Background and Context
Academic research is struggling and been slow off the mark to appropriately capture the voices of those who are largely voiceless. Research therefore requires better future proofing and increased incorporation of cultural knowledge ownership.
This is where Centric has impacted and provided considerable change and given the new landscape, this is important at a time when there is increased apathy, distrust and cynicism.
This has led to questions posed to us, such as “yeah, but why the Centric community researchers (CRs)?” We will outline here exactly how community researchers add value, what we dub the Seven Rules for Highly Effective Community Researchers:
Rule One - Accessibility, credibility and positionality (ACP)
The research of Aldridge et al. (2008: 38) noted that the suspicion they encountered while trying to conduct research in an urban London locale led them to call upon local researchers to provide that positionality and common ground with research subjects from the community. Brougham and Uttley (2017), who studied social deviance and behaviour, suggest that possible harm may occur to researchers while in the field or after leaving a research project.
This is largely the case when researchers conduct edge ethnography – a contemporary ethnographic approach largely utilised by criminology researchers who do not possess appropriate ACP. Student, novice and inexperienced researchers are at particular danger in this instance.
Methods such as “going rogue” as a researcher, as in the case of Venkatesh (2009) for instance, infiltrating a community and concealing from them the purpose(s) of participation etc. are not required by Centric community researchers. Sudhir Venkatesh authored Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets. Venkatesh, a student of William Julius Wilson of the Chicago School of Criminology, “went rogue” as it were and ditched many ethical principles of research while referring to himself as a “hero sociologist”.
Venkatesh’s approach was very problematic as not only did he fail to disclose that he was a researcher, while researching a gang in Chicago, but he is also blasé about ethical failings. Potter (2009) has also highlighted that Venkatesh’s study appears to be more focused on gaining acclaim rather than maintain a systematic and academic approach as his work does not discuss previous studies in the field. There are no footnotes in the book and a bibliography is entirely absent. Venkatesh was also advised by his faculty, with whom he liaised little about the nature of his research, that such edge and covert research would place him at risk of criminal prosecution yet, he was hardly alarmed by the prospect.
For this reason, there is a growing understanding for the Centric CRs way. Prior to research in this field, there should be a degree of familiarity and rapport with not only the research topic but also the research subjects, which may provide valuable results in the field. An empathetic field worker approach is helpful when seeking to gain meaningful access to subcultures and marginalised communities which may hitherto be difficult to access.
Rule Two - Harnessing sociological verstehen
This has helped Centric CRs to pivot and navigate carefully to avoid serious impediments to data collection.
Verstehen, as articulated by Weber, is crucial to the linkage between cultural phenomena and the methods for studying as it’s the idea of knowing something from inside. Verstehen is acquired by appreciating the subjective reality of a phenomenon.
Verstehen is the systematic process of gaining understanding by a researcher who, while initially and objectively is an outside observer of a setting or phenomenon, interacts with a subculture’s population and integrates his academic training with the perceptions of those inside that subculture. Verstehen therefore is used to refer to a more empathic and participatory understanding of social phenomenon rather than an objective interpretation of such persons from the perspective of an outsider.
Rule Three - The inbetweener approach as a viable method for qualitative research
This approach notes a researcher can place themselves in between, and this is even more relevant in cross-cultural research. Liz Milligan (2016) posited that the “insider/outsider” dichotomy can be remedied by an “inbetweener” approach.
Milligan found she was able to be viewed as a “knowledgeable outsider”, if not as an inbetweener, thus gaining trust and developing knowledge co-production.
Rule Four - A non-extractive ethos
Nearly 50 years ago, Diane Lewis (1973), in her paper “Anthropology and Colonialism”, in the journal Current Anthropology, highlighted that countering extractive research means having “a sense of commitment” to fieldwork subjects and “their needs”. Along with a willingness to engage “activism stemming from explicit involvement”.
Tom-Orme (1991) noted three decades ago researchers are seen to just “come and go”, as they do not have a commitment to the community to see their findings and results implemented. The arrival of researchers into communities to conduct research then take back to institutions with little or no input or follow-up with those communities is what Gaudry (2011) coins as the “extraction model of research”.
Here, local insights and localised knowledge is taken from communities with neither culturally competent protocol nor establishing any commitment whatsoever to the communities about whom the research is relevant or will impact. In the ‘‘extraction model of research”, communities are not involved in the development of the scope of the research or in the validity of research findings (Corntassel and Gaudry, 2014).
