From love to telling a good story: thinking about impact, research, and research training in PhD research


As is the case for most social science researchers, or indeed any researchers I imagine, I do the research I do because I think it is interesting. It’s the part of the

title of my talk which I call ‘from love …’, but of course that is not the whole story.

The other part of the talk is about wanting to make a difference, and this is, I think, about ‘telling a good story’. The story of what constitutes a good story, and how what we tell makes a difference is the focus of this talk.

The latest way in which we have been asked to evaluate how our research makes a difference adopts the term impact, which in turn has led to unpleasant neologism; our research must be impactful, evidently.

But before considering impact, let me return to love. I suspect that if I asked each of you to reflect on why you are doing the research you do the answer would go something like this: it is part of my biography, it is, in effect, part of who I am, socially, politically, culturally; and because of these dimensions, the way in which I choose what to study sits in this web of sociological account.

When I talk with under-graduates about choosing their topic for a dissertation I have a list of criteria which include all that you would expect: is what you are proposing practical? Is the potential research ethical? How does it relate to the course you have been doing? Is it an opportunity to showcase your knowledge?

But right at the top of my list of criteria is to always ask, does this topic really interests you? This is why I research what I research. As you will know only too well, as you immerse yourself in your chosen research you will get to obsess about it. You will wake up thinking about it, go to sleep worrying about it, and, eventually it will all become a little bit pathological, you will dream about it.

Well, this account of ‘it fascinates me’ is an individualising account of the research we choose to do. But no sociology of research can conceive of our choices without embedding these in the mechanisms, the powers and liabilities that shape the research we do. I’ve alluded to some of these in the list of criteria for students’ choices—is the research doable, achievable with the resources available—talks to the institutional powers and liabilities that define the research we do. It is a matter of fact that a PhD is three years long, a Ma dissertation must fit within a year, and a research proposal has time limits, strictly imposed.

There are pressures within and beyond the institution that ‘shape’ our research. The process of ethical approval is not value neutral. There are good examples of how ethics review moulds research to ‘acceptable’ methodological approaches, limits some kinds of potentially valuable research, decrees some research off limits, makes judgements about what research is worthwhile and likely to produce valid conclusions.

The point here, is not to acquiesce to these powers and liabilities unquestioningly, but to accept the existence of these extrinsic forces and, as Martyn Hammersley has recently written, question their legitimacy. Researchers face the consequences of these forces. We must critically engage with them.

In my own research this has meant I have had to ‘train’ NHS ethics review boards in qualitative methods. How do you explain to a panel, used to reviewing randomised control trials and occasionally having to deal with the ever so risqué observational study, that you propose to sample no more than 12 cases, through gatekeeper referral. No randomisation, no power equations to calculate sample size, and the account of the sample you have at the outset is, you propose, nothing like the way you intend to describe it in your analysis!

The points, in thinking about these powers and liabilities that inevitably shape our research, are twofold. First, we are obliged to think about the primary purpose of a PhD and Ma—which I want to argue is about training, it is about becoming an expert in a discipline. And secondly, how part of that learning and the acquisition of expertise, is, inevitably, about critically engaging with the powers of institutions, amongst many others. I have purposefully left the ‘elephant in the room’, ‘impact’ out of the conversation until now. I will consider this in a few moments.

But first, I just want to make an observation about our disciplines. The fractal division of disciplines, to use Andrew Abbott’s compelling metaphor, mean we often traverse different intellectual landscapes. But, for all the subdivision in fields / disciplines that happens, we always hold to particular epistemological positions. There are, we assert, legitimate ways of understanding the social world we seek to investigate.

In my view, a key part of doing a PhD and Ma is to gain the disciplinary confidence to argue for the legitimacy of an epistemological place in the social sciences and, more broadly, in the contribution to knowledge from sociology / social policy and the fractal subdivisions of these fields.

These degrees equip those who do them with the scholarly skills commensurate with doing the ‘third degree’; which I know etymologically comes from somewhere else, but fits quite nicely here.

And what is more, alongside honing scholarly skills, everyone hopes their research will contribute to knowledge in their discipline / field. These contributions may be substantive, methodological, theoretical—or most likely contribute in all three ways to extending knowledge. The presentations today are doing this. Each of you is no doubt thinking about how your research will contribute to the academic field in which you are engaged—through papers written, presented, and published. You will seek to make a difference.

This academic contribution, this making a difference is not ‘impact’ from your research, as it is now in common usage across universities.

Impact, or more appropriately, ‘the pathways to impact’ must, according to RCUK, show how research will contribute to ‘fostering global economic performance, and specifically the economic performance of the United Kingdom: increasing the effectiveness of public services and policy; enhancing the quality of life and creative output’.

This would be fine if we could equate benefit with impact. Who does not, in some way, want to make services better and people’s lives more fulfilled? If our research can achieve these things, then so much the better.

