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THE DEVELOPMENT AND MAINTENANCE
OF COMMUNITY RESEARCH PARTNERSHIPS
Jean J. Schensul, Ph.D.
Institute for Community Research
Why Create Applied Research Partnerships
Building community based action-research partnerships is an explicit strategy to ensure that research applied to community development or change involves, represents and responds to the diversity of participants in the community setting; and that community change efforts are informed and therefore proactive rather than reactive.
Every partnership should include from the outset, both researchers and non-researchers from community sectors, and ethnic, age and gender groups considered important to the intervention. This will have several critical effects: first, it will ensure that the research questions asked are relevant to the concerns of each of the constituencies. Second, it requires that questions and the issues they address are negotiated and some consensus arrived at. Third, it ensures the involvement of community representatives in information collection. This serves a dual purpose: that of informing the information collector, and that of informing the community. And finally, involvement in all aspects of the research guarantees use of the results in community change efforts because members of the research team are also actors and activists in the change effort.
There are other important reasons for building community action research partnerships. Researchers cannot be familiar with all of the communities, sectors or cultural settings and meanings that must be considered in the project. Partnerships with community leaders or organizations can provide entry to diverse communities and more comprehensive and relevant understanding of the community setting in which the research and related change or development strategies are to take place.
The intention of the research is both to produce knowledge and to produce "action" - better service, changes in policies, etc. Community partnerships can involve the parties or sectors likely to be most affected by the research directly, in both the research and the actions that flow from it. Research is improved by the importance and urgency of the topic it addresses. The quality of a research effort is improved when community partnerships are intensely committed to the results and therefore to ensuring the quality of the research. Furthermore, differences of opinion in substance and method that may arise among researchers and their partners are likely to be thoroughly analyzed, discussed, debated and resolved in the context of important community problem solving. Community partners in an action-research partnership are more likely to know what will work and what will not in their own communities. Even small research projects require a diversity of skills, methods, approaches and values that cannot be met by a homogeneous research team especially when there is a genuine and pervasive commitment to bring about positive community change.
Current thinking on the efficacy of prevention efforts suggests that interventions can only be effective if they influence several different "levels" or "sectors (for example, school, community, and family) at the same time. Intersectoral approaches are critical to community problem solving. Thus, it should be obvious that those sectors most involved in the issues to be addressed must be represented in an action research partnership.
Ethnicity and inter-ethnic debate, conflict and strife have taken on new importance over the last decade both in the United States. One anthropologist has recently pointed out that over 275 ethnic conflicts were in process in the world at the end of 1994. This situation begs, demand s and requires that institutions and individuals work toward less violent and more positive ways of resolving conflict at home and abroad. Action research partnerships are a step in this direction for the following reasons. Actions are organized to solve pressing and commonly recognized community problems. The research process organizes partners to raise questions, dialogue and move their thinking and analysis beyond the obvious. Research improves critical thinking, problem solving and analysis skills. When it is combined with good facilitation and the ability to relate to deep-seated emotional responses to difference, it can offer a powerful set of tools for improving communication required to carry out action partnerships.
This working paper outlines factors to consider in initiating and stabilizing action research partnerships in community settings. Throughout, it cites examples based on experiences at the Institute for Community Research, an independent research institute located in Hartford, Connecticut, with partnership projects throughout Connecticut, the southeastern United States and southeast Asia. The work of the Institute for Community Research is based on principles of collaboration, action research and community change in diverse, multiethnic settings.
Building the Community Base
The initiation of an action research partnership rests on three critical elements - (1) the presence, influence and insight of one or more socially committed applied social science researchers; (2) the participation of skilled, knowledge-oriented activists; and (3) an issue or problem of critical interest to a group of individuals, institutions or agencies including researchers and change agents (who may be one and the same).
In order for the researchers to be effective in influencing the creation of a collaborative, they must be sufficiently involved in the life of the target community to have some idea of which topics are of interest, and which individuals might be called together to discuss these topics. Thus, the first step for a committed action researcher in a partnership effort is involvement in the local community or communities in which research may take place.
The "community" may consist of one or more school communities, a network of health or service programs, a group of community based arts organizations; a geographic area; PTA, a group of community residents; a community coalition. There must be at least one identified target constituency that will benefit from the research.
Community researchers generally begin by entering one or more local communities and identifying a number of innovative or otherwise distinctive education or service programs and/or key people. Entry should follow the usual procedures outlined in a good ethnography text including identification of "key informants" or knowledgeable people, attendance at (and participation in) important meetings, interviews with school personnel or agency heads, reviews of local newspapers and talks with community residents, parents, teachers, service providers, artists etc.
