by Tara Desmarais
What’s the point of community research? Is it to understand the deficits of a community, or the reason why one community is thriving more so than others? Or are we trying to understand a major health or economic issue?
For all these reasons and more, community research has continued to be a growing subject within psychology. Researchers focused on community issues have developed into their own group called, community psychologists. Rather than standard research, community psychologists are focused on using their research as a plan to create change and resolve issues within a community.
Throughout history, researchers obtained a bad reputation by walking into underserved communities claiming to be there to help, and leave creating more questions than answers. When a group of scientists, scholars, and funders walk into such communities it creates hope among the people that positive change will occur. People believe that researchers are there to better their community and get extremely let down and distrustful when that fails to happen. The method of research that caused such failures and distrust with communities was most likely from conventional or traditional research. Conventional research involves conducting interviews, case studies, surveys, focus groups and more. Once data is collected these researchers return to their peers discuss, analyze, and write up their findings. The data is then usually presented among other scholars, funders, or professionals acknowledging that an issue is or isn’t present and changes possibly need to be made. In most conventional methods it isn’t required to have a plan of action in which to solve the issue being researched. So the study concludes with the researcher gaining clinical experience, possibly a published article, and a community with the confirmation they have an issue.
How exactly did the community benefit from the research? You’re right, it didn’t. However, using other methods of research can prohibit occurrences like this from happening in community psychology.
When conducting research on communities’ participatory action research (PAR) should be the method of choice. By using PAR, community psychologists involve the people they are studying in on the research. Community members aren’t just being interviewed, surveyed, or put into groups. They actually assist researchers with the development of questions for these interviews, surveys, and have a say in how to divide groups. PAR allows stakeholders to be involved in every step of the process to decrease bias, gain different perspectives, and varied levels of knowledge. Who better to create community questions needing answers, than someone that lives within the community? With the help of scholars, researchers, and professionals community members get the chance to gain new skills, knowledge, and competencies useful in all aspects of their lives. As community psychologists, we need to remember that our overall goal is to help the community in which we are researching and empower them. By including community members in on research and teaching them new techniques that can help them continue to solve problems even after the research is over, we are doing just that. From collecting data, to analyzing, interpreting, and disseminating the results, the community is involved every step of the way. Included in the PAR technique is the plan used to take action in resolving the issue. Researchers and the community share responsibility in taking steps to make sure their findings produce positive results. In conventional research, taking action only happens when interested outside entities get involved.
Using participatory action research can result in an empowered community, with new sets of skills, and confidence that they can create change. Rather than feeling like a bunch of lab rats, the community can rest assure that they took part in creating change and bettering their peers. After learning about participatory action research, it seems like the no brainer method when working with communities.
Tara Desmarais is a graduate student in the Community Social Psychology program at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.