A View from 2014: Looking Back, Moving Forwards by Helen Thomas-Hughes

helen-thomasWhat follows here is an extract all about Productive Margins, Regulation and Co-Production from own ill-fated and much neglected blog which I started when I began working on PM. My dive into blogging was on the back of sound advice from colleagues that my ‘online presence’ would be an essential block in any attempt to build an academic career. I have come to hope that this isn’t true as, at this time, my blog has been well and truly discarded and I’m not sure I have the heart to resurrect it only to populate it with more of my own uncertain musings….

 Anyway, this entry is from early 2014, at this time, though I had a comprehensive research background I had come from ‘outside’ of academia, the institution was very new to me and I was combining work on Productive Margin’s with work at a local domestic violence charity. Enjoy!

 What is Productive Margins?

Productive Margins is a research programme that is using co-production to ask how we can find ways for people who don’t feel that they are being heard or represented to have a voice in regulation.

In my life outside of academia I found myself asking many times how we can be in this situation where the ‘powers that be’ (who are paid and elected by the people to represent our interests and needs) can make decisions that seem to have little relationship to what people actually want, with the information needed to make fully informed decisions predominantly kept away from the public eye. This is made worse by the fact that, for me at least, I am so under-pressure in terms of time and money that I can’t spare the time to take action when there are things going on outside of my immediate spheres of children/work/home that I’m unhappy with. If there isn’t time to sort out or think about smaller problems how do we start to think about the big ones?

For me, Productive Margins might be a way to look into this, to find new ways for people to challenge and instigate regulations so that that systems we live within are relevant to our everyday lives.

Productive Margins and Co-Production

In traditional social research you tend to have an academic researcher who decides what they want to research, goes into a community, collects some data, takes it away, analyses it and creates papers. Co-production is a way of doing social research that means communities and ‘formal’ researchers (academics) work together at every stage from research question to reporting. It’s really a case of starting from a place where everyone recognises and values each other’s expertise and has a willingness to listen and learn.

Productive Margins is experimenting with co-production on a large scale; there are nine community and ten academic partners across Bristol and South Wales who are trying to find ways to come together to create something new, ways to come up against powerful corporate/governmental interests and make a genuine impact on the ways people engage with regulation.

Productive Margin’s is also exploring the co-production methodology, looking at what makes successful co-produced research and what are the pit-falls.

A few co-production resources:

Take a look at the Co-Production Network

And the Centre for Social Justice (they call it Community Based Participatory Research but hey-ho)

And just one more, The 7 Non-Senses of Co-Production was created by Tesheen Noorani for Productive Margins.


Productive Margins and Regulation

Broadly speaking regulations are the rules that govern what we do. We are regulated according to the expectations of the society and culture we are part of, this includes what we wear, what we do, what we say and how we say it. The way we think is also regulated – we are taught what is considered ‘normal’ from birth through what we see and hear around us, this becomes a belief – we believe that the way we do and think about things is the ‘normal’ way; through this society and culture have regulated our thinking. Regulations are also the rules that more formally tell us what we should and shouldn’t do across all areas of life.

Regulation even governs how we react to other regulations, for example: we are allowed by UK law to peacefully protest but we are not allowed to riot (this is formal regulation). But, by using kettling as a tactic against predominantly peaceful student protesters the police in the UK set an informal regulatory norm, the media’s coverage of the protests, which chose to focus primarily on incidents of criminal damage, have done the same. As a mother I now know that if I take my children on a peaceful march (to teach them about believing in something, having a voice and our democratic processes) we may be kettled and that the media are likely to report in such a way that it will look like I and my children are engaged in criminal activity. This knowledge has a regulatory effect on the choices that I make. NB: Liberty and the NUS have produced this helpful Guide to Protesting in the UK which explains the Law and formal regulatory structures.

Productive Margins is open to looking at all areas of regulation and this will become more specific as the research develops.

Where are we now?

It’s February 2014 and we are now nine months into the project. There is funding for five new research ‘projects’ which will emerge from cross-community and academic partnerships over the next five years. The projects will all look at finding ways to have a voice/impact on regulation but from different angles and within three defined themes: neighbourhoods, digital spaces and dissent (we also have three amazing PhD students, each linked to a theme).

When I started the job this ‘project development’ sounded simple, in reality it is incredibly difficult. Time and budgetary constraints mean that we are all trying to find ways for Productive Margins to fit into our existing works and this is limiting the scope of our ideas. It’s also interesting that though we’ve talked together about projects relating to many varied issues we have yet to touch on some of the big structural changes that are currently happening in the UK, what about the dismantling of the NHS, changes to the education system and the welfare state – do these ‘problems’ just seem too big?

I have been in post now for nearly six months. I’ve spent my working life on temporary and free-lance contracts and this job is no different but, this does makes for difficult working. How can you take risks, get things wrong, be experimental and challenging when you’re constantly thinking about whether there’s going to be money going into the bank in the months to come? Addressing how I approach this is my personal challenge over the next few months.

Gatenby, B., & Humphries, M. (2000, February). Feminist participatory action research: 584 Methodological and ethical issues. In Women’s Studies International Forum (Vol. 23, 585 No. 1, pp. 89-105). Pergamon.

Productive Margins, University of Bristol
8-10 Berkeley Square, Bristol, BS8 1HH

Tel: +44 (0)117 3940042

Email: productive-margins@bristol.ac.uk