Working with communities in carrying out research projects. Prof. Louise Ryan Social Policy Research Centre, Middlesex University
Aims of presentation • To consider the mutual benefits in developing and carrying out research between community organisations and academic institutions • But also to highlight some issues to consider when undertaking such collaborations
Community organisations • In recent decades there has been a proliferation of ‘community research’, however, the term is often applied quite loosely. • In addition, funders are increasingly encouraging researchers to demonstrate user engagement which often implies working with specific community organisations • Minkler (2004) suggests that it is important to make the distinction between community-placed (research that simply takes place in a specific community) and community- based research (which involves the direct involvement and participation of community members).
Working with community organisations • It has been argued that the active involvement of communities is not only good for the research but also a matter of good research ethics (Maiter et al, 2008). • Working through a community organisation may enhance levels of mutual trust between academic researchers and the research participants • It may also improve access to ‘hard to reach’ groups • It may give the community greater input into the research process and ownership of the findings • And it may generate data which are useful for community initiatives and strategic planning
Relationship between community organisations and academic researchers • The role of academic researchers in community research may take many varied forms. Stoecker (1999) distinguishes between three main categories. • 1. the professional may be the initiator, who comes up with the project and then approaches a community group. • 2. the community organisation may initiate the project and hire the academic to undertake the research. • 3. the researcher and organisation may work in close partnership defining and developing the project together.
Conflicting agenda? • It is important that the precise nature of the research and the anticipated outcomes are fully discussed at the outset. • There may be un-stated conflicting agendas about what the research may uncover and how the results may be used • For example, the research may raise difficult ethical or political issues that have unexpected repercussions
Conflicting agenda? • As Alison Bowes (1996) found in her attempts to research domestic violence in Asian communities, community leaders may try to block certain avenues of research because they consider the issue too sensitive, contentious or simply irrelevant. • This raises questions about what happens if the findings are different from what the community organisation hoped or expected? • This highlights the importance of regular and on-going communication throughout the process, to avoid surprises at the end
Conflicting agendas • Academics may have their own set of expectations about what makes for interesting findings • There needs to be agreement on the different kinds of outputs: • The community group may want a useful, short, easy to read, user friendly report with recommendations • The academics may want to produce longer, more detailed and more analytical papers • There is room for both, of course, but these need to be clarified and negotiated at the outset.
Developing mutual understanding • In our work we have found it useful to work with organisations to refine research aims and objectives • We have also worked with organisations to provide research training, not only to develop and share skills and expertise, but also so that community members have an active role in the research process and gain an insight into the opportunities but also the challenges that such research can pose • Academic institutions and voluntary organisations may have different cultures of working and these need to be discussed at the outset to avoid misunderstanding and to manage expectations on both sides.
These issues are particularly pertinent for researchers working with community partners. • Bolognani warns against ‘snowballing from one single community organisation, with the risk of reproducing a hegemonic point of view that claims to be widely representative’ (2007, p. 291).
Community researchers • ‘Community’ or ‘peer’ researchers are frequently employed by social scientists to carry out fieldwork involving hard-to-reach groups. • Their ‘insider’ status is often assumed to derive from their ethnic, religious or linguistic backgrounds or their networks within specific neighbourhoods which are then ‘matched’ to the target community
Overcoming distrust • The involvement of local people in a research study may help to overcome suspicion and wariness of outside agencies. • For example, in a context such as Northern Ireland, which has been at the centre of violent conflict, counter-terrorism and surveillance, ‘it matters enormously who carries out the research’ (Lundy and McGovern, 2006, p. 57).
Brownlie (2009) argues that there has been little discussion of the relationship between peer researchers and study participants impacts on research findings. • It is usually assumed that their insider status simply improves and enriches the data.
Self-censorship • For example, while distrust can be circumvented by having local people conduct the research, Lundy and McGovern acknowledge that having researchers who were known to the participants and closely connected to the subject matter ‘might have led to guarded responses’ • and an element of ‘self-censorship’ that led to only partial stories being told (Ryan et al, 2011).
Being interviewed by someone from your locality, who is likely to be known to you, may lead participants to have concerns about being judged by a peer, and despite assurances of confidentiality, may worry about breaches of privacy and local gossip • This was something we found in one of our local neighbourhood projects in particular
Potential problems • Unrealistic expectations – on both sides – • Lack of capacity to deliver - resources, time scale, commitment, access to data, cost • Findings – different or unclear expectations • Tensions may arise not only between organisation and researchers but also perhaps with wider community or within the teams or organisation – different agendas
What works • From our experience Active partnership with clearly stated aims and objectives Full acknowledgement of the challenges and constraints Managing expectations Maintaining regular communication throughout the process