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Blog post Part of series: BERA Conference 2023

Engaging low-income families in education research: An interdisciplinary exploratory study

Kate Hoskins, Professor of Education at Brunel University Emma Wainwright, Reader at Brunel University

Our comparative research project considered the challenges encountered when engaging low-income families in education research in the UK and China. In this blog post we highlight the context, study and key findings.

Existing research has shown a reluctance for some parents to engage in educational research, notably those from low-income families (Wilson & McGuire, 2021). Comparable international studies have noted that low-income families are underrepresented in clinical research trials such as the study by Walter and colleagues (2013). Habibi and colleagues’ (2015) research with Latino children from Los Angeles in the US indicates that low-income families are underrepresented in research for neuroimaging due to recruitment, involvement and retention challenges. Another study (Spoth & Redmond, 1993) was conducted with families comparing those who took part in a family-focused intervention project against those who did not. Time demands and research requirements are two factors that limit some people from participating in family-focused research studies.

Set within this context, we carried out a research project that examined the reluctance to participate in educational research with a focus on low-income families in diverse urban cultural contexts, which was informed by three aims. First, to work with families to explore the barriers to participating in educational research. Second, to understand how these might be overcome through socially and culturally sensitive research engagement. Third, to provide practical strategies to make involvement in educational research easier.

Working in two urban locations in China (Beijing) and England (Greater London), key stakeholders and parents/caregivers of primary aged children were interviewed. To recruit the sample in Greater London, we worked with a national charity that works with the most socioeconomically vulnerable families in their local areas. In China we worked with NGOs to locate participants. We adopted a qualitative methodology and carried out online interviews in China due to ongoing Covid-19 restrictions and in-person interviews in England at the charity’s offices.

To theorise the data, we used Putnam’s social capital theory (2000). Social capital, in various iterations (Bourdieu, 1990; Coleman, 1988), is used to ‘call attention to the ways in which our lives are made more productive by social ties’ (Putnam, 2000, p. 19). Through these social ties, individuals and communities can gain relative advantage by gaining access to civic virtue. Putnam describes two core aspects of social capital, namely its potential for bonding and bridging (Putnam, 2000). Bonding networks entail close ties with friends and family and have the capacity to provide affective and material support, whereas bridging networks have weaker ties, but are outward-looking and can include contacts from diverse social backgrounds.

Social capital theory is used in our research to understand how the participants draw on bonding and bridging capital as ‘features of social life networks, norms and trust’ (Putnam, 2000, p. 302) and highlights the importance of the reciprocal relationships existing within networks, noting the material and social impact of not having these relationships. In the context of our study, these impacts range from the practical support such as childcare to enable engagement with research to a perceived lack of knowledge and understanding of the purpose of research. As discussed throughout our work, our participants are from low-income families and experience significant poverty. According to Putnam, poverty is one of the biggest obstacles to benefitting from reciprocal social capital.

Our research findings point to three key areas where strategies are needed to increase research participation among this cohort.

First, the importance of engaging trusted community stakeholders as these are crucial to gaining access to, and engaging with, participants. Second, the locational ease for data gathering, with the research site needing to be easily accessible to families with limited access to transportation and technology. And third, to ensure that as researchers we are culturally and socioeconomically sensitive before, during and after our interactions with participations through, for example, off-topic conversations that build rapport.

‘We must ensure that our ethical processes meet the needs and circumstances of participants, rather than being institutionally led.’

We conclude with recommendations for practice, reflecting on the forms of support such as trusted gatekeepers, flexibility of time and location for interviews, and verbal rather than written ethical consent that could encourage and enable socioeconomically disadvantaged parents/caregivers to take part in education research. We note the ethical issues of working with and interviewing often vulnerable low-income families in educational research. As academics working in the social sciences have argued (see for example, Miller & Bell, 2002), we need to develop negotiated ethical processes which we argue allow for more relational and in situ consent to be given and discussed that sit within BERA (2018) guidelines but are not overwhelming and off-putting in content and length for participants. Indeed, we must ensure that our ethical processes meet the needs and circumstances of participants, rather than being institutionally led (Mauthner et al., 2002). In sum, our findings contribute new, comparative knowledge to best practice approaches to research with low-income families.

Kate Hoskins and Emma Wainwright received the BERA Annual Conference 2023Educational Research and Educational Policy-Making SIG Best Presentation Award for the paper ‘Engaging low-income families in education research: an interdisciplinary exploratory study’.


Bourdieu, P. (1990) Sociology in question.  Cambridge:  Polity Press.

Coleman, J. S. (1988) Social capital in the creation of human capital. American journal of sociology, 94, S95-S120.

Habibi, A., Sarkissian, A.D., Gomez, M. and Ilari, B. (2015) ‘Developmental Brain Research with Participants from Underprivileged Communities: Strategies for Recruitment, Participation, and Retention’, Mind, Brain, and Education, 9, pp. 179-186.

Mauthner , M. , Birch , M. , Jessop , J. and Miller , T. (2002) Ethics in qualitative research , Thousand Oaks , CA : Sage 

Miller, T., & Bell, L. (2002). Consenting to what? Issues of access, gate-keeping and ‘informed’ consent. Ethics in qualitative research, 53, 69.

Putnam, R.D. (2000) Bowling alone: The collapse and revival of American community, New York: Touchstone.

Spoth R. and Redmond C. (1993) ‘Study of Participation Barriers in Family-Focused Prevention: Research Issues and Preliminary Results’, International Quarterly of Community Health Education, 13(4), pp. 365-388. doi:10.2190/69LM-59KD-K9CE-8Y8B.

Walter, J.K., Burke, J.F., and Davis, M.M. (2013) ‘Research Participation by Low-Income and Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups: How Payment May Change the Balance’, Clinical and Translational Science, 6, pp. 363-371.

Wilson S., and McGuire, K. (2021) ‘They’d already made their minds up’: understanding the impact of stigma on parental engagement, British Journal of Sociology of Education, DOI: 10.1080/01425692.2021.1908115