What Is Community-Based Participatory Research?

Community-based participatory research is a collaborative approach to research in which the research process is driven by an equitable partnership that is formed between relevant community members, organizational representatives, and academic researchers; the CBPR framework uses this partnership with the aim of increasing the value of the research product for all partners. Community-based participatory research takes advantage of the unique strengths and insights that community and academic partners each bring to framing health problems and developing solutions. Community members, organizational representatives, and academic researchers participate in and share control over all phases of the research process from assessment—discovering the community’s health needs— to dissemination—developing strategies to increase the adoption, implementation, and maintenance of evidence-based interventions (EBIs) in communities and healthcare settings. Community-based participatory research approaches facilitate and accelerate research translation so that research produces pragmatic results capable of leading to positive and sustainable community change.

In the past, social scientists and researchers who focused on disease prevention tended to engage in studies of social phenomena and community problems with an “outsider’s approach,” which distanced the research from the participants’ daily lives. Lewin1 and Freire2 questioned the “outsider’s approach” and proposed more participatory and inclusive approaches to research. Current perspectives seek to address the complexity of the human experience and the differential power that sometimes exists between academic researchers, representatives of community groups, and research participants.

“The CBPR research paradigm represents a fundamental shift in academic researcher’s views of community residents, from patients and research subjects who may benefit from medical advances to essential partners who can energize their communities to develop effective, sustainable interventions to improve health and eliminate health disparities.”3

Rather than focusing solely on health problems or other concerns, the CBPR framework highlights community resilience, resources, and opportunities for positive growth.4 It places emphasis on shared decision-making, co-learning, reciprocal transfer of expertise between partners, and mutual ownership of research products.5 Partners also strive to acknowledge and act on participants’ needs, behaviors, and beliefs concerning their own well-being. Community-based participatory research is linked to other social-justice-informed approaches to research, such as action research and participatory action research, that empower communities to address the root causes of inequity and identify their own problems and appropriate solutions; thus CBPR efforts typically do not focus on the individual only. Instead, CBPR fits within an ecological perspective about the determinants of adverse health outcomes and includes consideration of individual-level risk factors, multiple social determinants of health, and structural problems such as poverty, unemployment, homophobia/transphobia, racism, and lack of access to primary healthcare.

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