The Voice Champion Award is a youth-led award recognising adults that go over and above their job role to work with RCPCH &Us to improve services with children, young people and families. The nominations were all anonymised and reviewed by young people from RCPCH &Us, who created criteria and a scoring system, then worked virtually together to review and discuss the fantastic nominations.
Alicia and Sam were not only thrilled to be nominated but also impressed by the youth-led nature of the nomination and award process. Putting young people at the heart of health services participation is key to how we work in DEPTH, so the RCPCH & Us Voice Champion Award feels like a real reflection of the values that we prioritise in DEPTH, too.
This Sickle Cell Life is an NIHR-funded research project that explores the voices and experiences of young people with sickle cell as they transition from paediatric to adulthood, and adult healthcare services.
Project Research Lead, Dr Renedo, says of the nomination:
“This was excellent news for the DEPTH team. We admire the work done by RCPCH &US, and they are a role model for participation, so coming from them, this nomination felt very special.”
Project Principal Investigator and DEPTH Group Director Prof Cicely Marston said:
“I’m so delighted to see Alicia and Sam recognised in this way. They work really hard to make sure our participatory work is inclusive and their work with young people on this project has been brilliant.”
We feel very honoured to be nominated, and thank all of our collaborators and colleagues for their role in making This Sickle Cell Life happen. You can read an ‘Evidence’ brief of This Sickle Cell Life by NIHR here.
We began by asking Emma to explain her role, and how she and her team approach child health and engagement.
Part 1: How do we engage with children and young people and amplify their voices?
Improving child health is more than just paediatrics
Emma: The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) is a charity, but as a Medical Royal College, it helps to support the specialism of Paediatrics. We’re slightly different to other Royal Colleges because we are the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, rather than the Royal College of paediatricians. So it means we can get involved in the whole child health agenda, which is obviously much bigger than just paediatrics. The RCPCH &Us programme is the network for children, young people and families to help inform and influence all of the work of the College. It gives them a place to have their voice and space to say what’s going on for them and what could be done to improve child health services. Our approach is to get them involved in that – it’s not just somewhere to chat, it’s somewhere to actually get involved in and progress social action. For us it’s like a network approach where we try to get as many children and young people and families involved across the whole of the UK at all ages. This year, our youngest person involved is aged four, and we go up to age 25.
We focus on children and young people’s voice and having them involved as volunteers or project members or giving views, but we also recognise that sometimes we will need to involve their advocates as well, whether that’s parents or carers. So we do ad-hoc work with parents and carers, but our primary focus is making sure that children and young people can get involved in the work the college is doing. We also ask what might be some of the challenges in child health, that they’re keen to explore and do something about with us?
People ask what children and young people think about something… We turn the questions into games and activities and take them out on the road
Emma: Our approach is a bit different to most places. At RCPCH &Us, we work in three different workstreams. One is our roadshows and consultations. We get questions from loads of different people about what do children and young people think about something – for example at the moment I’ve got questions on what do young people think about virtual health appointments, and what do children young people think about mental health experiences? What do children and young people think about how their data is used? There’s lots of different questions that come into us. We’ll turn these questions into a set of games and activities and take them out on the road, so that we can go and speak to as many children and young people as possible in as many different areas as possible, with as many different experiences as possible. It’s about us being out there with them, rather than expecting them to fill out a survey or a questionnaire or attend something with people that they don’t know. Our roadshows might operate through schools or youth centers or playgroups or outreach. Or we might speak to children in care groups and carers, or speak to children and young people who are patients: we’ll speak to them outside their outpatient appointments, when they wait to see their clinician, or they might be inpatients.
We bring young people together for day-long ‘challenges’ or for long-term projects
The next approach is challenges. These are ‘tasters’, because children and young people don’t necessarily want to sign away their lives to a project for three years, they might want to just see what it’s like. We’ll bring them together for a project day, where they’ll come in not really knowing that much, and then learn all about a topic, they work with data, and come up with solutions and then present it at the end of the day. This is a bit like the project that we did with you at LSHTM last year – This Sickle Cell Life.
The final approach for us is long term projects focusing on a specific area, with children and young people signing up to join that project team.
Children and young people can participate in a way that works for them
Across our approaches, you could be a young person or child that just wants to tell us something in a conversation, that’s perfect. Or maybe you want to try something you want to do a challenge or maybe you want to do a project, but you don’t need to do all three; children and young people can come in and out as it fits for them. We really want to make it an opportunity for them that they feel is meaningful, and that fits their life rather than fits my nine-to-five work life. It includes lots of weekends and evenings, and lots of doing things in lots of different ways. But for us, that’s important because it means that we get more children and young people involved who might not have been involved before, across different ages and backgrounds.
The other bit that is different is the way that we approach diversity. So we also make sure that any project we’re doing has children and people from three different groups. One is universal, so they’re all just children or young people, because that’s who they are. Then we have a group where they’ve got specific experiences that might change the dynamic for them, for example they’re young carers, or they’re Gypsy travelers, or something that binds them together with an identity. The third group is specialists, who have the health condition, for example asthma. That explains the way that we try to deliver our work by bringing together all three groups to have a full set of views, ideas and experiences.
How do adults respond to your approach, and the way you centre children and young people?
