Academic journal article Journal of Rural Social Sciences

Community-Based Research and the Two Forms of Social Change*

Academic journal article Journal of Rural Social Sciences

Community-Based Research and the Two Forms of Social Change*

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

As community-based research (CBR) takes hold in academic settings, where there is vast expertise in producing research but a dearth of experience in producing practical outcomes, there is a risk that CBR will produce little of consequence. This paper begins by arguing that part of the problem is the result of CBR practitioners assuming that research is, in itself, causal. Yet it is only when research is embedded in an effective overall social change strategy that it matters. The present paper develops a model specifying the role of research in both local and broader social change strategies. The overall model focuses on a community change cycle, based in community organizing, that begins with a participatory effort to diagnose some community condition, then develops a prescription for that condition, followed by an implementation of the prescription and an evaluation of the outcomes. Research can play a role at each stage of the process, but only as part of a broader strategy linking knowledge, action, and power. The paper concludes by showing the kinds of training and community relationships that academics will need to make CBR matter.

Do our community-engaged research practices - which have become known by the various names of community-based research, community-based participatory research, action research, and similar labels - matter? We are beginning to hear about some real impacts. Yet the literature is populated more by stories of how people did the research than what happened because of that research (Stoecker, Beckman, and Min 2010). What would it mean to say the research mattered?

Indeed, asking whether CBR-type practices matter can feel like a strange question in an academic environment where a "pure research" culture is the norm and where "statistically significant" (rather than practically effective) findings are the gold standard. Descriptions of such practice inside and outside academia emphasize carrying out a research project, with only passing reference to any broader social change strategy to which the research will be connected. In addition, researchers identifying with such labels are as likely to do research that is simply located in a community as they are to do research that is controlled by the community (Stoecker 2009).

Before we address the question of whether work done under the label of CBR or similar practices matters, however, we need to address some conceptual issues. I will begin by using the label "participatory and action-oriented forms of research" (Stoecker 2009). While a clumsy phrase (and I will resist the temptation to reduce it to yet another acronym whose meaning will soon be lost) I find it helpful to remind me of a couple of things. First, participation and action are distinct forms of social change. It is, in fact, quite easy to have one without the other. Governments and corporations engage in action without participation all the time. Participation can actually be done for participation's sake, or even used to prevent action (Whelan 2007). By understanding the independence of the two concepts, we can then also understand them as variables. Action can have many variable measures: consequential or inconsequential, widespread or localized, organized or disorganized, deep or superficial. Participation can be influential or token, continuous or sporadic, broad or narrow. The "-oriented" part of the phrase provides a directional concept. A compass is oriented to north. So when we say that we are engaging in participatory and action-oriented research, we are engaging in a practice that is pointing toward a carefully understood concept of participation and a carefully understood idea of action. And just like with a magnetic compass, the closer your approach is to the point by which it is oriented, the less clear that point gets. This implies a need for not just careful planning on the front end of the practice, but careful attention to the need to make adjustments along the path of a project. …

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