Within health research we tend to distinguish between public involvement and public engagement. Broadly speaking, public involvement is defined as members of the public helping to plan, carry out and share research. The term engagement is usually used to describe activities which aim to raise awareness of, or promote discussion around, health topics more generally.
I realise that not everyone sees that distinction. Some of my recent conversations (particularly with arts practitioners) have really made me realise that there aren’t agreed definitions. In fact, in some cases, the distinction is seen as unhelpful.
So why does this distinction exist?
I think there are a few reasons. One is related to the way health research funding is organised. Different funders have different expectations and use slightly different language. I’m not criticising funders for this. It’s understandable that different funding bodies want to have a distinct remit, and need to find ways to be clear about the sort of work they are interested in. This has an impact on the language that everyone else uses.
I think another reason is that academia likes to specialise! Many academics focus on quite narrow subjects. As engagement and involvement develop as fields of inquiry in their own rights, it’s sort of understandable that we find narrower terms to describe them. However, that’s not always helpful.
Where are the links and overlaps?
- Both involvement and engagement work best when they are two-way dialogues, rather than one side imparting knowledge to the other.
- Both activities are essentially about bring people with together to learn from and with each other.
- Many of the underpinning values are the same. For example, you could argue that researchers who receive public funding have a responsibility to share the outputs of their work and to make sure they are researching issues which matter to the public.
- The activities inform each other – i.e. an engaged population may lead to more involvement…and more people involved in research may lead to a more engaged society (the chicken and egg situation).
The language in this area is really tricky! There are a myriad of terms used to describe very similar activities (I’m only scraping the surface!) There is also a whole different debate about what the people who get involved call themselves (patients, public, service users, lay people etc.)
So what’s the answer? Over to you! Does the terminology matter? How can we make sure that we develop our filed without get bogged down in semantics?