You’ve always got people that are your allies and they’re brilliant for amplifying what’s going on. You can send them something and explain it to them and you know they’re going to get it straightaway and get it out. And then you’ve got the middle group who know that it’s important, but maybe feel stretched – overwhelmed by their work or their role. But when you can engage them in a conversation with an adult, or an organisation or a particular group of people you can see that they get it and they want to do more, but maybe the time is just not right. Those ones stay in touch, and they will get there. Then you have the people that just don’t get it at all. Either they fundamentally don’t want to get it, because they don’t think it should be happening – you’ll have people saying, ‘but why, it’s not [children and young people’s] role to say that we know what we’re doing’. Or they don’t get it because actually they’re at a point of crisis themselves, maybe in their role or their organization where it’s entirely the wrong time.
We just have to really understand that we’re going to have all of those groups, and they’re all important. They all have a role to play in what we’re doing, but the way we approach them will need to be different. So the information we give to allies and the people that ‘get’ it is what children and young people have said, and can you do something with it? Yes. The middle group, we see how we can show them the benefits of what children and young people are saying and then how it will actually support their work. For the ones that fundamentally don’t get it, we tend to talk about the legislation: there’s a statutory duty to do this, it isn’t something that I’ve just made up. It’s really important when you do engagement work that you’re aware that everybody has a different motivation as to how it will land with them, and why they might be interested. But you can learn from them and work to give them what they need. Sometimes it’s challenging but I just see it as an opportunity to share information in a different way. I have to just try harder to make sure that that it meets what they need.
I think you have to be an eternal optimist in engagement work, because everyone’s different, everyone learns in a different way, everyone participates in a different way. It’s all part of a process.
Thanks for your time Emma. Look out for Part 2 of this Q&A next month!
For our latest DEPTH blog we asked LSHTM researcher Kimberley Popple to share her thoughts on NGO-academic collaborations as someone who has recently moved from the former to the latter. Thank you for your insights Kimberley – lots of food for thought!
Evaluation, Evaluation, Evaluation
Back in January this year I made the move from practitioner in the NGO world to becoming a researcher in the academic sector. I wanted to combine the skills I had developed in Public Health research with my knowledge and experience of programme implementation in the field. It seemed to me that there were obvious synergies and opportunities for practitioners and academics to work together to improve global health. Certainly, from my own experience, the projects that I worked on could have benefited from drawing on people with specialist skillsets in data collection and analysis and with the time to conduct literature reviews, produce evidence maps, and test the change pathways that many of the programmes were built upon.
Before moving into academia, I worked on a large portfolio of grants in Sierra Leone as part of the Ebola response. Most of the data we collected was used solely for routine monitoring and evaluation of interventions at the project-level. Its purpose was to track progress against set indicators and to report on spending to funders. As a result, collecting data that could be easily quantified was prioritised, and quantitative data was assumed by funders to show a greater impact than qualitative data. Further, qualitative data tends to fall within the remit of the accountability teams – it is used and relied upon but not as an indicator of impact. In the Sierra Leone scenario, success of an intervention was often measured by a high number of medical consultations or a large number of attendees at a meeting, rather than focusing on data related to quality of services or patient satisfaction. I remember one example of a gender-based violence (GBV) project in Freetown which was categorised by the funder as “underperforming” as the target number of survivors had not been reached. The fact that that the women who had been reached had received high quality support across the GBV spectrum of services was seemingly less valued.
In Uganda, I worked on a maternal health project which introduced a client-exit survey for women to participate in at the hospital after receiving maternity care. However, the survey was administered by NGO staff who were working with the marginalised populations, and in close proximity to the medical staff who had provided their care. There was little recognition of the power imbalance between interviewer and interviewee or the desirability bias that might be present as a result of the women’s fear of negative repercussions from medical staff.
Evaluations were often seen as a tick-box exercise for donors and their design was fairly rudimentary. By the time the evaluation report was written, the programme had already moved onto the next phase to align with strict funding cycles. This left little room to reflect on lessons learned and engage in a process of iterative programme design. A recent systematic review has highlighted the lack of evaluations conducted on epidemic responses in humanitarian and low-income settings, with only one tenth of responses evaluated and with large gaps in quality, content and coverage of evaluations, limiting the ability to improve future responses.
Is the landscape changing?
Over recent years, the international development sector has intensified its focus on evidence-based programming and evaluation. Many NGOs have increased their research capacity with dedicated departments and research staff (for example Airbel Impact Lab at International Rescue Committee, and the Response Innovation Lab at Save the Children), giving them the expertise and space to test out new formats for implementation, and to ensure programming is based on the latest evidence of what works.
New funding streams have emerged for research in the humanitarian field, such as Elrha’sR2HC programme, and there is donor pressure to evidence learning and use data for decision-making. Donors like the UK government’s Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO, formerly DFID) have developed more in-depth guidance on how to develop and use evaluation frameworks to measure impact and ensure accountability, with requests to include qualitative indicators in logframes.
What can academia bring to the table?
