Learning to listen and to privilege the voices we hear

The 7th century-BC Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu said:

Go to the people. Live with them. Learn from them. Love them. Start with what they know. Build with what they have.

Perhaps the perfect motto for a growing group in the research and evaluation community who are undertaking research with, rather than on, communities. It suggests that community-based research and engagement can be done better. I was moved and amused by Nicole Vosper’s article on her frustrations of class and campaign organising and I am reminded of an elderly Pacific Island lady sitting quietly in a focus group who, after a while, rose to her feet and said, in a measured and calm way, that the trouble with research was that:

white men in suits come along and steal our ideas, they take them off on a plane to their conferences and what are we left with? Nothing!

This is just one example of many clashes between traditional ‘academic’ research or programme evaluation and our communities. The comment touched me deeply and has stayed with me (it was more than 15 years ago). Not simply because it was, sadly in my experience, more true than not, but because it has long been clear to me that there is another way. A way of doing research and engagement that works better for both parties.

Whilst this shift to more inclusive and grounded research is certainly desirable, it is not without its challenges — for both the researcher and the researched. There has been a historical tendency within the western academic tradition towards excluding the views of ordinary people. How often do we ask our research subjects how to go about carrying out our research or what we should do with the results? There are, of course, times when this would be inappropriate. However, sometimes it is not only appropriate that we hold stakeholders at the heart of our research, as this book demonstrates, there are times when it is vital to the success of the project.

As Paolo Freire (1985) suggested, research does not have to be about consuming ideas, rather it can be about creating and recreating them.

We talk about community but communities they are not rigid monoliths that we are able to neatly label. They come and go. They evolve, grow and die. They come together and they pull apart. Definitions of ‘community’ are inevitably problematic and the term remains rightly contestable and malleable, always just out of reach. The communities might be local, ethnic, topical or religious but what makes a community can equally be a single point of connection, an up-to-date issue or a shared history. The only common thread in defining a ‘community’ is that it requires people to come together and this occurs in three, potentially overlapping, forms (Crow & Allan, 1994; Gaved & Anderson, 2006; Willmott, 1986, 1989):

  1. Locality: Geographical or place-based community.
  2. Interest: Topical community of those who share common interests.
  3. Attachment: The weakest form of community, suggesting a common sense of identity and a level of interaction with others.

So for me, the term ‘community’ engenders a feeling of belonging and a desire to retain that connection over time (Bauman, 2000) but that equally can resist any force that tries to locate it, fix it, within an externally defined landscape. It is not easy to measure the strength or value of a community. It is often intangible, varies depending on an individual’s commitment or sense of belonging and is not always obvious to outsiders. As we become more familiar with a community we see that it has itself got layers and differences. The diverse and contested nature of community is a strength, not a weakness, because it facilitates an environment in which social creativity and innovation can be nurtured in ways that stimulate and promote community learning.

The value of civil society is not drawn from the good intent of the individual but in the way those individuals are connected and embedded within what Putnam refers to as “dense network of reciprocal relations” (2000, p.19). Such semi-institutionalised relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition provide members with a degree of backing from the collective, providing both support and credibility. Relationships are socially instituted and community based research is to a large degree about relationships. This is an important point for those of us wishing to undertake research with a community because, in some small way, we do become a part of that community and exchanges inevitably occur (good or bad). This leads to a reflexive discussion about how we might accurately represent communities, as both an emic (insider) or etic (outsider) researcher. Reflexivity and negotiation are paramount if we are to avoid making assumptions about the nature of community. Jacobs helpfully poses four questions which researchers might ask themselves:

  1. What do we mean by participation?
  2. Why do we think participation is important?
  3. Who benefits from the research and in what way?
  4. How do we judge the success of participation and how is participation involved in this?

This, of course, sets up a conflict between taking a collaborative approach and meeting the demands of research governance, as Peter Reason (1994) argues, research can only be conducted with people if the researcher engages with them as people because while “understanding and action are logically separate, they cannot be separated in life: so a science of persons must be an action science” (p.10). This requires us as researchers to accept our place in the world, not as disconnected, soul-less bodies but as real people with beliefs, biases and different points of view. It does not stop us being rigorous in our research, it just acknowledges that researchers too are human.

We must negotiate community boundaries carefully. Even as an insider our status changes when we undertake research. As outsiders we are often on the look-out for the ‘mavens’ and ‘gatekeepers’ who provide access to a community and, with it, the credibility for us to start our research. Whilst we most often look for these links in the community being researched, we also need them in the institutions that allow us to do research. Entry to a community is not enough we must establish our own legitimacy. This is even more the case when entering a community without invitation or existing social capital. Yet, despite these challenges, when community based research succeeds and trust is built we as researchers will often become the conduit between institutions, agencies or government and a community that is distrusting, feels let down or badly treated and which is sceptical of outsiders. This is a tenuous place to be and so the challenge for any collaborative relationship is to ensure that the collaboration is actually genuine!

Engaging in community based research is difficult because we committed to representing the true voices that we hear but we must not expect conformity or homogeneity even in a smallest community. Privileging the voices of participants is about respect. Notice how indigenous peoples are often assigned names by the coloniser, sometimes this is accepted (or at least tolerated and used) but often that community chooses a different name to refer to themselves. What we call ourselves can be the tip of the epistemological iceberg; many indigenous groups do not subscribe to a western-oriented worldview and this presents further challenges for researcher and researched alike.

Attempting to match these two systems of knowing often results in one system being subsumed by the other, or one being presented as an alternative to the other; not in them being equal but different worldviews (Faulkhead, 2008, p.41).

Community based research is about mutuality and reciprocity but, above all, it is always about people:

E patai atu ahau ki a koe,
He aha te mea nui o te Ao?
He tangata, he tangata, he tangata.


  • Bauman, Z. (2000). Community: Seeking safety in an insecure world. London: Polity.
  • Crow, G., & Allan, G. (1994). Community Life: An introduction to local social relations. Hemel Hempstead, UK: Harvester Wheatsheaf.
  • Faulkhead, S, Russell, L, Singh, D., McKemmish, S. (2008). Is community research possible within the western academic tradition? In Williamson, A. & DeSouza, R., Researching with communities. Auckland: Muddy Creek Press.
  • Freire, P. (1985). The Politics of Education: Culture, Power and Liberation. London: Macmillan.
  • Gaved, M., & Anderson, B. (2006). The impact of local ICT initiatives on social capital and quality of life. Ipswich, UK: Chimera, University of Essex.
  • Jacobs, G, (2008). Participation in health research: The need for a second mirror. In Williamson, A. & DeSouza, R., Researching with communities. Auckland: Muddy Creek Press.
  • Putnam, R. D. (2000). Bowling alone: The collapse and revival of American Community. New York: Simon & Schuster.
  • Stoecker, R. (2005). Research methods for community change: A project-based approach. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.
  • Reason, P. (1994). Inquiry and alienation in Participation in Human Inquiry, ed. P. Reason, pp.9–15. London, Sage Publications.
  • Willmott, P. (1986). Social networks, informal care and public policy. London, UK: Policy Studies Institute (PSI Research Report 655).
  • Willmott, P. (1989). Community Initiatives. Patterns and prospects. London, UK: Policy Studies Institute.

This is an updated version of the introductory chapter appearing in: Williamson, A., & DeSouza, R. (2008). Researching with communities. Auckland, NZ. Muddy Creek Press.

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