UK Data Service Data Impact Fellows: Bram Vanhoutte

bram vanhoutte

We are delighted to announce Bram Vanhoutte as one of our UK Data Service Data Impact Fellows. Bram is a Research Fellow in Sociology at the Cathie Marsh Institute for Social Research (CMIST) at The University of Manchester. Bram introduces his research and approach to impact on wellbeing in later life.

The main focus of my research is the different ways in which people age, and in particular how ageing is influenced by individuals’ earlier lives. Ageing is by definition a multifaceted process, encompassing institutional, social as well as biological changes, and by collaborating with researchers in other fields I try to do justice to do this plurality of perspectives. My research practice has concentrated on later life wellbeing: how to measure it, how it evolves over time and also how our social trajectories through life influence it. I have just started working on a new research project, The road to resilience: A comparative life course study, which examines the different ways in which people live through adverse events that define ageing in the public eye, such as loss of health, loss of partner and loss of wealth.

My main data sources are the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA) and its sister studies, the US Health and Retirement Study (HRS) and the Survey of Health and Retirement in Europe (SHARE). These panel studies allow studying how individuals change over time, how people differ from each other as well as how different countries compare, since they are conceived with international comparisons in mind. Gateway to Global Aging Data is an enormously useful resource in that regard, as it provides harmonized datasets to compare the different studies.

Impact can mean many things to many people. For me it is about engaging with non-academics throughout the research process. A useful starting point is the influential 2004 Presidential Address: For Public Sociology by Michael Burawoy, which sets up a framework to think through about the kinds of knowledge we generate and its respective publics. Two important types of engagement with non-academics are outlined: Policy and public. While policy audiences are interested in solutions to problems, public social science wants to engage its publics by starting up a conversation about what the problem actually is. This can happen in a more traditional way, through mediatised discussion in the public sphere, or organically by working closely together with the group under study, turning participants into subjects instead of objects. Importantly professional, critical, policy and public approaches to social science are mixed up in reality, and all forms of knowledge rest on a solid foundation of professional, methodological research.

In terms of my personal research, I can see how these different types of engagement happen in different phases of a project. When a research paper is published, I try to translate results to a non-academic audience, using traditional (e.g. The Telegraph article) as well as social media (e.g. Manchester Policy Blog), to create some public debate about the issue at hand. Sometimes ideas in these papers are picked up in more policy oriented circles, like expert reviews (e.g. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) evidence review), policy work,  or indirectly influencing the topics on which official statistics are collected (e.g. ONS’s personal wellbeing estimates).

Although these types of impact are crucial, and highlight the unique contribution of social sciences to both public discourse and policy in terms of evidence, they come at the end of the research process, almost as an afterthought. In my upcoming research project, I want to work together with interest organisations like Age UK, partners of Manchester City Council’s Age-Friendly Manchester, and older people themselves from the start, in a more organic way. I want these very different publics to tell me what they believe are priorities are in terms of resilience in ageing, as well what research questions I should address. I equally need their input in the qualitative aspect of the research, which is about the characterising the lived experience of going through transitions implied by adverse events. I also want their input on the output of the project, in addition to the standard academic research papers.

A big challenge in making this happen will be keeping these different parties involved throughout the research project, by ensuring there is a return on their time investment. This giving back can involve the development of evidence for policy, of info graphs and data visualization for interest organisations, and co-ownership of the research project.

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