So, is there still a role for academics to play in supporting the work of NGOs? I believe there can be, particularly in the evaluation of complex interventions. Universities train public health professionals who often go on to work in the NGO sector. Expert knowledge of process and outcome evaluations can be drawn upon to test change pathways in Theories of Change. Systematic reviews can be performed by academics with fewer time and funding constraints, reducing the need to reinvent the wheel every time to search for the latest evidence. As academics, we can add our voice to campaigns as advocates of change. And the humanitarian health sector can harness specific skill sets in conducting clinical trials and in disease modelling. My sense is that as both sectors continue to develop and evolve, it will be important to continue to reflect on the value of academic-NGO partnerships for global health.
The COVID-19 pandemic is requiring home-testing in large numbers, and this process raises questions about the ethics of informed consent. In our latest blog, DEPTH member Dr Catherine McGowan reflects on a route to informed consent and suggests how governments, healthcare groups and institutions can maintain informed consent in a time of crisis.
A key step in any research project involving human participants is gaining informed consent. COVID-19 has disrupted research work around the world, and it will continue to do so for many more months. In this ever-changing pandemic environment, important research must continue. However, this work still requires researchers to think carefully about how best to obtain consent remotely.
Researchers carrying out various population surveys are sending COVID-19 tests by post and encouraging people to self-test. Self-testing kits are a good example of a process that reminds us of the need to think about consent. Research participants must provide informed consent to participate in research, particularly when it comes to population surveys involving biological sample collection. Information governance in the European Union and the UK has changed considerably with the implementation of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which does not allow for presumed consent in most cases – so when it comes to a process like home testing, for example, the data gathered cannot legally be collected or processed without gaining explicit consent from research participants.
In 2017 we carried out antibody testing amongst non-Ebola infected healthcare workers (HCWs) who had returned from West Africa following the 2014/16 Ebola outbreak. We posted test kits to HCWs throughout the UK and the Republic of Ireland, with samples returned via post. When it came to getting informed consent, face to face consent was not feasible, we could not waive consent and nor did we feel comfortable presuming consent. In the interests of best practice we also wanted to make sure that participants had all of the information they needed in order to consent fully – and be able to reach us, the project PIs, with any questions they might have. Ultimately, we decided to recruit participants via email but first they were asked to work their way through the consent materials electronically, and to explicitly indicate their consent. Once participants had consented they were asked to complete a short questionnaire and to provide their postal address so that we could send out the test kits. At the conclusion of the study we emailed participants to let them know the results of their antibody test and included a link to a survey asking about their experience of consent. Our findings, as well as a description of the design of the consent process is described in our paper which you can read for free in Journal of Public Ethics. We asked participants how much of the consent material they read, how informed they felt and if they preferred online to traditional face-to-face consent.
The results were very interesting: Participants indicated a high level of engagement with the consent materials, with 67% reporting having read all and a further 20% having read ‘most’ of the materials. All participants indicated feeling completely (78%) or mostly (22%) informed about the purpose, methods and intended uses of the research, as well as what participation was required and what risks were involved. Overall, participants reported an overwhelming preference for online consent. Their longer free-text responses suggested that they were predominantly attracted to the convenience of online consent, including the leisure to read the consent materials several times, and the ability to engage in the consent process at a convenient time/place. Free text responses also supported online consent for our survey, but participants indicated that were the study more complex or were it a clinical trial they would prefer to have a face-to-face element.
Obtaining consent in lockdown
What can this study tell us about the research based on COVID-19 home-testing that is happening now? Well, it is our hope that as researchers aim to continue their work online, they give careful thought to what informed consent is in the current circumstances. Our paper describes how to obtain informed consent electronically and in a way that we have found to be acceptable amongst our research participants, but this might not be appropriate in all cases.
We also hope that Public Health England puts in place a robust framework for the pandemic to ensure adequate consent is still sought and obtained for any research. It is in times of crisis that abuses may be allowed to happen. Even with the best intentions, researchers may act expediently and may overlook best practice in their hurry to conduct the research and obtain results. In disaster settings, corner-cutting in ethical research practices are more likely, but this is also when participants are most vulnerable and may feel less able to challenge research practices that feel inappropriate. Our own study has shown that there are easy and acceptable solutions for obtaining informed consent. We hope that researchers currently developing population surveys using self-testing methods will give some thought to developing acceptable solutions to obtaining informed consent. We must continue research activities without forgetting our professional, ethical, and legal obligations to those who make our work possible.
Our latest blog by DEPTH researcher Dr Sam Milestakes a break from coronavirus research to explore the themes of co-production and collaboration in our recently completed projectThis Sickle Cell Life. Read on to find out more…
Regular readers of this blog will know that our work in DEPTH (Dialogue, Evidence, Participation & Translation for Health) includes thinking about how we involve different communities in health research. Today I’m writing about This Sickle Cell Life, a recently completed qualitative research project that talks to young people about their lives and experiences of having sickle cell disease. I should add that some of what I’m writing about is based on team discussions and reflections. We’re writing this up in more detail with our co-authors and I’ll keep you posted on how it progresses.
I got involved in This Sickle Cell Life with Professor Cicely Marston and Dr Alicia Renedo when I started here at LSHTM in 2017. Funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), the project explores how young people experience transitions in moving from paediatric to adult healthcare services. This includes for example how our participants experience GP surgeries, scheduled hospital visits or unscheduled (i.e. emergency) trips to A&E. We also explored the personal and day-to-day experiences of young people living with sickle cell disease. We were aiming to answer questions including: What is the relationship between a young person with sickle cell and their doctor, and how does this change if you move away from home for college, university or work? And why do young people with sickle cell sometimes delay going to the emergency department when they have a sickle cell pain crisis? (Read this excellent overview by Sickle Cell Society for more on pain). We then cast the net wider to think about family, school, sex and relationships.
