Influencing practice through doctoral research: opportunities and challenges

Photo by Agence Olloweb on Unsplash

As charitable organisations are faced with growing competition for funds, they are under pressure to communicate the impact of their work in ways that clearly define and measure ‘success’. However, when programme goals are difficult to classify or describe, organisations are confronted with the twofold challenge of a) identifying the data that needs to be captured to accurately demonstrate the impact of their work, and b) articulating the impact in such a way that different stakeholders’ needs are met.

This was the issue faced by The Faith and Belief Forum (F&BF, formally Three Faiths Forum), an interfaith charity and the case study of my 2016–2020 doctoral research. The aim of my PhD was to establish how ‘interfaith contact’, represented by F&BF’s School Linking Programme, fosters ‘peaceful relations’ among young people in schools. Using mixed methods, the research sought to uncover how ‘peaceful relations’ are informed or inhibited by School Linking at interpersonal and school levels, before reflectively reassessing how we understand the concept of ‘peaceful relations’ in and of itself. The outcome was a context-specific framework of ‘peaceful relations’ that furthered academic theory and supported F&BF’s efforts to measure and communicate School Linking’s impact.

Undertaking doctoral research with the purpose of influencing practice, however, came with its own challenges. I appreciated that F&BF entered the partnership with specific expectations, including quantifiable outcomes that could used to market School Linking and enhance its positive reputation. This raised a number of questions. How would F&BF respond to a research design that inherently challenged oversimplified definitions of success? How could I best communicate findings to F&BF that were on the surface ‘negative’?

To address these concerns, it was important that I reflected on my positionality as a researcher. Was I an ‘insider’ or an ‘outsider’? In reality, I was a bit of both. Having worked in the charity sector before embarking on my PhD, I was sympathetic to F&BF’s motivations for taking part in the research; I understood their desire to use the outcomes as a platform to advertise their success. To channel this perspective in a way that retained my objectivity, I adopted the methodological position of “double reflexivity”, an approach advocated by Knauth and Vieregge (2019) in their research into religion-related dialogue in schools. The double reflexive process stresses that the relationship between theory and practice is inherently cyclical; by recognising that my case study subjects have an intrinsic and reflexive knowledge of the work of School Linking, the approach necessitated that my concepts and arguments as ‘researcher’ spoke to those ‘on the ground’. This way, any new understanding of ‘peaceful relations’ that emerged from the research had practical relevance to the actors involved in my case study.

I found that embracing this approach generated opportunities to strengthen relationships with F&BF while bolstering the rigour of my research. Throughout the research process, I met with the School Linking team to discuss methods, data collection and emerging findings. I benefited from in-depth conversations with individual members of staff, but also presented more broadly at whole staff ‘lunch and learn’ sessions, during which the entire F&BF team would hear a summary of my progress. These meetings were a great opportunity to test the extent to which my research resonated with programme staff.

I couldn’t forget, however, that the project was first and foremost a PhD. It was important for me to challenge the assumptions of School Linking and articulate the complex processes underlying the relationships between the programme and ‘peaceful relations’ in a manner that was grounded in academic theory. I chose to reassess the intergroup model of contact theory (Allport 1954; Hewstone and Swart 2011), which essentially argues that contact between two or more groups reduces prejudiced attitudes. By mapping my findings onto Allport’s (1954) four ‘conditions’ for effective prejudice reduction (equal status, common goals, cooperation and institutional support), I furthered theoretical understanding but also presented F&BF with a practical ‘recipe for successful interfaith contact’. Moreover, my critique of the intergroup contact model as incompatible with teaching about religious diversity related the theory to the issue of religious illiteracy in schools; it positioned School Linking within current debate by enabling F&BF to engage in the recent discursive shift in Religious Education to language of ‘worldviews’. My hope is that academic debate will welcome insights from extra-curricular education programmes in exploring questions of religious and non-religious belief in the classroom moving forward.

Following the completion of my PhD in June 2020, I fulfilled the ‘double reflexive’ cycle by running a consultation process with School Linking staff. We reviewed School Linking’s programme design, delivery and evaluation in light of the PhD findings. The subsequent report, Contact in the Classroom (available at https://faithbeliefforum.org/report/), summarises the ways in which F&BF has adapted its practice to more accurately reflect its learning throughout the research process. I am grateful to F&BF for the opportunity to research School Linking, and it is my hope that the team can use the report as a guide to deliver the programme, reinforce institutional memory and more effectively communicate the nuances of the impact of School Linking to their stakeholders.

For more information about School Linking see: https://faithbeliefforum.org/programme/school-linking.

WORKS REFERENCED:

Allport, G. W. (1954) The nature of prejudice. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley

Hewstone, M. and Swart, H. (2011) ‘Fifty-odd years of inter-group contact: From hypothesis to integrated theory’. British Journal of Social Psychology 50 (3), 374–386

Knauth, K. and Vieregge, D. (2019) Researching religion-related dialog in schools — theoretical and methodological considerations’. Religion & Education 46 (1), 20–39

Dr Lucy Peacock re-joined the Faith and Peaceful Relations Research Group at the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations, Coventry University in July 2020 as a Research Fellow following the completion of her doctoral research in interfaith relations and young people upon which this blog post is based. Lucy has a First-Class BA in Theology and Religious Studies from the University of Cambridge and an MSc with distinction in Global Governance and Ethics from University College London. Her professional background is in fundraising and communications in the peacebuilding sector.

Email: lucy.peacock@coventry.ac.uk
Twitter: @Lucy_J_Peacock

The socoiology of religion study group at the British Sociological Association. https://www.britsoc.co.uk/groups/study-groups/sociology-of-religion-study-group/