For action researchers, however, these entry methods take on an additional level of importance since researchers are seeking to identify important actors in relation to selected topics, as well as to uncover important orienting information.
The entry process applies to those who may originally be from the community, as well as to those who are entering from the outside. This is the case because community members may not know everything they need to know about their own communities with reference to program development. Entering the setting may go on over a long period of time, as one local expert leads to another, and one sector is found to interface with another.
Eventually the action researchers discover central community or instructional concerns, a network of interested, energetic and committed core actors, and a set of institutions, programs, or individuals who may be called together to institute an action research partnership. Once these networks are identified, they organize and reorganized into different configurations depending on the particular topic of concern.
Projects are based on several important principles of organization. The first important criterion for success is the selection of an experienced or knowledgeable facilitator. The chair or lead facilitator of the network should be someone familiar with all sectors of the community and committed to supporting the involvement of community based organizations in policy and planning. This person should be sufficiently experienced to ensure that all critical decision-makers to benefit in and/or be affected by the effort will be involved in the earliest planning stages.
A second criterion is inclusion. As many relevant organizations, agencies and institutions should be included in the initial planning stages as possible and feasible. Decisions in favor of inclusion should rest on the potential scope of the project, the resources available, political implications of exclusion, and number of agencies and individuals with whom the facilitator feels comfortable working. Sometimes a collaborative may include only two or three organizations. At other times it may include up to thirty. In these projects, service/advocacy and research should be linked. If linkage problems occur in the early phases, such problems must be solved or the "split" will continue, and may ultimately have negative effects on the action-research efforts.
The chair or lead facilitator should be familiar with the priorities of service providers and administrators, and able to speak to and support these priorities while promoting the integration of research into program planning. Since research is frequently viewed as an unnecessary or undesirable appendage to program services, it is critical to demonstrate to doubting service personnel that information collection (and later on, theory or model building) can be immediately useful to their work, and thus should be integrated into it.
Initiators should decide early on the cultural content of the project, i.e. whether the project will be multiethnic and multi cultural in its approach and in what ways the development and implementing of multi cultural interventions should be addressed.
Interventions may explore levels of cultural relevance. Because we have not yet achieved historical accuracy, and many dimensions of national and ethnic histories remain uncovered, even ethnic minority organizations may not be well informed about the cultural characteristics of their constituencies. Community educators and interventionists must be trained to identify these characteristics and to reconstruct history before they can build culturally appropriate interventions. It is critical to remember that "culture" is not monolithic. each target population may have its own cultural profile within a specific ethnic/cultural or social/racial group. Ongoing assessment of cultural characteristics and culture change should be built into the job descriptions of all project staff.
Incentives and equitable exchange of resources is critical to the success of the project. Exchange strengthens institutional commitment to the project. Organizations and community leaders will participate in action research efforts when incentives are strong and attractive. Incentives may be financial, social, political.
Further, commitment to the effort is greatly strengthened when all participating organizations identify concretely both what they hope to gain and what contributions they can make to the program. Roles, expectations, and in -kind and other contributions to a action research partnership should be clearly and formally articulated before the project begins, and should be reviewed regularly during the course of the project.
Identifying the Problem/Building the Program Model
Once a working group is identified, it must come to consensus on the direction of its work. A general interest or issue such as "building communities through the arts", "youth-driven community education centers" or "preventing gang-related violence", may bring people together initially. But the general nature of these topics is insufficient to focus a project or program. How can a focus be identified? A simple procedure is the following:
Identifying the "dependent variable" or the central problem to be addressed
To arrive at the "dependent variable" members of the collaborative network are asked by a facilitator to identify a series of specific issues in the domain of general concern to the group. Such issues might include "substance abuse among high school youth", infant mortality, ethnic differences in reading achievement level of first graders, etc. The group then defines, and prioritizes each of the specific issues.
The most significant issue is then translated into the dependent variable, and/or a problem statement. The dependent variable becomes the focus of research; the problem statement becomes the focus of the project or activity of the group, or the problem to be affected or changed.
Identifying the "causal" factors that appear to influence the issue or problem
To complete the model, participants discuss and debate the multitude of factors that relate to, cause, or "precede" the dependent variable/problem. They then designate the relationships among those factors, as they themselves understand, and agree upon those relationships. If an hypothesized relationship cannot be clearly defined, the group must seek new information to clarify it. The result of this analysis is a "system" of interacting factors that impact on the issue or problem - a theoretical model. The modeling process may continue to explore consequences of the "problem" in the same way.