Our aim was to offer a much-needed sociological picture of how a young person with sickle cell navigates their life and their future, to mirror the more extensive clinical and quantitative research that has been published about the condition. That’s not to say that sickle cell research is exactly a crowded market – Professor Simon Dyson, who has made brilliant sociological contributions over many years, has rightly noted the lack of sickle cell research compared to other chronic health conditions, and how social, economic and ethnic determinants play into this marginalisation:
‘…impairment is primarily socially created by environmental factors, consumption patterns and accidents and not by genetic disorders.’ (Dyson 1998: p.123).
Fieldwork was already expertly wrapped up by Alicia when I joined the project, but I got to be part of the really interesting results analysis, discussion and dissemination work, including an engagement event with the public which in turn led to some fantastic community projects of its own. You can read more about the work here, but what I’m going to focus on in this blog was the role of ‘co-production’ in the project: put simply, that means working with different ‘kinds’ of people to produce research that is a collaborative effort. Co-produced research recognises that expertise is held by a range of people rather than only the ‘usual suspects’ (in this scenario, academics or clinicians). Advocates of co-production hope that the research findings developed are more rounded-out and take into account the ‘embodied’ knowledge of people who are living the journey themselves (see Renedo et al., 2018 for more).
One of the distinctive features of This Sickle Cell Life was that it was co-produced with two young sickle cell patient experts and a sickle cell parent/carer expert from the outset. All three have extensive knowledge of sickle cell and life with sickle cell, and already advocate for healthcare improvement in their own lives. They were involved long before I was – right from the project planning and application stage before funding was granted, in fact. They were also paid for their time. Partnering with these three experts added a very important facet to the research we conducted. There is a lot of talk in public health research about ‘PPI’, or patient & public involvement with healthcare. In the NHS, the motto ‘nothing about me, without me’ represents one way in which patient involvement is rationalised. Funders and grant-giving bodies are (rightly) keen to see meaningful involvement with the communities (sometimes also called beneficiaries) who are most relevant to the research being done. Co-production can also shine a light on the power imbalances that often happen in a traditional researcher-participant relationship in social sciences research which can reinforce all sorts of unhelpful hierarchies and prejudices.
In our project, we agreed with our patient experts that it was particularly important that their voices were heard, because they contributed expert knowledge of their bodies and their own health conditions, as well as helping us at the findings stage of the research, highlighting themes that were most pertinent to improving healthcare environments for people with sickle cell. We further argued at every stage (to colleagues, institutions, sceptics – anyone who would listen basically) that our involvement processes needed to be considered, balanced, and properly thought-through – lip-service involvement doesn’t help any party and it is not in the spirit of meaningful participation. We wanted to amplify less-heard voices and hear stories from our patient experts and carer experts because their analysis of their own, and others’, experiences of sickle were invaluable. Our collaborators’ input contributed a different side to more traditional qualitative research; as a team, we worked to interpret the data and draw out the implications for practice.
The highlight of the project for me was not just the valuable findings that came out of 80 interviews with young people, which are research outputs of their own brilliantly managed by Alicia (which you can read for free here), but the process of co-producing research with patient experts and carers. I have discussed the idea of co-production a bit in my own digital technology and sexuality research, in which I (loosely) explored the co-production by both researcher and participant of a safe discursive space for covering sensitive topics in sex and sexuality in fieldwork research (which you can read for free here). But This Sickle Cell Life made co-production central from the start and throughout the full four years of the project; it is clear to me only now how truly different this way of working is, and the value it adds.
The winding road to publication: How expertise is framed in academia
What was interesting was how our co-produced research outputs were received by peer reviewers for academic journals. Having learnt so much from our patient experts about how their experiences reflected what our results showed us about participants’ experiences, we invited them to write an academic article with us. We did this by discussing study findings with them and inviting them to discuss these themes with us as I took notes and recordings to write into a larger discussion. It was a long process, involving lots of conversations in cafes, on the phone and by email to coordinate our different experiences and expertise.
However, upon submission several reviewers critiqued what they felt to be overly personal accounts of sickle cell. Even having noted our co-produced efforts and celebrated this ethos, reviewers still picked out patient expert passages that they felt were lacking objective research – questioning the expertise of our co-production partners who were best placed to be reflecting on the study findings. Where our patient experts told us how their experiences chimed with those of the participants when it came to hospital care or chronic ill health or family issues, and I wove these reflections into our discussion section, reviewers felt this expertise was anecdotal or somehow unscientific – as if the rest of the qualitative dataset was by contrast unobjectionable or markedly positivist, when of course it wasn’t. We were in the paradoxical position of amplifying the expert knowledge of people with sickle cell and yet that knowledge being somehow too ‘real-life’.
We were in the paradoxical position of amplifying the expert knowledge of people with sickle cell and yet that knowledge was somehow too ‘real-life’.
