A strong tradition of involving people with lived experiences of using mental health services as active members of research teams has emerged over the last two decades. This has focused on adding the voice of personal experience to the research process and on introducing the idea of ‘service user- or survivor-produced knowledge’ (Sweeney et al, 2009). However, the epistemological value of these new means of knowledge production continues to be evaluated alongside the ‘gold standard’ of university-produced clinical-academic research about mental health (Staley, 2009). Parallel developments in the philosophy of science have introduced the concept of ‘co-produced’ knowledge, where the inclusion of research partners from outside of the university questions the university's monopoly as the arbiter of ‘good science’ (Gibbons et al, 1994). All knowledge is held to be socially accountable, and all research voices – not just the new lay arrivals – are placed on the same critical plane (Nowotny et al, 2001).
Understanding the contribution of service user researchers to mental health research becomes not just a question of ‘What difference do they make?’ but an interrogation of how who we all are, as academics, clinicians and service users, shapes the knowledge we produce. Efforts have been made to measure the extent to which researchers with different backgrounds – service user researchers and ‘conventional’ university researchers – do mental health research differently, both in the collection and analysis of interview data (Gillard et al, 2010; Rose et al, 2011). In other research, we have attempted to capture the different sense we make of our data – the different analytical narratives we produce as service user, clinical and university researchers – and how we have endeavoured to co-produce a joint narrative through a collaborative research process (Gillard et al, 2011). In this chapter, we aim to illustrate and interrogate further this collaborative research process, focusing on the analysis of qualitative interview data, in order to explore at the level of research team practice how who we are shapes the knowledge we produce.
The research project
In this chapter, we will consider a research project entitled ‘Understanding personality disorders and recovery’, commissioned by a peer-led organisation that provides personality disorders services and is an active partner in the development of personality disorders policy in the UK.