Community-Based Research as Pedagogy

By Strand, Kerry J. | Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, Fall 2000 | Go to article overview
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Community-Based Research as Pedagogy


Strand, Kerry J., Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning


Recently, advocates and practitioners of service-learning have proposed that we explore ways of describing and promoting it so as to broaden its appeal to the higher education community. Edward Zlotkowski (1995) and others (e.g., Lenk, 1997) suggest that one way to do this is to make clear how the pedagogical value of service-learning lies not only in its capacity for reinforcing moral and civic values, but also in its potential for enriching more traditional, discipline-based learning. Our general failure to make clear how and why service-learning can serve the pedagogical needs of our discipline-based courses might help to explain why "so many faculty members have adopted a posture of general approval but personal indifference" (Zlotkowski, 1995:16) toward service-learning in the academy.

I aim to contribute to the ongoing dialogue about how and why to incorporate service-learning into discipline-based courses by demonstrating how some important pedagogical goals of my basic and advanced undergraduate courses in social science research methods are achieved by means of one kind of service-learning--community-based research (CBR). First I will briefly explain what CBR is and describe how I incorporate it into my teaching. Then I will explain how the acquisition of practical research skills, as well as an understanding of epistemological issues surrounding knowledge production in the social sciences, are greatly enhanced by students' experience of doing research with and for the community.

Community-Based Research

Community-based research involves collaboration between trained researchers and community members in the design and implementation of research projects aimed at meeting community-identified needs. CBR differs from traditional academic research in two substantial ways. The first is that CBR is done with rather than on the community. Instead of treating communities as "laboratories" and community members as convenient samples, as is more typical in conventional research, CBR holds as a central tenet the involvement of community members in every stage of the research process, from identifying the research question to formulating action

proposals that derive from the research results. In practice, and for different reasons, community members' actual involvement in the research may be somewhat limited. However, the goal of CBR is to carry out a project that meets some community need as it is defined by that community--not by the researcher or other "experts"--and, on a broader scale, to democratize the production and control of knowledge. This is achieved by recognizing the legitimacy of the knowledge and world views of powerless people and by sharing authority wherever possible in every stage of the research process (Ansley & Gaventa, 1997;. Stoecker & Bonacich, 1992).

The second essential difference between CBR and traditional academic research is that an explicit goal of CBR--indeed, the central purpose for doing such research--is to contribute in some way to improving the lives of those living in the community. In other words, CBR has a critical action component such that the knowledge produced has the potential to bring about some positive social change. Typically, CBR practitioners work in the interest of social, economic or environmental justice and their community consists of the powerless and oppressed, or those working on their behalf. Community-based research, carried out to help the community acquire some information that they see as important to their ongoing work, is typically (though not always) one part of the community's larger action agenda. This social change goal of CBR even more dramatically distinguishes it from conventional academic research, whose purpose is "understanding for its own sake," or to test hypotheses and develop theory in a discipline, and whose rationales are rarely cast in explicit political and ideological terms (Hall, 1992; Murphy, Scammell & Sclove, 1997; Porpora, 1999; Stoecker & Bonacich, 1992).

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