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Peer research at Hive: thriving, creative & juggling many identities

In March, McPin joined over 120 people at the Hive conference to talk about peer research, organised by the Young Foundation.

It was an enjoyable and stimulating few days. After two long years of working from home and with proper conferences in short supply, it felt great to be back. To share our work, hear about others’ projects and discuss all things peer research.

Here are a few things we took away:

Peer research is thriving and happening in many different places

It’s easy to keep your head down and focused on your lane, even more so during the last two years. Hive gave us a chance to look up again and see all the great peer evaluation and research that is happening beyond mental health. We heard about projects related to health, homelessness, urban development, international affairs, climate change. Peer work with young people, with people from the Global South and many more. There were partnerships with academics, creatives, social enterprises and charities, and local government. Different approaches were showcased including community-led research and participatory action research.

Seeing our work in the context of others was confidence-building

For peer researchers who had not had much experience of attending conferences before, Hive was a confidence boost. “I was happily surprised by the relevance of the conference to the work I do at McPin as a peer researcher. Every session I attended was very informative and relevant,” says Alex Kenny. “It made me appreciate that I am continually developing, training and reflecting within this role. This was framed as a key part of working as a peer researcher and indeed, it is a key ethos of how McPin does peer research. One person described working as a peer researcher as a life changing experience, which resonated”.

Presenting (via a pre-recorded video) was also a positive experience, as Gillian Samuel explains:

“I had anticipated how cringe worthy it would be to sit back and watch myself presenting! But something strange occurred. I saw a woman, gentle but confident, imparting her knowledge and risking her vulnerability to share her lived experience of inequality, in a heartfelt way, which reached me, the onlooker, looking at myself.

Our presentation became woven into the fabric of this enlightening conference. How fortunate I was to be involved.  At a time in my life when I believed my career would be ending, it somehow feels like it has just begun.”

WATCH: View Gillian and Alex Lewington’s presentation about working as peer researchers on a project about inequality in Lambeth and Harrow using a PhotoVoice approach

Inspired by the Hive experience and with several in-person conferences planned this year, McPin has developed some conference training for peer researchers. It includes sections on preparing, presenting, answering questions and networking at conferences.

Inspiring creative approaches

For a while, McPin has been exploring the use of more creative and nonlinear research methods. This includes collage in My Story Our Future (see 18 page of the report) and using photos as data in our project about inequality in Lambeth and Harrow (see Gillian and Alex’s presentation above). A session led by Peter from My Pockets, a production company and arts organisation, took this to the next level. As Donna Franklin recalls, his work using song and puppetry to help people externalise and navigate challenging feelings was entertaining, moving and memorable. Peter showed videos of songs about caring for a partner with dementia and navigating ‘the system’ as a parent of a disabled child.

It made us reflect on how we communicate our projects, says a McPin peer researcher. “It made me think how much further can we go in this direction? We rely heavily on reports and the written word to get our messages across. But this may not be the most relatable way to represent the experiences of the people we serve, and give back directly to them or the best way to make an impact on systemic change”.

Qualities of peer researchers

Listening to other peer researchers prompted some of us to reflect on what qualities we feel are required to do this work.

“My main takeaway from the day came from one of the opening speeches. It was said that the shared national emotion of the moment was one of distrust and that to counter this, we need to be curious enough to question things. The speaker suggested that this sense of curiosity, along with warmth, are two main qualities of being a peer researcher and this really struck a chord with me,” says Lisa Couperthwaite.

For Alex Kenny, who presented at the conference, the discussions validated something she had been grappling with. “I learnt that a peer researcher wears three hats. These are a researcher, a peer support worker and a person who shares the participants’ lived experience. I think this is a great summary of the complex role the peer researcher plays and explains some of the issues I had with boundaries and a ‘grey area’ when conducting interviews for the gameChange study. How much time should we spend wearing each hat?” asks Alex.

“There is an inclination to be helpful to the participant through sharing lived experience or playing the role of a peer supporter, which can at times take you away from the main objective which is to collect data. That said, the sharing of lived experience and peer support builds trust, which can improve the content and depth of the participant’s answers. It’s a continual balance.”

WATCH Alex and Jessica Bond’s Hive presentation about how ‘peer-ness’ was used during data collection in the gameChange study.
READ MORE about Alex’s experiences as a peer researcher.

Paying peer researchers

At McPin, we pay all the people we work with and ensure this works alongside any benefits they may receive. Some of the peer researchers at the conference were unpaid but received benefits in other ways. This could include access to networking opportunities and academic skills training, which some presenters said could be useful for advancing their career. This was conflicting. These kinds of skills are important but as one McPin peer research put it, “money is still the bottom line to get ahead in society”.

That said, volunteering is some people’s preference. Lisa recalls “One lady on the panel specifically spoke about her preference for being a voluntary worker. For me, this brought into question the whole value of what we do and how much does money come into it? From the Hive discussion, it appears that payment is quite a long way down the list of considerations, with issues like validation and self-betterment higher up”.

It was useful and enjoyable to see how other organisations are approaching peer research. So it’s a big thank you to the Young Foundation for putting on the event and inspiring us all!  


The blog was written based on contributions from McPin peer researchers who attended the Hive conference, including Alex Kenny, Donna Franklin, Gillian Samuel and Lisa Couperthwaite.

Contact us via contact@mcpin.org if you’d like access to our conference training materials.

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