Once partners have decided on the central problem and the primary factors associated with it, they may choose from several different alternatives. If there is no information on the problem, they may wish to choose a basic research project intended to provide the basis for intervention. A research and intervention program might focus on basic research or needs assessment. To use asthma as an example, a basic research project could explore descriptively the importance and meaning of asthma in an urban neighborhood. Or it could explore specific factors associated with an identified rise in asthma such as limited access to providers, misinterpretation of symptoms, or environmental pollution. A third alternative could be to assess the consequences of asthma on children's school performance and activity levels.
Research and development is another option. In such instances, the collaborative would conduct research on an aspect of asthma which is intended to lead to an intervention program, conduct the program and evaluate it. Both evaluation and basic research could have implications for policy related to asthma prevention and control. The specific approach to research and action in the form of program or policy, will depend on the skills of the group, the availability and constraints of funding, and the degree to which sufficient information about the situation is determined to exist.
There are cases where there is believed to be sufficient prior information to frame an intervention. Or, funders may not see the need for preliminary research or evaluation. In such instances, partnerships may determine the direction of a program based on their "operational model", even when they cannot evaluate it.
Building an Operational Model for Research leading to Change
To build an operational model, the group translates each factor from variable to problem to be addressed and works with both. For a research project, the group determines which of the independent variables are critical to the model and feasible to investigate given time, resources and cultural sensitivity. For an intervention project, the group will determine which of the "problems" affecting the dependent variable can be modified or changed, given the above constraints. The result is an operational model for research or practice.
To summarize, the steps permitting transformation of a basic research model into an intervention model are:
Brokering Funding Possibilities
- Determining which causal factors can be affected and which cannot, given the constraints of time, human resources, culture and money.
- Anticipating what changes might be brought about in the causal factors.
- Anticipating what changes might result in the dependent variable.
Apart from the urgency of the need, the most critical factor triggering the interest of members of a research network or collaborative is the promise of funding or additional resources.
Researchers or research/action teams who call together potential consortia members must facilitate a set of ideas sufficiently compelling to bind the network into a joint vision and mission. At the same time, these ideas must be coordinated with funding sources, and funding sources must be identified and receptive to the ideas. If projects depend on outside funding, facilitators can expect no more than "two chances" to obtain necessary support.. Otherwise the partners may become discouraged and disappear. Alternatively, a consortium may decide to move ahead without funding, depending on the resources available to them including inkind time and contributed communications and meeting expenses. Generally, however, better research is conducted when additional resources are available.
Often projects must be adapted to the interests of funders and changes must be negotiated with the research collaborative. In the case of the previously mentioned AIDS project, members of the consortium had earlier determined the need for a city-wide intervention project. The Centers for Disease Control, however, working through the State Department of Health Services, had determined that a probability-based KAB study was required to provide baseline data for the state, and to interface with convenience samples in other parts of the state. The consortium agreed to accept the KAB study with the hope that it would provide the basis for generating a much-needed city-wide intervention.
Negotiating the Roles of Collaborating Members
When an action research partner- ship includes a number of different organizations or institutions, the roles of each must be clarified. Even before a collaboration is agreed upon, the prospective roles of participating organizations should be considered.
Limited resources usually preclude duplication of services. Thus conflicts may arise among organizations in the consortium which play similar roles in the community. Ways to address these potential conflicts in advance should be found, and only the critical organizations should be invited to participate in the consortium.
Participating organizations generally have agendas, policies and needs, which should be spelled out contractually or in letters of agreement in advance. If these organizational characteristics are not revealed until after the program is funded, they may come into conflict with the overall program and intentions of the partnership, and thus threaten its integrity.
It is wise to keep in mind that the situations of participating organizations may shift and change at any time during the implementation of a program. These changes may affect the mission, direction, resource level, supervisory capacity, reputation and other dimensions of the institution. Any such changes should be identified, discussed, studied and renegotiated as they occur and their implications communicated to the rest of the consortium in order to avoid gossip and misunderstanding.
In the AIDS Community Research Group - a multiethnic AIDS prevention action research partnership organized by the Institute for Community Research, each member organization in this research network took on a different set of responsibilities in relation to the project. The Institute for Community Research was responsible for overall management and coordination of field interviewing, coding of data and report writing and data utilization. The Hispanic Health Council entered and managed data and participated in report writing. The Urban League completed an ethnographic study of the development of AIDs programming in the city; and the Hartford Health Department conducted training in AIDS, and review and dissemination of results. Eventually this partnership resulted in a much larger prevention research and advocacy consortium.
