Entering the Buffer Zone: Conducting Participatory and Collaborative Research

Buffer zone

In this blog, Dr Hayley Bennett (University of Edinburgh) and Dr Richard Brunner (University of Glasgow) summarise their recent methodological publications exploring the practices, ethics and realities of participatory and collaborative research.


Undertaking research in collaboration with others is a well-established approach in social research. The expectation that it should be standard practice for university-based researchers to collaborate or “co-produce” research with non-academic partners has recently taken centre stage in the UK, partly as a response to the ‘impact agenda’. As such, researchers from a wide range of methodological and disciplinary backgrounds increasingly seek to collaborate with non-academic partners. However, not all researchers engage in the training or the epistemological positioning of social researchers who are grounded in participatory or collaborative methods. Key questions of how to create, sustain and maintain collaborations, alongside the appropriateness of traditional methodological concepts, need greater attention and consideration.


To support reflexive and conceptual debates about undertaking such work, in two recent articles we draw on extensive research activities that formed part of the What Works Scotland programme (2014-2019). What Works Scotland was a £4million, five year, multi-disciplinary research collaboration between the Universities Edinburgh and Glasgow, co-funded by the ESRC and Scottish government. The programme committed to a collaborative action research (CAR) approach to co-research complex policy issues involving multiple public service partners in four case sites. Our articles draw on our experiences of conducting CAR in two case sites involving dozens of public service and third sector practitioners, in a range of CAR inquiry groups that operated for periods of up to 90 weeks.


Our first article ‘Nurturing the Buffer Zone: Conducting collaborative action research in contemporary contexts’ focuses on CAR as a form of participatory research. We argue that a range of research approaches are contained within the tradition of participatory research. These can be galvanised to transform power relations by challenging conventional processes of knowledge production. This can be achieved by maintaining a standpoint of researching with, rather than researching on, communities. We introduce the concept of the ‘buffer zone’ to capture the work that researchers do to establish and maintain complex research collaborations:

The buffer zone

A created and nurtured area of critical and relational activity that lies between different ways of working – the established organisational and contextual practices and the new, created spaces for temporary, collaborative and critical research. It is a space, a border zone between multiple worlds of work within which new political and relational work occurs. When established, the buffer zone can protect or empower the activities within inquiry groups or collaborative research projects by negotiating with (or holding at bay) other, competing powerful actors or agendas within the wider operating context.

The buffer zone seeks to conceptualise the work involved in approaching, designing and practising social research in collaborative contexts. It places the necessary political, ethical, and relational work for research teams at its heart. The buffer zone contains three core elements:


  • ‘buffering purpose’: acknowledging the necessary work of holding and sustaining the research space in order to pursue critical collaborative research and avert ‘capture’ or instrumentalisation. This includes acknowledging the likelihood of pressures from the academy and from the non-academic partners, for example for narrowly defined ‘outputs’.
  • ‘buffering practices’: using a range of relational skills and activities in order to enter and sustain relations in the field. For example, using rapport in multiple, ongoing ways with a changing range of gatekeepers and power-holders.
  • ‘buffering dynamics’: understanding the necessity of engaging in ongoing political work in a persistently mutable research context. This means the continual, non-linear activities that take place throughout participatory and collaborative research within contexts of intense field relations and unstable institutional structures including within the academy.

The buffer zone is a purposefully curated, temporary space and does not simply appear or exist. Participatory and collaborative researchers play the central role in nurturing and facilitating the buffer zone. The buffer zone concept helped us to understand the work we were doing in the quest to initiate, drive and complete multiple CAR inquiries with public service and third sector practitioners.


We learned that participatory and collaborative research is not a simple extension of academia, defined and controlled by pre-determined institutional practices. It offers a challenge to university power. Collaborative research partners manoeuvre, shape, and continually co-produce the research space, activities and outcomes. Research teams cannot predict precise boundaries, collaborative dynamics, or outputs in advance. Such work requires researcher skills and resources that go beyond traditional notions of ‘research methods training’, but have, until now, received too little attention.


Our second article, ‘Political and ethical dilemmas in multi-agency participatory research: the role of the buffer zone’  features as part of a Special Issue edited by Prof Beth Perry and Prof Tim May that builds on workshops exploring how universities, through participatory and collaborative research, could better engage in, or create social justice outcomes.


In this article we advance the buffer zone concept by focussing specifically on ethical and political dilemmas of participatory and collaborative research. The starting point is an acknowledgement that such research creates a contested space influenced by multiple unsettled organisational and political agendas. As Kara (2017; 299) notes, participatory approaches are not as “straightforwardly positive as much of the literature would like us to think”.


We contend that as part of their ‘buffering practices’ participatory and collaborative researchers need to identify, respond to, and reflect on what we call everyday and momentous dilemmas, and do this by combining technical, relational, and political skills. As part of this, collaborative researchers need to account for the complex power relations shaping relational practices between organisations and professions connected to their research project, including their own role and institution, and the ways in which these can shape ethical and political dilemmas in the field.


The article offers critical reflection on such dilemmas in our CAR work, using three empirical examples. We also offer insights into practices that we co-developed to reduce conflicts or improve collaboration. The article highlights how university-led research can produce dilemmas when participatory or collaborative research butts up against institutional management, finance and employment practices. These include project funding restrictions, reporting processes, researcher precarity, incentive structures, and governance constraints.


In both of these articles we seek to highlight power relations, processes of knowledge production, and the reflexive and critical role of collaborative researchers in pursuit of social change. We offer considerations and recommendations about the need to ensure research team members (of whatever status, methodological expertise or epistemological background) are aware of, value, and are empowered to discuss the relational work, positionality, and ethics that are core to participatory and collaborative research. We offer these insights and experiences with the aim of increasing debate, training, and resources available to research teams and research partners operating together in the necessary ‘created space’ of the buffer zone.


You can access Open Access versions of these articles here:


  1. Bennett, H., & Brunner, R. (2022). Nurturing the buffer zone: conducting collaborative action research in contemporary contextsQualitative Research22(1), 74–92.
  2. Bennett, H., & Brunner, R. (2022). Political and ethical dilemmas in multi-agency participatory research: The role of the buffer zoneMethodological Innovations0(0).



Photo by Tim Johnson on Unsplash


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