I have sympathy for the reviewers, too, because despite the best will of a whole range of actors to more actively incorporate a range of knowledges into academic publications, establishment traditions prevail. This clashes with what I guess I would call the out-of-place-ness of equitable authorship, which synthesises a range of voices, including those which are non-establishment and may contribute in different (often refreshingly different) ways than are standard. None of this is to say that it wasn’t a valuable experience, but it was a long one. Critical Public Health and its editors did support our approach, with suggestions back and forth, and published what we hope will be the first of several co-produced articles (read it for free here).
That leads us to one of the curious tensions in this kind of work – our collaborators are clearly experts, but they’re not academics. Does that matter? Well, it shouldn’t – especially given the UK NHS drive to centre patients and public at the forefront of research and healthcare involvement. And yet the process of publishing papers with our patient experts was not straightforward. It required different ways of working than what we were all used to, and different approaches – and that’s before we consider the lengthy journey we then had publishing our co-produced academic article, where roadblocks re-emerged.
I came to see that the key contribution of any author is their contribution to ‘the work’, and this can go far beyond typing up results or making an argument for changing UK healthcare practices in an academic article. Instead, it is about having conversations – in ways that ensure equity between all parties – and then using academics’ toolkits to package this co-produced knowledge whilst maintaining its integrity. For us, a more liberatory outcome would have been yet more unconventional than the finished piece. Maybe this would have taken us further from what makes an academic article an academic article. Well, you might argue, if you really want to publish more collaboratively, perhaps a different format would be better suited – a commentary, or an editorial, or a blog – and we are in the process of doing all those things. But this argument overlooks the ostensible openness of academic publishing to co-produced and public involvement endeavours. We’re all supposed to be embracing that ethos…aren’t we? There is work to do, it seems, in lining up expectations with conventions in co-produced research outputs.
As for the research itself, it’s been a fantastically valuable project for better understanding the health and social conditions of sickle cell. There are definitely ways we can further improve on our approaches to co-production for next time. It’s also not to say that our co-production work was straightforward or easy. On the contrary, it required constant communication between all parties to stay on the same page. But that ongoing relationship, and that time taken to gather views from around the table really ought to be how we always operate: with care, consideration and dialogue between all parties at all times. We came to define it as ‘slow co-production’, which I’ve blogged about before (we lay out what we think are its strengths in thisarticle). It is only within the tight parameters of contemporary academic research contracts that this valuable, lengthy process feels like a luxury. I should add that the NIHR were very supportive of our approach and helped us build into our budget money to support exactly this kind of process, and they also gave us a generous timeframe in which to generate all this co-produced work.
It also encourages us to question what constitutes ‘knowledge’, who or what entities ‘hold’ knowledge (and you see it performed nowhere more starkly than in healthcare settings), and of the power imbalance between researcher and participant. Now I think twice before internalising the status quo of privilege and position in knowledge-holding (and knowledge exchange). I think more about how practical experience informs knowledge – or is overlooked by systems of knowledge and knowing – and who actually gets a seat at the table in supposedly collaborative endeavours. Cicely and Alicia have written about all of this and more, and you can read this work here,hereandhere.
Pursuing co-production helps us recognise the importance of prioritising equitable social science research that values all voices equally and recognises a range of expertise, rather than relying on the (often colonial, socially-structured, privileged) expertise bestowed – and often still prioritised – by academia.
This Sickle Cell Life was funded by the National Institute for Health Research Health Services and Delivery Research Programme (project number 13/54/25). The views and opinions expressed therein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the HS&DR Programme, NIHR, NHS or the Department of Health.
Recent social media debates have shown that misunderstandings about ‘biological sex’ are common. In our latest blog, DEPTH Director Professor Cicely Marston discusses how simplistic ideas now circulating about biological sex miss the mark – and why it matters.
Isn’t it the case that biological sex can only be binary – that you can only be biologically male or biologically female? And why does it matter anyway? In this blog I’ll discuss why biological sex is more complicated than many people think.
A popular way to explain the concept of ‘gender’ is to say that ‘sex is biological and gender is social’. This can help get the idea across that gender is ‘social’ – that is to say, it is something created by people, involving things like expectations, behaviours, and beliefs about masculinity and femininity. It’s true that gender is indeed social, but this leaves the idea that ‘sex is biological’ unexamined – and in some aspects in fact, ‘biological’ sex is social too.
But how can ‘biological sex’ possibly be in any way social? The basic thing to understand is that categories and labels – even words themselves – are social. For instance, if I call something a table you will know roughly what I mean. The table is real, material, and can vary: for example being made of different materials, in different sizes, and so on. We agree as speakers of the language roughly what we mean by “table”.
All the word “table” reflects is what we have decided, collectively over time, counts as a table. E.g. a table generally has legs, but not always the same number. It might be raised high off the floor, or be low. Through usage, all that diversity comes to be labelled with the same word “table”.
When differentiating tables becomes socially important, language adapts, and the word “table” might be qualified (“occasional table” or “coffee table”).
In the same way, “biological sex” is what we conceptualise, as a society, as “biological sex”. It is a label used to describe a collection of indicators, biologies, and anatomies. Indicators (e.g. chromosomes, gametes), that have changed over time and with scientific discoveries. It’s not a failsafe way to know what a particular individual’s biology is in every case.
This is why we can say that the biological sex binary is socially constructed– biological sex as male or female is a shorthand for categorisations of the material world that we find useful.
