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The power of peer researchers

Savanta's collaboration with Sport England brought forth an enlightening project aimed at understanding the decline in physical activity among young people in England by employing peer researchers. Their involvement bridged the generational gap between market researchers and the participants, ensuring the research remained respectful, accurate, and culturally nuanced.

Steven Coll Associate Director 21/11/2023

In early October, Savanta partnered with Sport England to present a session called Reframing Physical Activity Research: Peer Research Approach at the MRS&more Conference 2023. The session showcased an innovative peer research project investigating the decline in physical activity among young people in England.

But what are peer researchers and how did we use them the generate valuable insights to share with sport and physical activity sector?

Peer researchers are individuals who have a similar lived experience to the target audience of a research study. In the physical activity research, which we presented at the conference, they were young people aged 16 to 24 who had been recruited and trained to work as junior researchers. They acted as a crucial conduit between the core team of senior researchers and the participants, who were young people themselves.

Chosen to be representative of different demographic backgrounds including gender, socio-economic status and ethnicity, each peer researcher was paired with a Savanta research consultant who acted as a mentor. These peer researchers were then assigned a group of participants to moderate on a 5-day online community expertly crafted by Savanta’s core research team. Daily check-ins between the peer researchers and the Savanta research team were conducted, providing opportunity to exchange findings and insights gathered from the previous day. At the end of the fieldwork period, the peer researchers were invited to join an in-person analysis workshop session to share their thoughts and observations.

With the support of the peer researchers, Savanta was able to identify key issues including:
  • Finding the inspiration to engage in physical activity can be particularly challenging if young people have limited agency over their time. This is often the case for individuals with lower incomes, who may face inflexible responsibilities such as work or caregiving duties that take priority over exercise.
  • Young people come across fitness influencers on social media who promote unrealistic standards, which can lead to feelings of inadequacy. These sports role models have unattainable levels of fitness, and there is a feeling that they will never be as good, so what is the point in trying.
  • Individuals from lower income households may have different priorities and responsibilities that can make it challenging to prioritise physical activity. Education, employment, caring for family members, as well as household duties can take up a significant amount of time and energy.
How did peer researchers help in this project?

As members of the extended research team, the peer researchers were enthusiastic and committed throughout the project and played a valuable role in driving positive interaction between participant and researcher. It can be intimidating for a young person to open up to senior researchers, especially when covering potentially sensitive subjects relating to physical activity. The peer researchers allowed them to feel comfortable and discuss their experiences freely with somebody who could credibly empathise with their situation. This meaningful link between participants and the research team ultimately resulted in deeper conversations and more meaningful insights.

The peer researchers helped interpret colloquial terms and explain the motivations behind behaviour, which were unfamiliar to market researchers many years older than the participants themselves – in some cases, quite a bit older! By breaking cultural barriers and navigating nuances, subtleties and taboos, peer researchers can make sure that the research remains respectful and accurate.

The experience was also beneficial for the peer researchers themselves. By incorporating them into the research team, they were empowered to share their ideas and hypotheses whilst being encouraged to work collaboratively with research professionals. This provided valuable training and work experience, which can be added to their CVs when they look to begin their careers in market research or elsewhere. It gave them a flavour of working in a professional environment and producing outcomes for a client. They were also reimbursed financially for their time.

The value of an inclusive methodology

Peer researchers as a methodology can be adapted for a variety of objectives, across many sectors. Examples of peer researcher work being successfully utilised at Savanta include work with vulnerable audiences, where peer researchers can be used to approach difficult topics with those facing challenging circumstances, and in work listening to marginalised or minority communities who can often feel their voices are lost or misinterpreted in conventional research methods. Peer researchers, belonging to these very communities, ensure that these voices are authentically represented, heard and understood.

Savanta are very proud of the fantastic relationship we have with Sport England across all of the important work we do with them. This project demonstrated the value of an inclusive methodology which can be used to answer complex and multi-faceted research questions relating to attitudes and behaviours. It is also a great example of how we provide genuine ad-hoc solutions for our clients, which meet their research needs and complement existing work.

We are keen to hear from sport or physical activity organisations, providers or governing bodies who think that peer researchers could help them address their research objectives. We would also be excited to hear from clients in other sectors who are interested in this powerful methodology.

Get in touch or contact us at [email protected].
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