Christala Sophocleous reflects on the experience of co-writing with WISERD colleagues.
What did we learn from the Communities First programme? This question was at the heart of many conversations and (often fierce) debates that took place in the months following the announcement in February 2017 that the programme would end in 2018. Across Wales, in communities, policy circles and, academia, Communities First was a programme that stirred the emotions. Those of us in WISERD who had researched within the context of the Communities First programme, were no exception. It is impossible to spend many years working on research in communities and not to invest emotionally. There was a sense in which history was being re-written, and Communities First presented, too simplistically as a programme that had ‘failed’. It is in this context that 4 researchers in WISERD started to reflect on our own work, through informal conversations and some serendipitously timed seminars.
One of the challenges in trying to assess Communities First has been tying down what the programme actually was. Over its 17 years it shifted and changed its direction, its focus and structure. Communities First was never one thing.
In the midst of our heated conversations, acknowledging this shifting programme was the second thing all 4 researchers agreed on. But as we began to share and debate our respective research, we also realised that our work had much more in common. We kept finding the same themes across our work, and a remarkable alignment of findings. The scale and breadth of those similarities was all the more important because between us we had worked on 6 separate research projects, across a 10 year period from 2008 to 2018, with each having a different focus, located in different parts of Wales.
It seemed to us that this was significant and, needed a more careful investigation. So, we began to discuss our findings in a more systematic way, drawing out more precisely where our findings and analysis were similar or complementary; and of course, where our work diverged. While each project stood alone, bringing our individual analyses together was creating depth and greater insight, generating a new collective analysis. And as time moved on we started asking ourselves ‘What might we be able to say about Communities First collectively that we couldn’t do alone?’
So over recent months we have been drawing our collective knowledge together and reflecting analytically on how different research with similar but distinct methodology might be harnessed for greater insight. We have been writing a joint paper, which will be submitted for publication in the coming weeks. It focuses on the Communities First programme and its place in policy-making and programme implementation in Wales.
The paper is not a synthesis of six independent studies, although there is an element of drawing our work together, but an extension of the analysis. It has been developed through an on-going conversation between us and our individual studies. It has been built through a process of moving back-and-forth between our analyses in an ever more systematic way, emerging slowly through a process of refinement. Each of us has in turn, added, amended, and fine-tuned our arguments. As we near the end of this process, the paper bears little resemblance to the one we started. Our arguments have become more focused and the analysis stronger both as a result of our method of working and because of the papers’ origins in different research projects.
Co-writing across projects has been a new experience for us all and has raised some interesting issues for us, for example, about what is ‘data?’ and how valid is it to use data collected in one context in another. It has generated reflection on the importance of sharing work with colleagues and what might be gained in doing so. The fact all 4 academics are based in WISERD is significant. While each of us is now working independently of each other on a range of distinct research projects, our co-location in the Cardiff hub, has created the opportunities for sharing our work. WISERD is an environment that allows and encourages researchers to share ideas, question and reflect on our work. It creates openings to question how we might better collaborate and how our work can inform social issues from different starting points. So, while we might not have been able to answer the question ‘What did we learn from the Communities First programme?’ collectively, we have been able to make a small, but more informed contribution.
The 4 researchers involved in this joint writing project are Dr Sioned Pearce, PearceS11@cardiff.ac.uk, Dr Helen Blakely, BlakelyH1@cardiff.ac.uk, Dr Eva Elliott ElliottE@cardiff.ac.uk and Dr Christala Sophocleous SophocleousC1@cardiff.ac.uk