Community-Based Research: From Practice to Theory and Back Again

By Stoecker, Randy | Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Community-Based Research: From Practice to Theory and Back Again


Stoecker, Randy, Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning


"When I feed the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist."

--late Archbishop Dom Helder

Camara of Recife, Brazil (1909-1999)

This quote from the "Red Bishop" and leader in Liberation Theology sums up the tensions in a new community-based practice being popularized across higher education. Over the past few years there has been a groundswell of interest in a model of community--higher education collaboration called "community-based research" (CBR). As practiced in most settings, CBR combines an emphasis on doing community-based research projects with a focus on student skill development and civic engagement. This would seem to be the perfect combination, bringing together two previously separate strategies: action-oriented research and service-learning (Strand, 2000). CBR is designed to combine community empowerment with student development, to integrate teaching with research and service, and to combine social change with civic engagement. CBR is thus adaptable to all institutions, serving the research emphasis of megaversities, the student development mission of small colleges, and the new community involvement goals that many institutions of higher education are incorporating into their mission statements.

This paper begins by defining CBR, and looking at the service-learning and action-oriented research models it attempts to integrate. In doing so, it explores the split between action research and participatory research, and between service-learning based in Dewey and Freire. Further, it locates those splits in contrasting theories about how the social world works. Finally, it explores social change models, showing the implications of the two versions of CBR in realizing CBR's goal of social change for social justice.

CBR Defined and Deconstructed

An attempt to expand the practice of CBR nationwide, sponsored by the Corella and Bertram F. Bonner Foundation (2002), has led to three general CBR principles:

* CBR is a collaborative enterprise between researchers (professors and/or students) and community members.

* CBR validates multiple sources of knowledge and promotes the use of multiple methods of discovery and of disseminating the knowledge produced.

* CBR has as its goal social action and social change for the purpose of enhancing social justice (Strand, Marullo, Cutforth, Stoeker, & Donohue, forthcoming).

In the most concrete sense, CBR involves students and faculty working with a community organization on a research project serving the organization's goals. But there is much variation in how that happens.

Each of the three aspects of this definition can be interpreted in radical ways that fundamentally challenge the structural status quo or conservative ways that preserve it. In its most basic sense, "collaboration" means that researchers and community members should jointly define the research question, choose the research methods, do the research, analyze the data, construct the report, and use the research for social action. Conservatively, however, the community could be social service agencies rather than grass roots residents, and collaboration could simply mean obtaining approval for a researcher-defined project. Radically, collaboration could mean placing researcher resources in the hands of grass-roots community members to control, thereby reversing the usual power relationship between the researcher and the researched.

"Validating multiple sources of knowledge" conservatively could be limited to including community members' experiential knowledge as research data. Radically, it could mean using community understandings of social issues to define the project and the theories used in it, undermining the power structure that currently places control of knowledge production in the hands of credentialized experts. "Social change," defined conservatively, involves restructuring an organization or creating a new program. …

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