Exploring and assessing social research impact : a case study of a research partnership’s impacts on policy and practice
Morton, Sarah Catherine
There is increasing emphasis on the outcomes of research in terms of its impact on wider society. However in the social sciences the ways in which research is taken up and used, discussed, shared and applied in different policy, practice and wider settings is complex. This thesis set out to investigate the ways in which social research was used by various non-academic actors, and to explore what impact it had in order to develop methods for understanding and assessing impact. The research investigated what research impact is, how it occurs, and how it might be assessed. The research was in two phases: firstly, a case study of a research partnership between a research centre and a voluntary organisation; and, secondly, the development and seeking feedback on a framework to assess impact. The care study employed two main approaches: forward-tracking - from research to policy and/or practice - and backward tracking - from policy back to research. Both phases were conducted through a practitioner-research approach, bringing experience of working with the projects involved into the heart of the research model. The study found many ways the research from the partnership had been used in different sectors by different actors. Impacts from the research were harder to identify. In cases where there were clear impacts, the actors involved had adapted research to fit the context for research use in order to create impact. Research users continued to draw on the research for many years after publication, creating further impact as new policy or practice agendas arose. The framework used a 'pathways to impact' model to develop a theory-based approach to assessing impact and to create categories for data collection. The ways in which research might impact on policy and practice are many and cannot be easily predicted. Concepts from complexity theory, particularly a focus on relationships, an understanding of context and the concept of emergence have been useful in framing the picture of impact generated from this research. Any assessment of impact from social research needs to acknowledge that many actors are involved in the process of research being taken up and used, and impact cannot be achieved from the supply side alone. Partnership research, between an academic and voluntary sector organisation, facilitated the use and impact of the research in many ways. The thesis reconceptualises ideas about how research impacts on society, suggesting the concept of 'contribution' is more accurate and useful than attribution. It also adds to the body of empirical work on the processes of impact, and in particular of the role of research partnerships in increasing impact. It suggests that process-based approaches to assessing impact that acknowledge complexity may be fruitful in developing impact assessment methodology.