In the Brighter Futures for Hartford Children Partnership, guided by the Institute for Community Research, overlapping project networks were integrated into a program of parent education for prevention of disabilities and an audiological assessment project for the prevention of otitis media and language and learning disabilities in young African American and Latino children. This partnership included 11 member organizations which delivered audiological assessment, treatment and education services on both a contractual and in-kind basis, held together by an MIS system and ongoing participatory evaluation.
During the early months of the program, differences of opinion occurred around the degree to which community educators /advocates in the program were to become directly involved in services to children with disabilities versus community education with parents at risk. After considerable debate, the Steering Committee eventually arrived at a compromise which included both. The partnership was strong enough, after four years of practice, to redefine itself as a primary health care service, and to dissolve itself in order to obtain Medicaid Reimbursement.
Action research partnerships must include a recognized need for information. A community's need for "more information" drives the action research partnership's effort. Activists and program developers should be convinced that information will be useful to their goals. Before a project is negotiated, partners must have a good sense of what types of projects can work in action research partnerships. They must recognize the relative advantages of research, policy assessment, research training, research and demonstration, evaluation and know how to select among these alternatives, when negotiating a project. Further, researchers must have a strong sense of research design, and extensive knowledge of research methods in order to know what elements of a project can be negotiated, and what cannot in order to maintain the integrity of the research design.
Action research partnerships must involve joint negotiations and decision-making. All members of a consortium should make policy decisions together in areas such as, for example, hiring coordination staff, research and intervention methodology, which communities and agencies to work with, the development partnership structures and new directions and approaches to disseminating results. It benefits and strengthens a consortium if member organizations "cost share", especially when programs are allocated so that income flows roughly equally among consortium members.
New organizations may be financially as well as structurally fragile. They may require more maintenance, both financial and technical, than more established organizations. This should not preclude their inclusion in a consortium, but does suggest that special consideration be given to the number of newly constituted organizations included in a partnership.
Each time a new organization or group is brought into a partnership, the history, rationale, guidelines for participation, and role of each member of the network should be reiterated. Attention given to transitions in - and out- of partnerships will pay off handsomely in the end, by reducing misunderstandings, distrust and retaining potential for new partnership relations in the future.
Because the conduct of research in local communities can be a sensitive matter, joint development and implementation of research and intervention or program methods is critical.
Finally, action research partnerships must carefully plan ways in which they can collaborate in decisions regarding the use of information/results or dissemination. They must establish ground rules for operation early in the development of joint work. These ground rules relate to how roles and responsibilities of principal investigators, directors, and other project staff, lines of authority, problem solving and fiscal management are decided, arranged and monitored.
Regarding management, one (or no more than two ) organizations should be included in overall reporting responsibility. However, all project directors, principal investigators and other managers must be prepared to share staff, resources, information, visibility and credit with the members of the network. And all project staffs should be encouraged to keep in mind cross-agency responsibility for the quality of their work.
For maintenance purposes, action-research partnerships should be "bounded" i.e. their boundaries must be defined and differentiated. Rules for recognizing participation in research network should be developed and clarified. Action research partnerships involve individuals as well as organizations that do not necessarily have experience with research, and that do not always value it equally with the other activities in which they engage. One of the responsibilities of the lead investigators and other administrators, is to ensure that all participants in a action research partnership are involved and feel as if they are part of the action research endeavor. One critical element in ensuring participation is full understanding of the research, its overall meaning to the community, and its expected results. A second is to credit all participants in research related activities including data analysis, data presentation, written articles, and other means of disseminating materials.
The emphasis here is on recognizing participation (as distinguished from ensuring participation). Rules require that all participating entities be respected, remembered, included, referred to and credited even if they do not all participate at the same level all the time. Participating agencies or entities that pursue limited, irregular or unpredictable involvement, or who do not abide by the rules of the research network, should be confronted by the designated management body.
Maintaining Stability in Action Research Partnerships
Community action research partnerships are not always successful. What leads to successful collaboration? Community research partnerships (or other partnerships) are likely to run smoothly when the network is stable. Stable networks are defined by the stability of each participating organization, and by the length of time, and solidarity of relationship of the participants. The participation of one or more new organizations which have not yet established clear-cut identities, or sufficient staff or income, is a constraint because the new organization has an emerging and changing identity, faces funding constraints, and may find that it must deploy consortium project staff for other organizational purposes.
Consortia accrue strength through planning. Although there is an ideal balance between planning and project funding and startup, a longer planning period will consolidate working relationships among consortia members and provide the network with valuable experience needed to resolve the conflicts which must inevitably arise later on.
