The future of global social research lies in localised research rooted in the lived realities of societies and their needs, writes Dr Sherine El Taraboulsi-McCarthy.

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In 2012, I was in Libya to conduct research on the dynamics of youth activism following the downfall of Muammar Gaddafi, Libya’s dictator for more than 40 years. One of the interviews stood out. A young man described to me how overnight he found himself transformed from a civilian to a combatant and the persistent negative impact this had on his life, his relationships and on his mental health. Libya was in the words of a human rights expert “a traumatised society”.

Encounters like this one remind us of the complexity of the human condition, especially in conflict-affected contexts, and that healing societies from the ground up is necessary to building resilient states. There is a much-needed space where social policies are foregrounded in international development, humanitarian and peace building efforts.

Good social policies bind communities and improve lives; they ensure that the needs of societies for health, education, security and overall wellbeing are met. In low and middle-income countries, we know that social protection has a positive impact on social cohesion.

In 2022, NatCen International, the global arm of the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen), was born of the need to recognise that social research has a critical role to play in empowering societies globally to inform, shape and transform the policies that affect them the most. It draws on NatCen’s 50 years of social research expertise to work on a range of social policy issues including: gender equality and social inclusion; counter terrorism, violence and human rights; global health; education; governance and economic growth; and global Britain.

What lessons we have learnt since the establishment of NatCen International that have come to define its strategic direction?

Localising and contextualising methodologies is key to methodological rigour  
There are ongoing debates on the need to elevate research in non-western contexts. One study found that between 2008 and 2017, less than 3% of 947 articles in four international journals were written by scholars based in the Global South. In a series of workshops we conducted in collaboration with the US Institute of Peace, we explored the disconnect between western and non-western scholarship in its theoretical and methodological articulations.

Experts in peace and security research from the Global North and the Global South have emphasised the need for a new approach to strengthen collaborations between northern and southern researchers. This is centred on the localisation of methodologies at the heart of it and how methods are used, tailored and adapted to the local context.

At NatCen International, we understand that selecting the right methodological approach is not just about linking the methods to the research questions but that it is also essential to tailor the methods to the geographic and cultural context. For example, one study we conducted in a Middle Eastern country revealed that focus group discussions can be difficult to use as a qualitative research method because the public in this country were not familiar with them. In March 2024, we launched the NatCen International Academy to help bridge that gap and to provide tailored and contextualised training courses on a wide range of research methods and social policy areas.

We need to be more “disruptive” to act on persistent social policy challenges
We need new ways of thinking about old and persistent challenges. For example, we are using behavioural insights to deepen our understanding of why people behave the way they do and how this can feed into policy development. We are particularly interested in applying behavioural insights to areas where these methods have not previously been used.

In 2022 and, in collaboration with the University of Westminster, we launched an ambitious research agenda on migrant decision-making to understand the multidimensional factors that determine how people decide to stay or leave. We concluded that policies should reflect the diverse range of factors that influence migrant decision-making which is shaped by factors on many levels: individual, familial, political, national and international. We also concluded that some factors are unknown and unknowable.

We need to re-evaluate how we embed equity in our partnerships and collaborations
As the scope for global social policy research has grown, there has, however, been limited engagement with how research on global social policy is delivered. The necessity of ensuring that research on social policy is rooted in domestic experiences, voices and histories intersects with various key discourses around decolonising methodologies and localisation.

It is essentially about interrogating power in the design and delivery of research on social policies within and across borders. In our recently launched research on the impacts of climate change on the health of outdoor workers in Vietnam and funded by the Wellcome Trust, we are exploring how we can use co-production methods in knowledge generation, reflecting on the opportunities and challenges experienced in the process. We are using this approach to re-evaluate how we can effectively embed equitable collaborations in our partnerships with local researchers and experts.

Our way forward: a model of innovative and localised social policy research    
Roula al Rifai of Canada’s International Development Research Centre, one of the world’s key research and innovation donors, described localisation as a journey outside the research donor’s comfort zone. It can also be the same for international research organisations where local collaborators are data collectors and principal investigators are international scholars.

The way forward, as we see it, is a process of flipping the more traditional approach to northern-southern partnerships and instead, replacing it with a bold new model of localised social policy research that combines contextualised methodological rigour with deeper collaborations rooted in the lived realities of societies and their needs. 

Dr Sherine El Taraboulsi-McCarthy is director at NatCen International