To take the most obvious example, many people see a “biological” binary in genital shape, yet this is an imperfect heuristic. (Content warning: genital cutting mentioned below). In many places, babies are assigned to the category “male” or “female” based on the shape of their genitals at birth. However, individuals may have a genotype that appears to “contradict” their assigned sex, or that in other ways doesn’t match the simplified XX vs XY that we learn at school. Unsurprisingly, people who assert that biological sex is binary seem to offer varying and sometimes contradictory biological markers that they claim divide everyone in the world neatly into two categories. Is it chromosomes? Gametes? Testosterone levels? Genital appearance? Nobody seems to be sure.
“Biological sex” is a construct that helps our highly gendered society to categorise and label others.
“Biological sex” is a construct that helps our highly gendered society to categorise and label others. But why bother? The sex binary has major social significance (so much so that children with genitals less easy to read as male/female may be subject to genital cutting), and people who do not present in line with the sex they were assigned at birth, or who are not read as clearly “male” or “female”, continue to experience social disapproval, discrimination, and violence.
The idea of “naturalness” or the intrinsic/immutable binary nature of “biological sex” is important socially too. If the binary is “natural” or “biology” there’s nothing we can do about it, and departures from the typical become “disorders” rather than simply variation. Similar ideas also underpin arguments that differences (and inequalities) between men and women are biologically determined and so cannot be overcome.
The biological sex binary oversimplification does particular harm when it is weaponized to vilify or discriminate against individuals or groups who are deemed not to fit such as people not easily read as “female” or “male”, and when backwards logic is used to try to gloss over discrimination and vilification by representing it as simply a consequence of the “natural” order of things.
To summarise, “biological sex” involves not only the material but also the social. The crucial point is that the idea of a strict and immutable binary is socially constructed. The concept of “biological sex” is not inevitable because we have bodies, it is a response to how we see those bodies and how, as a society, we want to divide them up into categories. So the whole argument about gender and sex binaries is not an argument about science – however much people want to present it as one – it is an argument about classification and how we as a society choose to label people. Biological sex is social as well as material: and that matters.
What do you think? Thoughts, questions – and answers – are, as ever, welcomed in the comments section below this blog. (NB: If you’re reading this article on the DEPTH blog mainpage, click on the title of this post and comments will open at the bottom).
The short course consisted of two full day workshops (day 1 Professor Pranee Liamputtong and day 2 Dr Alicia Renedo), which included a combination of mini-lectures, reflective discussions and participatory group work by students from Kyoto University. Research degree students from LSHTM also attended the course at Kyoto and presented some of their own participatory research projects
Professor Liamputtong from Western Sydney University delivered an engaging session on the theory and methods of PAR (participatory action research). PAR emphasises involvement of participants in the research undertaken and encourages participants to shape the research undertaken. The day started with an inspiring introduction into the philosophy behind PAR, which drew upon the pioneering ideas of Brazilian educator Paulo Freire. Students learned about the importance that Freire’s work has had on the theory and practice of participation for social change and health improvement. In particular, Professor Liamputtong challenged students to think about how Freire’s concepts of ‘radical love’ and ‘conscientization’ can contribute to more equitable research. This is a type of research that challenges the status quo by engaging ignored and silenced voices and addresses the problems marginalised communities identify as central to their everyday life.
Professor Liamputtong contextualised PAR within the wider debate about decolonising research methodologies. She drew on Linda Tuhiwai Smiths’ work to make an excellent case for the need to stop conducting research that takes away the knowledge and livelihoods of communities and suppresses their identities.
This introduction to the theory and philosophy of PAR was followed up by an overview of different creative PAR methodologies, from body-mapping to photovoice. We also learned about the personal skills PAR researchers need to develop; reciprocity, self-reflexivity, respect, self-awareness, humility, and compassion amongst others.
On the second day, Dr Renedo encouraged students to think critically about participation in health. She gave on overview of the body of work she’s developed with Professor Cicely Marston focused on understanding how community participation and patient involvement in healthcare research works in practice: what works, why and how? She started the day with an introduction to work they have developed on theorising participation and using participatory approaches in health research. Their work has addressed important evidence gaps on participation in health by developing critical theory on undertheorized aspects, which are also neglected in practice. In this first session, students learned about the importance of space in making participation successful and inclusive, and about the role of temporal, social and material aspects of participatory space in influencing participants’ ability to negotiate their rights for quality health and to mobilise for better health.
In this session, students also learned about how social relationships and research practices at the core of participatory research shape the identities of participants, that is how participants see their role and capacity to influence. Dr Renedo closed this first session with a discussion about the social production of new forms of knowledge through participatory processes; what happens when the technical knowledge of researchers and healthcare providers interacts with the knowledge brought by communities?
In the second session, Dr Renedo stimulated group discussion around the guiding principles for participatory research. She introduced students to guiding principles for ensuring participatory research is ethical and inclusive to deliver bottom-up solutions for the communities we are working with. Students were tasked with planning a participatory research project with vulnerable communities. Before they started, Dr Renedo warned students about some of the potential risks of participatory research, for example, community disengagement, mistrust and reinforcement of pre-existing inequalities and power hierarchies.
