Our Senior Researchers explain how they came to be involved in SWOP and share their passion for illuminating, impactful research.
Phoebe Beedell “When I saw the opportunity to study how frontline social workers help older people in difficult circumstances (for both parties!), I jumped at the chance. “
Like so many peoples’ careers, mine was a series of probable accidents rather than a deliberate plan. I started out as a graphic designer, but I couldn’t stomach the advertising industry, so I went into ‘public service communications’. For a while, I worked for the Bristol City Museums service. It was fabulously interesting, with eccentric experts who would show me boxes full of carefully categorized artefacts – beautiful beetles or oriental bottles, each according to their particular passions. On reflection, that experience underlined how we can use the evidence before us to tell stories that will help us understand the world.
But I was looking for travel and adventure, and spent the next ten years living and working in Zimbabwe and Lesotho on reproductive health and public information campaigns. I found myself seeking out the latest research on people’s behaviours and attitudes and my interest in sociology and public policy increased. Eventually, I returned to the UK, to look after my Dad and study for a Masters. Somehow, I managed to raise a child too!
Later, I worked on community-based projects, doing participatory research (something I’d first encountered in Southern Africa) and public consultations, and got my first job in academia. I was employed to do psychosocial research with a variety of community workers about the day-to-day ethical dilemmas they faced and how they kept going. I loved talking to people and hearing their stories.
With a child to support, I took on bits of teaching and small-scale research in between another couple of big projects. One on middle class parents’ school choices and another looking at the experiences of working class and middle class university students. Later, colleagues encouraged me to do a PhD. My first thoughts were ‘Who, me?’ but, with a bit of effort, I buried my imposter syndrome, applied myself, and after a few goes, managed to get a scholarship. My thesis was ‘A Psychosocial Study of Bangladeshi Development Workers’ examining the ethical dilemmas, contradictions and paradoxes faced by local aid workers and community activists in a country that, in one generation, has gone from famine to fast-fashion’s global garment-maker. Women’s lives are particularly affected and I argued that a feminist ‘ethic of care’ should guide international development assistance.
My interest in the space where abstract social policy meets messy reality led me to work with the wonderful Mo Ray at Lincoln University, on a project about Ethical Dilemmas in Self-Funded Care for Older People. Having looked after my own parents, there was personal interest as well as intellectual curiosity in the subject. We worked in collaboration with Denise and her team at Birmingham and with colleagues in Brighton, collectively overcoming the significant challenges of lockdown. I then spent some time in Scotland, where they do social care quite differently, but the South West of England was calling. When I saw the opportunity to study how frontline social workers help older people in difficult circumstances (for both parties!), I jumped at the chance. Fortunately, I landed safely and here I am!
Laura Noszlopy “I’m excited to “shadow” and learn from social workers as they champion older people’s wellbeing, often against the odds, over the coming months.”
I’ve been a social researcher, of one sort or another, throughout my adult life. If I think back, I was unselfconsciously using many of the skills and methods I use today even as a youngster. I think it’s a combination of natural curiosity about other people – their motivations, passions, concerns – and the ability to muddle quietly along with them. I have a strong urge to make sense of things and their place in the broader messiness of life. I love the process of research, and I feel privileged to have a job that offers me insights into others’ lives, sharing experiences and meeting people I would not otherwise meet, and – all being well – producing outputs that may improve the quality of those lives in some small way.
I feel this acutely in my current role with the SWOP project. Many of the people I am meeting – older people, their family members – are living through an especially stressful time as aging takes its toll on health, wellbeing, and agency. It’s often the case that people don’t understand how social care works, until they or a loved one need to draw on support, sometimes unexpectedly and sometimes inevitably. I hadn’t previously realised the extent to which social workers need to explain the terrain, as well as the different funding systems and their limitations, alongside their role in assessment and provision of services. Although it’s early days, I am struck by the skill, stamina, and sensitivity of the social workers I’ve met. I look forward to learning more about how we care for each other, what motivates and sustains the choice to work in a caring profession, and the challenges faced by those who take this path, and about the difference these social workers can and do make in the lives of older people and their families. Despite working in a system that is chronically under-resourced, and often in situations fraught with sensitivities and obstacles, they navigate the legislation and the limitations of funding and capacity to sustain or improve the quality of people’s lives.
My route to this project has meandered across different academic disciplines and approaches – social anthropology, law, comparative religion, arts and literature – and geographical locations and subject foci – mostly Southeast Asia and Europe, studying social policy, cultural politics, arts and theatre, compassion and cruelty, environmentalism – but there is something universal about the fact of aging that features in all these areas. That said, my focus turned more sharply to UK social policy during the Covid-19 pandemic, when I was hired to work on a sociolegal research project at Birmingham Law School, examining the impact of emergency Care Act ‘easements’ on adult social care provision. This highlighted many of the fault lines and pressure points in the sector; it also introduced me to some amazing people and to the critical teamwork that kicks in to support older people when they need extra help. I’m excited to “shadow” and learn from social workers as they champion older people’s wellbeing, often against the odds, over the coming months.