How to really understand a social issue

Published: 5 June 2019

A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. 

You can’t drive systems change in a social issue if you don’t understand it. Sounds obvious, right? Well, it isn’t always that simple. I know from personal experience there’s a big difference between knowing about a social issue and properly understanding it. 

For instance, most people would know that homelessness is a big social issue in the UK today, but – apart from some fairly basic awareness of rising house prices – they probably don’t know what’s causing it. They likely won’t appreciate the various complexities of housing law, landlord or tenancy agreements. Nor do they fully understand the impact of homelessness on someone’s mental and physical health. 

This matters because pushing for change on an issue that you know something about (but don’t really understand) can actually be more harmful to the people involved than if you did nothing at all.

Five steps for smart learning

The problem is that we can’t be experts on everything. When I joined the Impact Incubator in late 2018, I was tasked with looking at reducing school exclusions and increasing access to legal aid. However, I had no prior experience with either issue.

Rapid knowledge-building is an important skill for many of us in the social sector. And that’s what I turned to – learning fast (and effectively) about both issues, so that I could contribute to the wider team.

In this article, I’m sharing the lessons I learned along the way. 

Here are my five steps to go from knowing about a social issue, to really understanding it and its capability for change. 

1. Research a social issue to understand its parameters not its depth

The first tip is to step back and look at the bigger picture – and understand why something is still a problem. 

Research will always mean spending time in a library or on your laptop; trawling through papers on an issue’s many causes, effects and previously attempted solutions. But this should never be a mammoth task. 

And remember: once you’ve got down some notes on the issue, you’ll be able to process every new paper quicker than the last. 

I came to Social Finance straight from university, where I’d been taught that you could never read too much. This is different, I needed to get to grips with the issue’s core and where its extent ends. Understanding an issue doesn’t mean knowing everything – it’s about being aware of what you know and don’t know, and then working out how to dig deeper into your understanding.

Here are my top tips for creating a solid research base:

  • Track your notes from key documents – you don’t want to lose any insight, statistic or figure.
  • Create an end-piece of your research that you can refer to. Research should increase your knowledge base, but it will be even more effective if you can summarise that knowledge for others who are also working in this issue. 
  • Note the gaps in your research that cannot be filled. Understanding the limits of your knowledge will always be more beneficial when you reach out to others in the sector than quoting information people already know back at them.

2. Talk to people who are sector experts – they bring knowledge that doesn’t sit in research and policy papers 

The Impact Incubator has never claimed to be the expert in domestic abuse, mental health in black communities, children’s social care or refugee integration. 

What we do instead is collate and align expert voices to understand a social issue’s frictions as well as its opportunities for change. Listening to a teacher, social worker, SEND council worker, excluded pupil, Department of Education official or youth worker alone will never give you the understanding of school exclusions. 

A social issue is never that simple. It’s only when you’ve collated numerous conflicting views that you can really start to grasp consensus and understand if there is movement for change.

3. Map out the different stakeholders creatively

If you want to understand a problem, it’s a good idea to find a creative way to summarise your research. This can act as a helpful platform for your goal of driving social change. 

A physical representation isn’t only helpful for any self-reassurance you need, but it can also provide a springboard for others. This tangible output can help you start to test your thinking and mobilise for change. 

Here are some ideas: 

  • Create a mind map of the social issues – Mashable has a list of essential mind mapping tools.
  • Break out an issue tree to ensure you have all the key domains covered – your route to problem solving. 
  • Collate a comprehensive research pack.
  • Present your findings to someone new to the issue and an expert on the sector. Each version will be different but if you can effectively alter your understanding for the different audiences then… you understand!

4. Check and iterate your understanding regularly

So, you have thrown yourself into the depths of research and come out the other side with a shiny product which perfectly demonstrates your understanding of the issue. That’s it right? Not quite. 

Understanding an issue needs constant maintenance through iteration; you need to check with the sector experts as you go. Sharing my research packs or mind maps with experts is helpful in testing any emerging conclusions and deepening my understanding. 

Only by putting your understanding out there will you here about a bias or inconsistency that could be curtailing your vision. Understanding an issue never follows a linear trajectory and needs a critical eye. 

Digging deep into a social issue and testing your own understanding with a range of sector partners is also part of building a coalition for change and recognising that all of us only have a partial understanding of an issue. 

5. Maintain your understanding

Social issues are always changing, both the need and the environment, so you need an effective method to keep one finger on the pulse. That may sound a bit daunting but there are some simple ways to stay up-to-date. 

Here are my top tips: 

  • from sector leaders to track their evolving influence on the social issue. The Difference, Tes and FFT Education Data-labcollectively send me around five emails a week on school exclusion. Over a lunch or commute, that’s easy to skim through.
  • Register for DoDs updates which track when keywords, topics and phrases are mentioned in the House of Commons, House of Lords and other registered state stakeholders.
  • Set up Google Alerts (other search engines are available!). These are easy to set up for relevant key phrases. It’s a great way to understand how different parliamentary events are interpreted by different media outlets and keep a critical eye on the social issue at hand.

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