Collaboration, Compromise and Cultivation

Heather Norris is a full-time PhD student at the University of Aberystwyth, in the Law and Criminology Department. Heather was awarded a departmental scholarship in September 2012. Her PhD study has the working title The Impact of Restorative Approaches on Happiness, School Engagement and Self Esteem. This essay was awarded the Wales DTC prize at the Wiserd Conference 2014.

David James congratulates Heather Norris

Wales DTC director Professor David James congratulates Heather Norris
Photo: WISERD / © Keith Morris 2014

It would be difficult to overestimate the potential benefits of collaborations between PhD students and non-academic organisations. At its best, a synthesis might be achieved between academic research and the sorts of information and ways of working that make another organisation or agency distinctive.

I am fortunate in that I seem to be working towards this kind of synthesis, and I am learning a great deal that will be carried through into my professional career. My PhD relies on collaborative arrangements with local schools (and the system of which they are a part), and with the Youth Justice Board, so the forging of good working relationships with these agencies is fundamental. I am bringing together two discrete sets of data that will yield novel and useful information – not only my PhD but also for the agencies themselves.

Based on personal experience, I would not claim that it is always plain sailing. There are difficulties to recognise and numerous compromises to be made in order to make such a relationship work well. Some of the difficulties are quite prosaic, such as setting up meetings involving all three parties. Others have deeper ramifications, such as the fact that each of the two organisations already had information about (and a particular view of) the other. Of most significance was the re-negotiating of parts of the original research design: This can be a challenging thing to do if you started out thinking that the original design was rather good! My PhD study originally had a thoroughly quantitative research design which would provide a rigorous assessment of a newly employed intervention, the use of restorative practices in educational settings, implemented by the YJB in several local secondary schools. After approval by the departmental and University ethics panels, I assumed that my path was clear to continue as planned. The arduous task of designing a methodology was finally over and I could swiftly proceed to collecting data. I was wrong.

I look back now and consider my inexperience at that point. I was to learn that research is not always a straight path leading to an end destination. I had made many assumptions in planning a study that would apply a pre-defined process to two separate organisations, about which I knew very little. In the event I discovered each organisation had its own culture and its own expectations of my research, and also some strong views that I had to consider. Since, I’ve realised that a lot of social science research is a road full of twists, turns and numerous crossroads, making it necessary to be flexible with external organisations regarding methods and process.
At first this flexibility and continual compromise was daunting as it did not follow my original plan. Initially, the idea of reconsidering aspects of my design was, in a word, overwhelming. However, after some thought and discussion with my supervisor, my concerns began to wane, and I was able to consider the positive aspects as well as the disruption to my well-laid plans. I am glad I did, because now it is clear that the active participation of the organisations is enriching my PhD and helping it to become both ‘an original contribution to knowledge’ and a valuable source of practical information for professionals and agencies engaged in important work.

Organisations will often have their own policies on ethics and confidentiality which must be respected; absolute care must be taken when collecting data in these situations. The agencies with whom I am working have entrusted me with sensitive information. Although my original ideal study has not come to fruition, the knowledge I’ve gained from these agencies is invaluable, and it amounts to much more than the data that is used in my thesis. Although compromises have been made, so have relationships. These carefully cultivated relationships will not end with the completion of my PhD but will hopefully continue and lead to further research in the future.