations of written outcomes where academic work with non-academic partners. More generally, change was believed to be more likely and sustainable through co-produced working practices that were grounded in cross-sectoral relationships.


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