Liminal Thinking And How It Led To The Development Of The Wales Social Research Awards


Change happens on the boundaries

This quote, from Dave Gray’s brilliant book ‘Liminal Thinking’, typifies how the Wales Social Research Awards came about and was developed.

I was at the launch of the Academy of Social Sciences’ publication Making the Case for the Social Sciences 10: Wales on the 25th November 2015 at the Pierhead in Cardiff Bay. A piece of research that I had been involved in as a Research Associate in Aberystwyth University between 2002 and 2004 is one of the case studies within the publication. It’s a piece of research that I’m very proud to have been part of. Led by Professor Mike Woods and the late Dr Bill Edwards, and supported by Dr Jon Anderson, Dr Graham Gardner and myself, we produced an important piece of research, The Role, Functions and Future Potential of Town and Community Councils in Wales – more commonly known as ‘the Aberystwyth Report’. Our findings led directly to changes in legislation and guidance in England and Wales. In Wales, recommendations from the research report to the Welsh Government directly underpinned parts of the Local Government (Wales) Measure 2011, including changes to arrangements for establishing and dissolving town and community councils, community meetings and polls, appointing youth representatives (16-25yrs), and a power for town and community councils to promote well-being in their area.

It was a great opportunity to support the launch of Making the Case for Social Sciences 10, see former colleagues, network, and learn about the other case studies being highlighted.

This extract from Making the Case for Social Sciences 10 captures the essence of what was said by a range of people at the event, which included Dr Ceridwen Roberts, a Council Member of the Academy of Social Sciences, Mark Drakeford, the then Minister for Health and Social Services, and Jane Hutt, the then Minister for Finance:

Making the Case

Impressive stuff.

Social science research is inherently multi-disciplinary and involves critical inquiry skills, which make it hugely valuable to informing the development of policies, services, and innovation, and addressing some of the most pressing societal challenges in Wales, the UK, and internationally.

In Wales, we have a positive attitude to social research. Social research, and the role of evidence more generally, is central to Wales’ world-leading Well-being of Future Generations Act [i]:

Robust research

Indeed, ‘evidence and understanding’ is one of the approaches that public bodies and public service boards should take as part of responding to the Act.

Social research is also at the heart of Government in Wales[ii]:

Social Research

And as the Making the Case for Social Sciences 10 highlights, there’s some great work going on by researchers in Wales.

It struck me, however, with the exception of this publication and launch event, how little the social science research community highlight and celebrate the outstanding research that is being undertaken in Wales, or demonstrate the value of social science research to policy and practice.

Anyway, this became the basis of a lively conversation between myself, Dr Richard Thurston (Welsh Government) and Professor Chris Taylor (Cardiff University). I (relatively) light-heartedly said, “there ought to be Awards for social science research in Wales. I think we should establish something!” We had a bit of a chat and laugh about this. But that was it. We had reached our boundary, our threshold, our door of opportunity.

As I highlighted in the Dave Gray quote above, change happens at the boundaries of things. Richard and I committed to chat further about this and explore the possibilities.

Liminal Thinking

We were hugely passionate about making this happen – to have a suite of awards which recognised and celebrated talent, innovation and impact in social research in Wales. We tested the idea with a range of people, including Dr Ceridwen Roberts and Faye Gracey, the Chair of the Social Research Association in Wales. From this very early stage, Faye’s support and commitment to the idea has been incredible. She’s been great and brilliant to work with.

Faye, Richard and myself formed a mini working group to… as you might expect from a bunch of social researchers… further test the idea! This included Helen Cunningham, the Wales lead at the Alliance for Useful Evidence. Helen subsequently joined the group, her contribution was invaluable. The Alliance for Useful Evidence also committed to financially support the purchase of the Awards themselves.

Pleasingly, we had overwhelming support and interest. There was no going back… we had to follow through with it, go through the threshold.

We had a discussion whether we should form an umbrella organisation to make the Awards a reality. We felt, however, that the concept of a Social Research Awards fitted really nicely with the aims of the Social Research Association – to be the voice for social research, to promote high quality standards in social research, and to represent, support, connect and inform.

Another door of opportunity.

We took a paper to the Social Research Association’s Board in London, pitching for the Awards to be a Social Research Association Award, and for our working group to be given some financial and administrative support. We were so pleased and grateful that the Board also saw the opportunity, the potential, and provided us with the resources and support we needed.

One Pair of Hands

None of us had done anything like this before. So, with a pretty steep learning curve and drawing on our networks who had appropriate knowledge and experience, we started to map out what would be involved.

WSRA - Wordle

We had extremely useful and practical advice from Paul Batcup and Becky Proctor at Sport Wales. They have complementary expertise in communications, marketing and events, and both have experience of working on the Wales Sport Awards. Their advice shaped a lot of our thinking, and because of this, they definitely need a massive shout out!

Similarly, we sought advice from Gwen Morgan who leads the St David Awards, Professor Paul Chaney, Co-Director at WISERD, Professor Peter Halligan at the Learned Society of Wales. Again, all extremely useful.

We felt we needed a representative from the commercial research sector to provide a different perspective and lens on the work. We were really grateful that Adam Blunt, who sits on the Board of the Social Research Association Cymru and works as an Associate Director at Beaufort Research, agreed to join the working group. Adam has been a hugely valuable asset in helping to make the Awards happen.

Together, we appointed a designer, Peter de Wreede at Let’s Talk Design, and Bla Translation as our translator. We have produced all the copy and documentation. We have a contact database and communication channels. We have some eminent people who have committed to judge the Awards, all of which are giving their time voluntarily. And we have secured a prestigious location in Cardiff Bay to hold the Awards ceremony.

So, having arrived at our threshold and seeing the door of opportunity, with a lot of hard work, and shared passion and commitment, we are so pleased and proud to have launched the inaugural Wales Social Research Awards! Woo hoo!

WSRA Leaflet

It is really important for me to mention Graham Farrant, the Social Research Association’s CEO. Graham’s commitment, support, responsiveness, and furthering of ideas have been instrumental. He has really helped to mobilise things.

It’s been an absolute pleasure to work with such a great bunch of people – Faye, Richard, Adam, Helen, Graham. It’s been liminal thinking in action. Liminal thinking has enabled us to connect dots that have been beyond our threshold. We have created change by understanding, shaping and reframing beliefs. This has offered incredible growth and change.

If you’re not already doing it, tune your mind to liminal thinking, and if you are, do more of it! This is the kind of psychological agility that enables you to create change.

[i] Shared Purpose: Shared Future (SPSF1): Core guidance


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