Principled tensions when working with peer researchers: Community'based participatory research with five Pacific Islander communities in Southern California

Brian Hui, Anthony S. DiStefano, and ’ Alisi Tulua


Community-based participatory research typically involves close collaboration between a university or universities and community partner organisations (D’Alonzo 2010). Building on the strengths and resources of each partner, key qualities of the approach include a research topic that is perceived as relevant by participating communities; the equitable and respectful involvement of community partners in study design, implementation, data analyses and dissemination; ethical review that accounts for universal and community-specific human subject protections; group reflexivity, credibility and accountability across project partners; co-learning and capacity building at organisational and individual levels; shared decision making and ownership of data; and, when applied to health disparities, social change outcomes to improve community health (Israel et al. 2005; Flicker et al. 2007; Minkler and Wallerstein 2008).

A principal feature of community-based participatory research is a research team partially or wholly composed of members of the community under study (Guta et al. 2013). In research projects, these ‘community researchers’ (Mosavel et al. 2011) share complex relationships with people defined as peers - either community members who are study participants, or other researchers in collaborating institutions. Negotiating and renegotiating these relationships in the course of a project can contribute to tensions that challenge core community-based participatory research principles. In this chapter, we draw on the experience of our work in a 10-year health-focused community-based participatory research collaborative - Weaving an Islander Network of Cancer Awareness, Research and Training (WINCART) - to examine tensions arising between principles of equity and scientific rigour when working with community researchers.

Peer researcher relations and practices in community-based participatory research

Understanding peer research

We employ a definition of peer research that refers to a type of collaborative, participatory inquiry in which members of a target population participate directly in the research, as peer researchers in the project team (Price and Hawkins 2002; Guta et al. 2013). This type of research offers several benefits. As recognised members of the community being studied, peer researchers can draw on their ‘insider’ status (Elliott et al. 2002) to gain privileged access to population groups that might otherwise be missed or resistant to participate in studies led by academic and other institutional researchers without such peer credentials (Griffiths et al. 1993). Peer researchers can access their own social networks for participant sampling and recruitment (Price and Hawkins 2002). When more than one peer researcher is involved in a study, the benefit is increased by multiplying the social networks and milieux from which participants are recruited. This, in turn, can improve data validity (Elliott et al. 2002). Other benefits of peer research include relatively rapid data collection (Mutchler et al. 2013); an equilibrium of power between peer researchers and study participants (Kilpatrick et al. 2007); rich understandings of participants’ sociocultural lives and practices (Mutchler et al. 2013); insider perspectives and interpretations during data analysis by peer researchers (Price and Hawkins 2002); and the potential for participation in newly empowering experiences and for skills development among peer researchers (Mutchler et al. 2013).

Locating peer research in community-based participatory research

In contrast to more conventional approaches that are typically controlled by university researchers, community-based participatory research aims for an equitable partnership between universities and communities throughout the research process (Minkler and Wallerstein 2008). In particular, these approaches emphasise participation, influence and shared control by non-academic researchers in research processes that lead to the co-creation of knowledge and initiate change (Israel et al. 2003; Flicker et al. 2007). In practice, community involvement can take different forms, from establishing community review panels and advisory groups, on the one hand, to having fully engaged community researchers working as formal members of research teams, on the other (Damon et al. 2017). As community-based participatory research has become more common and better funded, projects have increasingly opted for the latter (Guta et al. 2013). Positioning community researchers as highly participatory members of a research team can be viewed as a hallmark of good practice in community-based research (Greene et al. 2009), helping deconstruct traditional research hierarchies in an effort to reach the ideal of equity (Damon et al. 2017).

When working with community researchers, it is important to consider the nature of peer relationships that exist within research projects. The literature

Equity and rigour in peer research 35 typically emphasises the relationships that exist between researchers on the project team who come from the community being studied (i.e. ‘community researchers’) and study participants who are members of that same community. This relationship can be defined around the existence of shared social networks (Bell et al. 2020), such as those comprising friends, co-workers or kin (Price and Hawkins 2002), and shared identities based on age, religion or culture (Vassadis et al. 2015). However, the definition of ‘peers’ can be extended to include the relationships between community researchers and academic researchers within project teams. This enables a closer focus on the ideal of equity that is at the centre of community-based participatory research projects (Roche et al. 2010). Additionally, community-based organisations frequently adopt the role of ‘community partner’ (Guta et al. 2013), by being the immediate managers or employers of the project’s community researchers, either through temporary appointments or using their own permanent staff (Banks et al. 2013). This can create another, complicated layer of peer identity.

Tensions in community-based participatory research practice

There are inevitable tensions between the challenges of ensuring research equity and scientific rigour in community research. Research equity is achieved by full community inclusion in research processes, which have historically been the exclusive domain of university actors (Black et al. 2013). Efforts to create equity resonate with a trend toward decolonising research in the health and social sciences. Decolonising research methodologies challenge hegemonic research approaches that can undermine the local knowledges and experiences of formerly colonised and Indigenous communities. This kind of research is driven primarily by the worldviews and cultural values of the formerly colonised and Indigenous groups with whom the research is undertaken (Keikelame and Swartz 2019) and is thus an expression of community self-determination (Zavala 2013).

Research rigour is achieved through the use of sound scientific methodology and may be tested against indicators of trustworthiness for qualitative data such as credibility, dependability and confirmability, and the equivalents for quantitative data (i.e. internal validity, reliability and objectivity) (Lincoln and Guba 1986; Collins et al. 2018). The ways in which community-based participatory research seeks to improve rigour are well documented. Community involvement and coleadership can enhance the quality and appropriateness of research questions and data collection instruments, the selection of data collection sites, the recruitment and retention of study participants, and the interpretation of data (Balazs and Morello-Frosch 2013; Nicolaidis et al. 2015; Mayan and Daum 2016). It can also identify accessible research dissemination strategies (Jagosh 2012).

Leveraging the assets of both academic and community researchers bolsters efforts to enhance research equity and scientific rigour (Balazs and Morello-Frosch 2013). However, academic and community partners sometimes prioritise equity and rigour in different ways, which can create tensions within a partnership (Fabrizio et al. 2012). These tensions may be misinterpreted as an irreconcilableconflict between these two core principles at the basic level of theory. Our cen-tral argument is that this is not the case. Equity-rigour tensions reflect challenges in enacting theory into practice, but this is not due to flaws in the theoretical framework, and these challenges are not insurmountable.

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