But impact is not conceived of in this way. Impact is increasingly directing research to consider short-term utilitarian goals at the expense of longer-term considerations like the contribution to academic knowledge and its wider benefit to society.

We are increasingly asked to show how we will measure, specific objectives that are achievable, and relevant, in the time-frame (generally three years at the most) of a project. The ESRC calls these SMART objectives.

This SMART model assumes our research is predominately about applied problem-based knowledge, in which University researchers clank up against users telling them how to deal with some social problem, like a snooker cue ball cannoning off another ball, to crash it satisfactorily into the pocket. Cause, effect, and the forces that intervene are all easily defined, measured, and recorded.

Of course academics do research like this. As an example, I heard recently of an impact case which went something like this. Academic researchers map post offices and populations, identify post offices that might be closed down, Post Office closes post offices. Research like this is, as John Holmwood has suggested, most likely to engage the beneficiaries of the research (in this case the Post Office management, not the communities served by the post offices, one would imagine) as co-producers of its conclusions.

But, as I have argued, doing a research degree is quite different. It is about honing skills in discipline based knowledge. Its purpose is best described through consideration of disciplinary hegemony and a focus on internal audiences.

This does not mean, of course, that PhD research should not make a difference. It does and should. The most effective way in which we can make a difference is through the expertise we have, and the insights we gain into that which we research.

Stefan Collini has recently argued, rightly in my view, that universities should provide a home to extend and deepen human understanding.

Impact does not begin to provide an account of what you are doing in your research. It is yet another transient formula arrived at to suit the purpose of current political thinking. It is mechanistic, economistic, trying to measure ‘making a difference’ in crude ways that lack any critical account of causality or consequence.

These observations bring me to the ‘good story’ in your PhD and beyond. This story is produced through the disciplined extension of knowledge through research that provides insight and understanding into that which we choose to research. Our story will transgress the limits to existing knowledge.

I can see this in my own PhD and subsequent research. Our story gets better, the message clearer, the confidence in the ways in which we are contributing to knowledge stronger and more confident. Underlying this is not mechanically applied social science, but theory honed and refined through many iterations.

I investigate the texture of inequality and inequities and I have a particular interest in differences in health and the relationships and mechanisms that perpetuate or reduce those differences.

I have presented this research to audiences as diverse as the many groups of students I have taught, to panels of Supreme Court judges in India, and Her Majesty’s Treasury Seminar Series. It has been directly cited in court rulings to stop evictions in slums in Mumbai, to current coalition policy to extend the role of health visitors and increase their numbers.

In these senses it has had an impact, a crude causal story can be told. But, that is just using the vocabulary and (neo-liberal) mindset of the moment. This innovative body of research has framed a number of debates around how services should be delivered. As Carol Weiss noted in 1979, (note the date), the research makes a difference because it has had incremental effect on policy and practice through presenting an extension of knowledge and insight.

Allow me to make these points with a further example. Many of you will have heard of this book, the Spirit Level, published in 2009 by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. You may be less familiar with Wilkinson’s other publications: Unfair Shares, published in 1991, Unhealthy societies, published in 1996, Impact of inequality, published in 2005; and there were other publications before these, right back to his Masters in Medical Science thesis ‘Socio-economic factors in mortality differentials’. Each covers largely the same ground, each is pitched to a particular audience, each tests and refines the theory that more unequal societies are less healthy. Up to the Spirit Level, Wilkinsons’s arguments influenced a rather focused group of academics and interested activist NGOs.

Today we would be obliged to say that the Spirit Level was ‘impactful’. But who exactly could have predicted this? Who could have charted a causal link between yet another publication on the same theme and its take-up by a then ailing New Labour Government, desperate for new ideas. Could Wilkinson and Pickett have written SMART objectives, measuring specific objectives, of that which was achievable, and relevant, in a clearly defined time-frame?

I suspect not. I certainly could not in my research; although, like many of my colleagues I’m getting quite good at telling a story of impact in retrospect, and, as a result, becoming quite a crystal ball gazer when I write proposals.

There are no guidelines to guide you in producing research with impact from your degree, nor should there be. Your PhD and Ma is about producing work that can be disseminated and that can make a difference.

You will find ways in which you will want to disseminate your research, to peers, to participants, to organisations that have a particular interest, to gatekeepers. When you get to your viva one question you are guaranteed to be asked is where do you plan to publish? That question rests on an evaluation of how good your research is. The story you can tell from that research depends on this.

The difference you will make from your research can not be measured through short-term utilitarian goals and mechanistic pathways to impact. The PhD and Ma is about becoming a disciplinary expert, confident that the social world can be investigated using the methods you are using to say something legitimate and useful. It is a stepping stone along the way towards extending and deepening human understanding.




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