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Inspiration porn and the researcher

May 19, 2017

As a researcher working with charities I routinely evaluate projects that tackle inequalities and I come into contact with the people who have benefitted from the work.  Name me a marginalised group and I’ve probably worked with them.  NEET, LGBT, homeless, disabled, single parents or long-term unemployed.  Young people, older people.  People with lived experience of mental health problems or long-term physical health conditions.  Obviously not everyone that could fall into one of these groups is disadvantaged, but my research participants usually are because they are the ones that charities are targeting with their inequalities projects.

When it comes to research participants if I’m honest I have my favourites, the ones that I remember.

There was the one with the long-term condition who was taken ill in a nightclub, the one who lost their sight and with it their hobbies and independence, the one whose partner died leaving them to bring up both children and step children alone.  Then there was the one who reassured her anxious theatre group before they all went on stage, the one who was now considered the boldest of her group of friends, the one blogging about life as a carer, the one who found love in a homeless hostel.  People with new interests, new friends, new homes, new careers.  People feeling happier and more confident.  And I’m ever so pleased for them.  Years since I spoke to them, but they still come to mind so easily.  Every so often I’ll wonder how they are doing.

Awwwwwwww.

And then I start to worry… am I slipping into inspiration porn territory here?

Inspiration porn refers to “the calling of people with disabilities inspirational solely or in part on the basis of their disability” (thanks Wikipaedia) and you’ll all have seen it sneaking across your Facebook feed.  The kid in a wheelchair who got onto the basketball team, the girl with Down’s Syndrome who received a Promposal from the Quarterback.  All supportive and heart-warming on the surface (“can I get an Amen?”), but driven by the unpleasant assumption that disabled people are ‘not like everyone else’ and don’t do what everyone else does.  These images and thought patterns objectify disabled people.  At best, they exist for non-disabled people to patronisingly get their warm and fuzzies from and more dangerously they encourage non-disabled people to assume that all disability is tragic.

So when I’m loving my favourite research participants and thinking happy thoughts about how awesome they are, is that OK?  Or am patronisingly objectifying the poor sweet disadvantaged souls?

On balance I like to think that I’m not going down the inspiration porn route and that my positive reaction to them is something else, something more legitimate.  God I hope so.  Here’s my rationale:

I know lots of stuff about people.  I’m good at my job.  I’m pleasant and not in the least bit scary and people trust me.  And I’m a neutral party usually promising complete anonymity.  So when I interview people, they tell me stuff.  Lots of stuff.

There’s a reason for me to know this stuff about people.  My job is to evaluate charity work, so that a Funder can decide whether the impact was worth the investment and so that the charity can learn from their experience.  I make sure that money is not wasted, and that effort is directed to best advantage.  To do this, I have to talk to real people about their real experiences.

It is relevant for me to know this stuff about people.  I typically talk to people who have experienced some sort of challenging circumstances and who have benefitted from some sort of intervention designed to improve things for them.  The fact that I am aware of their challenges is entirely relevant to my role as evaluator of the project in question, and the fact that their lives have changed for the better is what the charity hoped would happen and what I’m supposed to ask them about.

I know the whole journey.  If a change has happened to someone it is my job to document it.  People tell me what their lives were like before and after they came into contact with a charity.  How they felt at various points, and what difference they think the project has made to them.  If I’m lucky enough to follow a project from its inception I speak to individuals several times over the course of the project and they tell me about the change as it is happening.

The stuff I know comes direct and verbatim.  Sometimes people tell me how bad things had been for them before they came to a project.  Sometimes people cry, sometimes people seem tense or angry.  Sometimes people laugh and smile and say how happy they are.  Sometimes people describe feeling proud, or inspired, or grateful.  I get the full range of emotions and I get them directly from the person who experienced them in a person’s own words.

Crucially, I’m not a passive consumer of people’s lives.  I’m not getting out the popcorn and making a passing judgement on a random issue, instead I’m being directly and consensually given a full and personal account of the situation and I’m taking away the positives as identified by the individual that experienced it.  When I feel pleased for someone it is because they were pleased for themselves and they told me about it.  I like to think I’m simply reflecting them but you know what, some people are really really shiny and the reflection is amplified.  Sometimes me and a research participant just gel and have a really deep and meaningful conversation, and they become my new favourite who I adore and think is awesome. That’s human nature and human nature has its flaws.

I don’t want to let myself feel inappropriately inspired by my favourites, but who’s perfect? The researcher/participant relationship isn’t a real relationship, I AM in the business of collecting stories for the benefit of others, and I can’t claim to have lived experience of the full range of disadvantage.

I’ll keep thinking on it, and I’ll continue to check my privilege.

 

 

 

 

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