Zoe Khor is a Principal in Research at the OPM group. In this interview, she describes her research journey through various projects on social issues aimed at achieving real world impacts.
As a child what did you want to be when you grew up?
I had dreams of being an investigative journalist - speaking truth to power and giving a voice to unheard voices and stories (kind of what I do now!). Either that or a fashion designer.
When did you first turn towards a social research career?
It was a protracted, and completely unplanned journey. I first became interested in social research as an undergraduate at SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies) where I studied Social Anthropology and learned about the practice and politics of ethnographic fieldwork. After a stint working in Japan on the Japan Exchange and Teaching programme team teaching English language in a high school in north eastern Honshu, I returned to the UK and got a job in external affairs at the Institute for Public Policy Research. I quickly got a sense there that I really wanted to be working on the research and policy side of things. I really got the research bug when I was doing qualitative research as part of my masters (University of Oxford) and was speaking with migrants about their experiences of the naturalisation process and living in the UK more broadly.
What was your first professional job? And first project there?
My first research job was at the Social Issues Research Centre in Oxford. I worked on a couple of projects including an EU Science and Society funded project which used research - stakeholder interviews and content analysis of science reporting across five EU member states – and stakeholder engagement to develop guidelines on science and health communication. The other was for a public relations company for a well-known tissue brand who wanted to understand public perceptions about men expressing their emotions (crying). What united these pretty disparate projects was the opportunity to start to learn how to do qualitative interviews and facilitate focus groups and how to develop a coding framework. I also got to see where the insights from research can go, and what they can influence, whether that be guidelines for journalists, or an advertising campaign.
Where did your career go next? What motivated that/those moves?
I wanted to move back to London and work in research focussed on social issues - giving people a voice about the policies and services that affect them. Opinion Leader Research were doing really interesting work using deliberative engagement methodologies which attracted me to apply. I learnt a lot while I was there, working on all manner of qual, quant and deliberative projects and travelling around the UK doing fieldwork.
During this time, at the back of my mind I still had an academic research puzzle which was niggling away - and which I took up again through a part-time PhD at Birkbeck College between 2009 and 2015. During that time, I worked with inspiring research, evaluation, policy and programme management colleagues at the Community Development Foundation, Shelter, BBC Media Action and OPM Group where I still work.
What has been your best professional moment?
The times that my project team and I have received positive feedback from clients, but more importantly for me, when we’ve heard from project participants, whether individuals or community groups to say that they’ve enjoyed taking part in the research, found it an empowering experience and / or been able to apply insights to make improvements.
Seeing the insights that projects have generated making a real difference is really a key motivation for me. A few years ago, I worked on a project which engaged women through a citizens’ jury methodology, about risk communication. The insights we generated helped to directly inform the leaflets which are sent out to women along with invitations to attend breast screening.
There are a few of these too, mostly involving handling / mis-handling really vocal participants at large scale public engagement events!
Do you have a social research hero/heroine?
My academic research hero and an amazing social researcher and anthropologist is Professor Roger Goodman. He really helped me understand the power of a good research question, and taught me to interrogate the assumptions that people carry around which shape their worldview.
A lot of people and organisations’ work is inspiring. Without wanting to jump on a bandwagon I think a lot of developments using design thinking, with its focus on solutions - is a helpful way for social researchers to start to rethink and restructure the ways in which we go about designing our research so that it is focussed on social impact.
Do you have a favourite quote?
It’s not a quote as such but “read the bloody question” was always my Dad’s exam advice. It’s been a helpful work place mantra as well in terms of taking a breath before diving in with a lot of assumptions.
What would you say to encourage a young person today considering a social research career?
Go for it. It’s a varied and challenging career which can really help to make a positive difference in the world.