In the afternoon, Dr Renedo presented a case example of DEPTH participatory research project co-produced with sickle cell disease (SCD) patient advocates (patients with SCD and carers of patients with SCD). Her session was followed up by presentationson PAR conducted by LSHTM research degree students: Asmae Doukani, Stefanie Fringes and Chris Obermeyer.
Asmae Doukani gave a talk about her participatory research journey and reflected on her personal learnings about meaningful user involvement in the development and evaluation of digital mental health interventions. Chris Obermeyer gave an overview of his grassroots participatory research involving communities in improving PrEP promotion in Ukraine. Stefanie Fringes helped students think critically about how to do participation with young people as research partners in the context of HIV in adolescent health.
Alicia would like to give a special thanks to Ayako Kohno and Teranee Techasrivichien, from Kyoto University School of Public Health, for inviting us to participate in the workshop. She adds:
“I was truly inspired by all presentations and by Kyoto University students’ critical insights into participatory research. The workshop stimulated truly collective learning. I look forward to continue conversations and see how the students can draw on the learnings from the two-day workshop in their own research.”
A recording of the two-day workshop will be available via Kyoto University’s website. We will add a link to these resources when they are ready.
Today’s blog is very topical because LSHTM doctoral researcher and DEPTH member Shelly Makleff has been attending the SVRI Forum 2019 in Cape Town this week to present a co-produced project by LSHTM, IPPF/WHR and Mexfam that highlights the potential of sexuality education as a strategy for preventing partner violence. DEPTH director Professor Cicely Marston is co-PI. Her presentation is entitled “Preventing intimate partner violence among young people – a qualitative study examining the role of comprehensive sexuality education”. Now let’s hear a little more about the project…
We wanted to know if sexuality education can help prevent partner violence. The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) partnered with IPPF/WHR in New York and Mexfam in Mexico City to try to find out. We have promising results that we’ve begun to publish. Below we share some of our key findings.
Mexfam taught a 20-hour course to high school students on a weekly basis for one semester. We evaluated this course through a longitudinal study with nearly 300 students. Using observation, surveys, interviews, and focus groups, we found four main ways in which sexuality education seems to contribute to intimate partner violence prevention and response.
First, encouraging critical reflection. The course provided a space to share experiences and debate beliefs about violence. For example, questioning whether jealousy and possessive behavior were signs of love, or rather, forms of violence. One young woman said:
The health educator made it very clear to us that if your partner really loved you, they would accept you as you are. They wouldn’t be telling you ‘don’t dress that way’ or ‘I don’t want you to talk to him.’ That is a type of violence.”
Participants also said the course helped them rethink gender norms. One young man told us:
My classmate said that the man has to work, and the woman should stay in the house. It made me think. I think you need to give freedom to both people in a relationship.
Second, building assertive communication. Participants said they became more comfortable talking about relationships and sexuality as the course progressed. They also shared the information from the course with friends and family, intervened in violence around them, and some left possessive relationships.
Third, promoting care-seeking behavior. Health educators emphasized the right of young people to receive care, and provided information, support and referrals. Students told us they felt more prepared to seek care if it became necessary. Indeed, the percent of participants who knew where to seek support for violence more than doubled over the semester.
Fourth, ongoing training and support to health educators. This is crucial so they are prepared to address conflict in the group, encourage critical reflection, and create a safe space for discussion.
Based on the three-year project in Mexico, we have recommendations for implementation and policy that can be found in our briefing paper. Here are some highlights:
First, communication with participants can continue after an intervention ends, to encourage access to support and care in the long term.
Second, sexuality education should engage teaching methods and participatory activities relevant to participants’ lives.
Third, such courses should aim to shift gender norms, avoid heteronormative bias, and highlight forms of non-violent behavior.
Finally, school authorities should formally support such interventions and ensure that teachers and other staff are trained to address school-based violence.
In conclusion, we suggest that relatively short-term sexuality education has real potential to help prevent intimate partner violence. The findings reinforce the importance of working in schools – which are strategic both as settings for violence and for its prevention.
You can read more about our findings here:
Makleff S, Garduño J, Zavala RI, Barindelli F, Valades J, Billowitz M, Silva Márquez VI, Marston C. “Preventing intimate partner violence among young people – a qualitative study examining the role of comprehensive sexuality education.” Sexuality Research and Social Policy (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13178-019-00389-x
Briefing paper: “Preventing intimate partner violence among young people– The role of comprehensive sexuality education.” Advancing Learning and Innovation on Gender Norms (ALIGN) (2019).
In a new blog comissioned for BMJ, DEPTH team member Professor Cicely Marston and Dr Suzanna Francis argue that neglect of STIs and infertility undermines family planning programmes worldwide.
Why do people still not use effective contraceptive methods?
One reason is that many women and their families in low- and middle-income countries fear the most effective contraceptives can cause infertility. A conventional response to this is that people simply need more information to put them on the right track – that women who, for instance, are using injectable contraceptives simply need reassurance that any fears of infertility are unfounded.
But what if the risk of infertility in some lower income countries is all too real – but the real cause is hidden? This, our paper argues, may well be happening with infertility caused by undiagnosed, asymptomatic STIs.
Chlamydial infection in particular is an important cause of tubal factor infertility. So infertility caused by undetected, asymptomatic chlamydia may well be widespread in areas where it is prevalent – including among women who have recently stopped using contraceptives.