It is critical to the stability of the consortium to obtain agreement of board and staff of participating organizations that research is important. If resistance to research and its uses exists at any level or misunderstanding or mistrust occurs, consortium decisions involving data collection, publication and use are likely to be questioned. Mistrust arising between one organization and the rest of the consortium around the conduct of research will negatively influence the rest of the network and should be immediately addressed.
Finally, consortia are as strong as their individual members. When steering committee members are experienced directors or appointed substitutes with strong communication skills, conflicts and miscommunications among consortium members can be addressed easily. When they are inexperienced, conflicts more readily occur. When participants understand and value data, the inevitable conflicts between research and service can be more easily minimized. When the administrative structures of participating organizations are clear and well established, consortium members can specify how they expect to operate under the consortium structure and can negotiate interagency differences when necessary.
Unstable networks are characterized by conflict among members at all levels. One common reason for conflict is inconsistency of internal supervision in participating agencies, resulting in lack of compliance with work requirements. This problem can result in interagency resentments and/or competition and create ill will and lack of cooperation within the consortium. Significant differences in personnel or institutional policies or operating procedures across consortium members can also create instability. Such differences may result in differential pay scales and consequent loss of personnel or internal competition for project personnel. Further, differences in institutional policies may make it difficult or impossible to implement educational or other programs in project sites.
Organizations may enter consortium relationships without being straight forward about their reasons for participating or with different reasons for participating among sectors or departments. Hidden or unknown agendas will appear and may conflict with expressed mutual interests. Finally, an important destabilizing influence is the failure to develop a shared language, set of meanings and mission for the project. Failure may stem from different interpretations of the same conceptual vocabulary; from lack of understanding of the vocabulary of the project; or from discomfort with the project's conceptual framework. It is wise to spend considerable time initially, and from time to time in consortium retreats, to revisit the mission of the project and the way it is translated into practice.
This paper has considered the initial stages in the development of action research partnerships. None of the steps outlined above is simple; each step takes considerable time and effort. The driving forces in the process are threefold:
(1) compelling commitment to the issue under consideration;
(2) recognition that only a joint community based effort will be sufficient to begin to address it in a comprehensive manner;
(3) the shared belief that information obtained through some form of research or evaluation is critical to the undertaking.
At a time when resources are scarce and community service, health and educational needs are pressing, and the process of bringing people together to solve common problems is time-consuming, it is all too easy to forget the importance of information in the problem solving process.
For service providers working with clients, this may be especially the case, since data collection requires "paperwork" which takes time away from clients, and can easily be seen as "interfering with" the provider/client relationship. Furthermore, some parties to a consortium may believe that if valid and reliable information were available, it could contradict their interests. Finally, especially when research is viewed not as a tool for community development, but as an instrument of external control, appreciation for and trust of the research enterprise may be low.
No one can deny that problems are pressing, or that paperwork should be kept to a minimum. Certainly information may contradict our strongly held beliefs. Research has indeed been used to oppose the best interests of local communities.
On the other hand, research conducted collaboratively in a community action setting holds the greatest promise for developing a common base for understanding a complex problem in its broad perspective (theory); for emphasizing the necessity for critical and careful thinking about the problem (method); for collecting information about the breadth and scope of the problem (data collection); for transforming "client" into "research collaborator" and for assessing the effectiveness of the program in the community (analysis and evaluation).
In the world of academic research, (or research and development) a research project is conducted and the results disseminated, generally to other academically based scientists. In the domain of social (in contrast to medical) research, dissemination only occasionally influences policy makers. It rarely influences (except indirectly and in ways that are not within their own their control) those communities and institutions which stand outside of both the research and "policy-making" arenas.
Action research partnerships integrate research (as theory, method, data collection and results) into both local program and local policy making. In its emphasis on partnership, it offers a critical opportunity for eliminating the differential ranking of research and practice (service), university and community and provider and client.
The Institute for Community Research is an independent, multiethnic, nonprofit applied research institute dedicated to the innovative use of research to assist communities and non-profit organizations serving them to identify and solve community problems with information. The Institute conducts demographic surveys, builds collaborative intervention research networks, supports community and cultural identity through documentation and presentation of heritage and community arts, and promotes the results of its work through training and technical assistance.
Other topics in the Institute's 1993/94 Occasional Papers in Applied Research Methods series include "Ethics, Ethnicity and Cultural Competence" , "What communities should expect from their researchers", "Conducting Culturally appropriate evaluations", "Training teens to conduct action research projects" and "Conducting group interviews in formal and informal settings". For more information, contact Jean J. Schensul, Ph.D., Institute for Community Research, 2 Hartford Square West, Ste. 100, Hartford, CT. 06l06.
First draft, 1993-4
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