Centric do not to reinforce distinctions in such a way. The community researchers uphold the democratisation of knowledge so both community researchers and “professional researchers” are equals around the table, as both contribute useful research in the spirit of dialogue and thematic investigation (Freire, 1970).
Rule Five - A continuum, ensuring communities are involved throughout the research process
Ensuring the involvement of communities in research is increasingly a key aspect of research these days, however this was not always the case. It’s been largely due to the advances within health research that the involvement of communities has been central.
The involvement of communities at every stage of research is also apparent in the literature. Brown et al. (2020) have suggested that co-writing with communities can facilitate opportunities to speak differently outside the constraining spaces of academia. De Weger et al. (2018) looked at the barriers and enablers for community engagement in the planning, designing, governing and/or delivery of health and care services. Kara (2018) has outlined “a holistic, egalitarian ethical approach which recognises research as a key element of community building and social change” amongst communities:
Wilmsen superbly notes (2008: 16) in his paper entitled “Negotiating Community, Participation, Knowledge and Power in Participatory Research” (please note, bold type is ours):
Addressing power relations is often put into practice through building the capacity of community members to more actively determine their own futures. In PR, the research process is as important as the research findings because it is through that process that capacity-building is thought to occur.
The goal is for community members to develop research skills as well as the competency to use those skills to address their own problems. As they identify the research questions and carry out research activities, community members learn to analyse information they have collected and decide how to use this information. Most important, communities “own” their research. That is to say, they have intimate knowledge of the research procedures and findings and feel comfortable using or disseminating those findings themselves. Depending upon the specifics of the project, as well as local circumstances, the research process is thus intended to contribute to enhancing the capacity of community members to do better any or all of the following: mediate their own conflicts, represent their interests in wider social and political arenas, manage the resource sustainably, participate as informed actors in markets, build community assets with benefits from managing the resource (Menzies, 2003) and sustain their own cultures.
Hence, communities have a key role in identifying nuances for research within their own locales, addressing particular emergent problems disregarded by institutions and academia and facilitating transforming their findings into potential tangible solutions. This is particularly significant when there is distrust within communities around observable health disparities.
Rule Six - Ongoing training and support for community researchers
To assist in their training and development, Centric community researchers have regular training updates. Researchers within communities need to see examples of both good and bad interview techniques, focus group facilitation and co-design. Role-play and practice facilitates this, as does constructive feedback and hearing experienced interviewers or focus group facilitators. This will support community researchers to respond to different scenarios during research and data collection.
Rule Seven - Safe space for reflection, for both community researchers and community
Reflective practice is where researchers meet to discuss how their research is progressing and to reflect on any emotions, challenges or issues which may arise during data collection. This provides a safe space for community researchers to reflect on their experiences and feelings during the research. Community researchers will navigate a multitude of layers and nuances in their data gathering which will require reflection on their own positions and identities.
This is particularly significant for community researchers as academia often overlooks the positionality and challenges faced by community researchers. For instance, ethics review committees may ask academic researchers to consider potential risks for participants and the research teams involved in researching a community but, will rarely consider the risks to community researchers (Mooney-Somers and Olsen, 2018). It’s because of such institutional disregard of the role of community researchers that Centric have incorporated reflection and reflexivity into its community research support for its team.
Reflective practice can help build an atmosphere of trust and conflict resolution. It also allows for community researchers to question which knowledge paradigms to enhance. Self-reflection can lead to better strategic planning where cultural, linguistic and experiential concordance can be applied (Muhammad et al., 2015). And while reflection provides that layer of support for those conducting research in communities, it is also useful to include communities in additional reflection sessions.
This is key as Vacchelli (2021: 165) notes trust is important and must be cultivated before the onset of the data collection process, and that trust relies on the idea of a safe space that has been creatively formulated by researchers to uphold the interests of research participants and where they can share experiences.
Future of Community Research
Centric has started nimble knowledge production – which is a more disruptive academic strategy of disseminating knowledge and data. We believe that the days of disseminating large papers and reports and long presentations are becoming increasingly cumbersome and largely inaccessible for many people across the urban space. It is now about live and direct discussions, effective visual outputs via social media, and new emerging technologies.
Therefore, in line with some of sensitive subject matters which we are looking at, along with requests that we have received in this space, we will soon be launching Centric Studios.
>Here, our findings can be conveyed in more easily digestible bitesize chunks and where people can come and tell their stories in a safe space and with anonymity when required. Our emphasis on nimble knowledge production will facilitate different and more creative formats needed for the dissemination of knowledge.
Hover and click to download