All of this may contribute to a sense that it is the contraceptives causing the infertility – simply because their use coincides with less or no condom use, and undetected STI infection.
An indicator of the scale of the threat STIs pose to women’s fertility comes from recent work (here and here) in South Africa, showing a major, uncontrolled chlamydia epidemic among young people. It seems reasonable to assume that this problem, and any resulting infertility, is not confined to one country.
We hope our commentary will encourage more research into the global prevalence of STIs and the degree to which the associated infertility could be undermining people’s trust in family planning programmes. Counterintuitively it is possible that by addressing fertility problems in programme settings, fertility may even be reduced as more people trust that they can use contraception without experiencing devastating infertility.
More broadly, we call for research and programmes that address women’s own priorities as a starting point to develop sexual and reproductive health programmes that are more attractive and win people’s trust.
To address complex problems, programmes and research must be co-produced with the communities concerned, and break down disciplinary boundaries such as those between family planning and STI prevention and treatment.
Crucially, programmes must address women’s right and desire to control their fertility in the fullest sense – in other words having children when they want them as well as avoiding births when they do not. In high fertility settings, infertility – so often personally devastating and socially stigmatising for the people affected – may not even be considered a problem by funders. This needs to change.
In our latest blog, DEPTH researcher Sam Miles discusses his latest publication for new social science collection The Geographies of Digital Sexuality. Sam’s chapter explores the practices of men seeking men on online dating apps and argues that these practices can be categorised into different identities, or ‘typologies’, of user.
I was invited last year by Andrew Gorman-Murray and Catherine J. Nash to write a chapter for their new book, The Geographies of Digital Sexuality. I thought for a long time about what to write about. My work has been moving over time from queer male technologies and fieldwork ethics to sexual behaviour, and from there to sex and sexuality more generally, as our new ACCESS project at London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine develops. I’m still fascinated by technology, sex and relationships, but looking globally at some of these relationships in very different contexts – marginalised populations, challenging settings, and complex geopolitical environments in the global South.
We know that gay and bisexual men in Europe and north America are a comparatively privileged sexual minority (although MSM – men who have sex with men, but don’t identify as gay or bisexual – are often less privileged), especially compared to lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people. The lives and experiences of a wider range of people need further amplification – especially given common misunderstandings about technology use in socioeconomically disadvantaged settings; people are often surprised to hear that smartphones are used almost everywhere in the world. This includes within seriously deprived settings, where it may be the single most important object for a family’s livelihood or income. That does not mean it is not also used for communicating, partner-seeking, or pornography in any number of these settings.
Nevertheless, one of the things that people still ask me a lot about when they hear about my PhD and its research into smartphone dating apps is about people’s behaviour online: things that people complain about seeing again and again. It’s as if there are a list of the ‘usual suspects’ to be wary of when using dating or hook-up apps, from the ubiquitous time-waster (‘talk, talk, talk, and yet never agrees on concrete plans to meet up) to the catfish (‘Amazingly good looking but interested in me!’, or ‘keen to meet but there’s something weird about the photos’). It provoked new questions based on online identity: Could we sketch out different ‘types’ of dating app user? Would those ‘types’ translate between queer and heterosexual? Do different apps host different types?
My qualitative fieldwork suggested that male-male apps contained ‘types’ that were far more specifically defined, and more commonly recognised by a whole range of users, than anything I was reading about being theorised elsewhere, so I looked into it further and developed three ‘types’ of user: the Embracer, the Timewaster, and the Minimalist. Whilst the vignettes I write in the chapter are fictional, they are amalgamated from a range of real-life users I spoke to, augmented by the profiles of other users that my participants discussed repeatedly (and usually in strongly positive or strongly critical ways). These profiles build an interesting picture of different modes of use for a market-dominant app like Grindr or Tinder. These ‘types’ of user, and the strong feelings they provoke in others, also speak to an argument I bang on about a lot: that the social codes of these GPS-enabled apps have yet to catch up to their digital sophistication. The result is user enthusiasm for what these platforms can offer in meeting new people – especially important for sexual minorities – tempered by real frustrations about other people not taking the app seriously, or taking it too seriously, or just not reflecting the user’s desired path to encounter.
Even more fascinating perhaps is the finding that the Timewaster – an app user who is keen to chat, seemingly reciprocates interest, and yet keeps postponing a date or other physical meeting, seemingly content to exist only in cyberspace – is almost universally criticised by users. Yet many of these same users sometimes exhibit precisely this behaviour themselves. This paradox serves to emphasise that we must not think of ‘types’ or user typologies as somehow fixed, but instead flexible categorisations that users might adopt, consciously or not, at different times in their app use over time. You may not see yourself as a time-waster because it’s not a trait you think is very attractive, but that doesn’t mean that sometimes you’re not that person to another frustrated user.
The picture built up by this qualitative work is one of seriously mixed feelings. Users characterise their time using online partner-seeking apps with as much ambivalence as enthusiasm. Thinking more about what the categories I have sketched out above might mean for online partner-seeking, and how social and/or sexual connection happens (or doesn’t happen) online can help us to think about larger questions far beyond the scope of dating apps. These include who we are when we’re online, and why that still feels ‘removed’ or disembodied from what should by now be a more taken-for-granted, hybridised digital-physical reality.