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Community-Based Research - Overview

Page history last edited by Rachayita Shah 6 months, 1 week ago

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Community-Based Research 

Overview  |  Guides  |  Campus Examples  |  Documents to Download




Community-based research (CBR) is another form of community engagement in which community-identified needs for knowledge and information are addressed through partnerships often involving students, faculty, and community organizations or groups. This work grows out of models for popular education, participatory action research and related educational pedagogies, such as from the work of Paolo Freire, Kurt Lewin, and others. 


Community-based research can be seen on a continuum, as shown in this description from the University of Iowa:

Traditional Research => Community-placed Research  => Community-based Research (CBR). => Community-based Participatory Research (CBPR)




Community-based research (CBR) involves collaborative work between researchers (typically, faculty and students) and community members (typically nonprofit staff or clients) in the design and implementation of projects designed to address community-identified needs or wants. The output (products) of such collaboration may include research papers but can also take other forms (i.e., issue briefs, needs assessments, environmental surveys, etc.). In this community-engaged model of research and scholarship, academic and community members work together to:

  • Identify research topics, issues, and questions (see the steps below for some suggestions on how to do this)
  • Develop research designs (which often are tied to a course or other credit-bearing projects, like independent study, for students)
  • Collect data or information (i.e., through qualitative, quantitative, or mixed methods approaches)
  • Produce and write up results (this might involve different presentations of the same information, such as for a scholarly article, class paper, or community-oriented brochure or charette)
  • Work with relevant constituents such as policy makers and practitioners to disseminate knowledge and design and execute appropriate responses or next steps. For instance, a community-wide needs assessment about poverty might generate other projects, such as ways to improve coordination of existing services or increase access to health care.  This research is action-oriented (and often can involve students, faculty, and community constituents). 


Background on the Bonner Foundation's work with CBR 

Since 1997, the Bonner Foundation has worked with campuses across a national network to catalyze the development of CBR. This has included working with faculty across more than 30 colleges and universities, supported financially by several Learn & Serve America grants. The Foundation worked in partnership with Princeton University and its Community-Based Learning Initiative (CBLI).


Principles or ingredients for successful CBR Partnerships 

  • A Shared Foundation or Philosophy of CBR: Successful partners start from the same place. At the most basic level, they share the same definition of “community,” one that does not see the campus and neighborhood as separate entities. In addition, while they recognize that all individuals have the right and ability to make informed decisions that affect the quality of their lives—they are motivated by the fact that many have been historically excluded.
  • Knowledge—Mutual Appreciation, Sharing and Respect: Strong partners acknowledge that neither professors nor community members (or representatives) hold a monopoly of knowledge or creativity that can be tapped to address our most pressing problems or to educate our young people. At the same time, they are willing to defer when one member of the team has a particular area of expertise (e.g. sampling) and feels strongly about an issue.
  • Trust—Establishing and Nurturing Confidence in Each Other: The members of effective partnerships believe that their campus or community colleagues will ‘do the right thing.’ They will not, for example, place their own needs (e.g. publishing) first or fail to follow through. In addition, both parties seem to have faith in the collaborative endeavor itself—that the process and results are both important—and likely to justify their investment of time and resources.
  • Shared Power: This means that there is tangible evidence of all constituent groups exercising an equal amount of power within the context of specific research projects as well as within the decision-making structures of larger organizations (e.g. consortium boards).
  • Effective Communication: Strong partners avoid using “alienating rhetoric,” replacing the inaccessible language of their discipline or even neighborhood with a clear, honest, and ongoing dialogue.
  • Understanding Organizational Realities & Circumstances: In a healthy working relationship, both parties have a firm grasp of the institutional nuances (e.g., schedules) and constraints (e.g., reward structures) that could get in the way of the immediate work that needs to get done as well as frustrate the growth of their CBR partnership. Together, they develop strategies to overcome these potential barriers.
  • Flexibility: This suggests both an attitude one brings to their work as well as some concrete tactics to surmount the unforeseen challenges that surface in CBR projects.
  • Satisfaction of Primary Interests or Needs: A key component of any sustained partnership is its ability to take care of the main objectives or needs of the key stakeholders. Thus, CBR partnerships must help community groups accomplish their goals. They must also be effective vehicles for student learning.
  • Capacity: A solid partner is one who knows what he or she can contribute to a given situation, has the ability to deliver what is needed, and seeks opportunities to enhance the capacity (e.g., financial support, staffing etc…) of his CBR colleagues so they can continue their collaborative efforts.
  • Long Term Perspective: Successful partners understand that they are involved in a social change project—since their efforts seek to transform major institutions (colleges and universities, foundations, government agencies), power structures, and our democracy (in which more citizens are active). This influences the strategies they develop as well as tempers their expectations for the short-term.


Resources and Social Capital 

One of the key issues on community partners’ minds tends to be how involvement in these projects may enhance the organization’s resources, or at least not drain them.  You’ll not want to overpromise things you can’t deliver (like new funds), but you can emphasize how the work put into projects like this may help to identify sources of new resources.  In addition, these projects often build what the sector terms “social capital,” which are valuable resources (such as networks) that also contribute to an agency’s ability to do more effective work.


Some bullets to share include:

  •  Accessing New Resources: CBR partnerships provide community groups with a research and development arm or capability. Among other things, it offers them more people and a variety of new skills on an ongoing basis that can be used to advance their causes.

  • Maximizing Existing Resources: These additional skills make it easier for community agencies to act on their own “in-house” expertise and staff-time. A group, for example, may have one staff person who can enter data on GIS but not enough time or expertise to collect data.

  • Social Capital: Directly related to the first two, this suggests that CBR partnerships help forge personal and professional relationships with others who control or have access to other local/regional assets.



Enhancing Capacity 

  • Short-term/Concrete Projects: CBR partnerships help community groups accomplish more tasks that are already on their immediate agenda. A class, for example, may capture a community group’s vision for their neighborhood on a Site Plan.

  • Strategic Thinking: Access to quality information also enables non-profits to ‘look beyond the curve’ and act more strategically. In particular, it informs their program development and program evaluation efforts.

  • Better Systems and Skills: CBR projects often leave the community partner with new or improved data collection and analysis capabilities (e.g., in-take forms and database) as well as trained staff (depending on their level of involvement).



Strengthening Our Democracy  

The work of community service and civic engagement is now often being cited as a viable strategy for engaging citizens in public life and in sustaining a stronger democracy.  Helping to articulate the connection between the daily work, often in communities, that is being done to remedy a social issue or meet an underserved population and its broader implications for effective government, public policy, and legislation is a key part of this project.  At the same time, highfalutin claims about how academics are ‘strengthening democracy’ are likely to be met by skepticism from front-line practitioners, unless it can be backed up by real illustrations of effective collaboration, projects, policies and changes. 


Partners may be interested in how this project can help them to gain resources and benefits such as:


  • Information to engage policy makers: The “hard” data and analysis that can emerge from CBR projects can replace anecdotes, substantiate the importance of the organization’s work, and make it harder for policy makers and funders to marginalize the voice of community agencies or residents.

  • Credibility in the eyes of decision-makers: The added credibility, rightly or wrongly, that results from a report being written (or co-written) by an academic, also can lend weight to the arguments offered by the community.

  • Civic Efficacy and Competence: Participation in projects that empower community members to identify, research and address problems that affects their lives, has the potential to increase their confidence that they can make a difference as well as their skills to do so.  In this process, organization or community members may find a way to more consistently make civic and policy engagement part of their overall work.


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