Academic journal article Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning

Opportunities and Pitfalls of Community-Based Research: A Case Study

Academic journal article Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning

Opportunities and Pitfalls of Community-Based Research: A Case Study

Article excerpt

Support for, and engagement in, community-based research (CBR) has increased over the past decade (Green et al., 1995; Sclove, 1997). Research partnerships between university academics and community-based individuals and organizations have spread. Such partnerships are said to generate new knowledge, empower community members, build common ground, stimulate collective action and solve complex problems. Yet the qualities of these "partnerships" vary, and research on the process and outcomes of these forms of research is limited (El Ansari, Phillips, & Hammick, 2001).

This paper aims to bring attention to the opportunities and pitfalls associated with CBR. We are particularly interested here in the tensions that arise when university academics engage in CBR projects. To this end, we draw on our experience as academic partners in a recent two-year CBR project aimed at stimulating research by, and collective action to improve the situation of, Ontario injured workers.

Our experience suggests that CBR, even when based at a university setting, has the potential to engage marginalized communities in critical reflection and action on their social concerns. It can stimulate learning, and build people's capacity and commitment to collectively address real-world problems. However, the institutional structures and university culture pose fundamental challenges to practicing CBR. University researchers need to be aware of these potential pitfalls to be successful in building new knowledge and stimulating informed community action to address social problems. Otherwise, they may unwittingly exacerbate marginalized communities' alienation and distress, and actually perpetuate injustice and inequality.

Participatory Research

Researchers have come to question the capacity of conventional research approaches to understand and stimulate action on complex and enduring social problems (Hohrman & Shear, 2002; Mason & Mitroff, 1981). They doubt outsiders' capacity to understand issues that have important normative and experiential dimensions (Ansley & Gaventa, 1997; Evered & Louis, 1981).

Academic researchers are recognizing that community involvement can help access research participants, make research more relevant, improve interpretation of study results, and increase the likelihood that findings will be applied (Schensul, 1999). At the same time, citizens and communities are increasingly seeing research as an effective approach to solving local problems, and are claiming the right to participate in research on issues affecting them. Educators are also recognizing the potential of community involvement and service-learning as an effective means of applied learning and citizenship building (Eyler & Giles, 1999).

The renaissance of CBR over the past decade has spawned a new literature on the topic. Researchers have conducted case study reviews (Sclove, 1997), topic-specific reviews (Allman, Myers, & Cockerill, 1997), and assessments of challenges and facilitating factors (Wolff & Maurana, 2001) on this topic. However, to understand CBR dynamics, Israel and colleagues (1998) suggest the need for "in-depth, multiple case study evaluations of the content and processes (as well as outcomes) of community-based research endeavours" (p. 194).

CBR has roots in "participatory research" (PR), a term coined in the early 1970s by adult educators and community groups in developing countries who saw the approach as an alternative to colonial research practices (Hall, 1993). PR, referred to by some as "participatory action research" (Whyte, 1991), is a collective process of investigation, analysis, and action through which marginalized groups identify and address problematic social and economic issues and interactions. It emphasizes the importance of alternative, non-dominant systems of knowledge production, such as traditional knowledge and local experience. To Rajesh Tandon (1988), "participatory research attempts to present people as researchers themselves in pursuit of answers to the questions of their daily struggle and survival" (p. …

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