When the Topic Is Racism: Research and Advocacy with a Community Coalition

Article excerpt

THIS ARTICLE PROVIDES AN ACCOUNT OF: THE PROCESS OF A community-initiated research project on racism. (1) The account includes the immediate aftermath of the study's public release, which is effectively promoting social change in this community. The case study addresses a number of issues from the perspective of a research consultant active in social justice initiatives. These issues include practical issues in the research process regarding research questions and methods, the intersection of theory with practical knowledge, research as disguised activism, research criticized as divisive to the community, and research as knowledge production.

Conventional research epistemologies that assume research to be "value free" have been increasingly problematized in recent decades. Still, research is generally assumed to have a limited relationship to advocacy. Advocates of socially engaged research take a number of positions contrary to the assumption of value-free research. Generally, these positions acknowledge "value-committed" research and seek to undermine the practice of researcher-as-expert distant from the circumstances being studied. There are good arguments for valuing the knowledge-in-practice of community activists (Kirby and McKenna, 1989). Furthermore, their active engagement is often crucial in ensuring that the results of the study are utilized for more than collecting dust on shelves across the community.

Nevertheless, applied social research is often undermined by valuations of the credibility of such research, limited conceptions of what the scholarly creation of new knowledge is, acceptable venues for the publication of findings, and weak value apportioned to community "service." The following account addresses a number of issues. The intent is to demonstrate that such research is important, that scholars would benefit from such involvement, and that there may be an important niche in social justice and community issues for researchers from outside the academy.

Researchers handle researcher self-awareness in numerous ways. Although many argue for methods of "bracketing," few extend their notions of reflexivity to the extent articulated by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. For Bourdieu, reflexivity not only meant an awareness of one's investment in the research or the ways in which researchers bring themselves into the methods, data, findings, and conclusions (Bourdieu and Wacquant, 1992). Reflexivity for Bourdieu is the turning upon itself of the sociological tools--a critical sociology of the field of sociology, not just increased methodological rigor (Meisenhelder, 1997). Recognizing that conventional epistemological forms are products of society, Bourdieu called for analysis of the means of production of sociological research.

This case study examines a community coalition and a research project on racism initiated by that coalition. My field notes are supplemented by key informant interviews. Data were analyzed for observations related to (1) applied social research on a socio-politically sensitive issue in a community-based setting and (2) intersections of research and advocacy. More detailed themes were derived from these two domains. Reliability checks were conducted with coalition members through formal and informal interviews. The details are presented with anticipation of their utility in other cases. However, such generalizing must remain the reader's responsibility, as he or she will be most cognizant of the specifics of the context to which they may wish to apply these reflections. It is my hope that the case study "offers lessons for further conversation rather than undebatable conclusions, and [will] substitute the companionship of intimate detail for the loneliness of abstracted facts" (Ellis and Bochner, 2000: 744).

Case Study: Diversity Thunder Bay

Background of Thunder Bay

Canada is a country with a population that encompasses a wide diversity of cultures and ethnic groups. …