Cathy Sharp is an Action Researcher at Research for Real.
As a child what did you want to be when you grew up?
Being a fashion designer was always doubtful. In truth, I’ve never really had a clear idea.
When did you first turn towards a social research career?
Forty years ago, I was a Census Enumerator. Since then, I’ve twisted and turned between research-focused roles, including commissioning and teaching research methods, and housing policy or development roles.
What was your first professional job? And first project there?
I became a Research Assistant in the same department where I had done my PhD at Sheffield University. It was a Rowntree funded project on the impact of local authority policies on the private rented sector. My last salaried job was as Research Manager for Communities Scotland, more than 18 years ago.
Where did your career go next? What motivated that/those moves?
Communities Scotland had set up the Scottish Community Action Research Fund to support community-led research on social inclusion and regeneration. As part of developing this new territory, I joined the postgraduate programme at the Centre for Action Research in Professional Practice at the University of Bath. I was inspired. I remember thinking that I could create my own job. Eventually I found the courage to leave an established post and go freelance as Research for Real (www.research-for-real.co.uk).
What has been your best professional moment?
Since that time, there have been many everyday and more occasional ‘great moments’. I will be forever proud that our evaluation of the Children Experiencing Domestic Abuse Recovery pilot programme supported £11m of funds for the programme in Scotland. Even in the last year, there has been fun in facilitating an online appreciative action learning set, creating ‘Zoom poetry’ at an event and getting to grips with System Dynamics modelling.
How things start is always fateful. I recall asking at a contract interview, ‘Who’s the client?’ Their befuddled response proved to be prescient.
Do you have a social research hero/heroine?
I have at least two. Yoland Wadsworth’s work is a treasure chest of practical wisdom for practice-based social research, rooted in the messy realities of human services. With fierce humanity and wry humour, she blends a consistent participants-eye view with the ideals of staff seeking to work for system change through much needed ‘human inquiry for living systems’.
Susan Weil established Social and Organisational Learning as Action Research (SOLAR), and led the development of significant ideas about participatory practice and systemic action research. She did much to challenge the separation of cultures of practice, research, and learning. Her work in experiential learning and the use of stories to understand organisations, create change and explore new forms of collaborative leadership all remain immensely important.
Do you have a favourite quote?
“As we face more and more that is unknown and not capable of being understood or controlled, we must approach learning and change as relational and improvisational processes. This inevitably means building cultures that support new forms of collaborative inquiry and action research.” (Susan Weil, 1997)
Susan was well ahead of her time. I have found that this quote resonates with people much more than it used to. Perhaps now we better understand the essentialness of collaboration, the real-world complexities and that it is not possible, even unethical, to engage with complex social systems from the outside.
What would you say to encourage a young person today considering a social research career?
Dig deep into your motivations and values, find out what you really love and the change you want to be in the world. Get out and about as much as possible. Find allies and collaborators. Stay out of the disciplinary, organisational, and methodological boxes. Be tenacious and forever learning, but know when to say no, or when to go, and leave well. Enjoy the lifelong quest to find worthwhile work.