Engaged research

Engaged research is not a well-defined term within the literature, with a range of research activities being passed as ‘engaged, from consultancies to equal partnerships, each with different levels of engagement, power differentials and philosophical bases (Nation, Bess, Voight, Perkins, & Juarez, 2011). Andrew Van de Ven (2007) outlines four main forms of engaged research: informed basic research; collaborative basic research; design and evaluation research; and action/intervention research. These forms vary according to the perspective of the researcher (external observer versus internal participant) and the purpose of the research (describing what is versus intervening to see what happens). Thus, ‘informed basic research’ describes, explains or predicts social phenomena in a way that resembles traditional social science research, but seeks some advice and feedback from key stakeholders. This could be researcher instigated or commissioned by an outside agency in the form of a consultancy. Where the purpose of such research is more evaluative or requires intervention designed studies, Van de Ven (2007) labelled this ‘design and evaluation research’. In both ‘informed basic research’ and ‘design and evaluation research, the researcher maintains a traditional detached position in regards to the research and while there is input from stakeholders, there is a clear distance between the researcher and the stakeholders, their roles and who controls the research (normally power resides with the researcher).

Where there is considerably more stakeholder involvement in the design and conduct of the research but with the purpose of describing or explaining phenomena, this is known as ‘collaborative basic research’ (Van de Ven, 2007). ‘Action/intervention research’ also involves considerable shared decision making regarding the research design, data collection and analysis between researchers and stakeholders, but the purpose is more related to interventions that make a difference. In these studies, the researcher and the stakeholders have a much more collaborative relationship and the researcher is considered a partner in the research decision-making. Indeed, these types of engaged research try to minimise the distance between academic researchers and community members/stakeholders, often referring to all as co-researchers (Israel, Eng, Schulz, & Parker, 2013).

Engaged research that has taken a more consultative format has existed for a long time and provided both parties find this arrangement mutually beneficial, such arrangements are likely to continue to exist. This model has underpinned tenders and traditional externally-funded research conducted by university researchers throughout the 20th century and beyond. However, this model has also contributed to the image of universities as being detached from their communities, even if the research may in fact be related to ‘real-world’ issues. This model involves the notion of knowledge generation residing solely with academic researchers, while external stakeholders provide the funding and the brief. The academic researcher is responsible for the study design, how it is conducted, how the data are gathered and analysed and how and where the results are disseminated (Nicotera, Cutforth, Fretz, & Summers Thompson, 2011). This arrangement is very one-directional and any attempts by the stakeholders to have greater input has generally been interpreted by researchers as ‘interference’. The dominance of this model within universities is such that internal policies and procedures are based on this understanding of research which inadvertently devalues and erects barriers for other types of engaged research, as will be explored shortly.

Engaged research that consists of a more collaborative and partnership model between researchers and stakeholders/community members has been the subject of increasing interest in the literature and for university committees over the past decade, and as such, it is this form of engaged research that we focus on here. As more universities start to embrace the concept of university-community partnerships, there has been a shift in how communities can become more involved in not only the teaching and learning activities of universities, but also in research activities. Miles McNall and colleagues (2009) highlight that university- community engagement can be defined as a collaboration between higher education institutions and their local/regional/national/global communities for the mutual benefit of both in relation to the exchange of knowledge and resources. This definition emphasises mutuality, reciprocity and partnership as the foundations of university-community engagement, including engaged research, and involves a two-way direction of knowledge generation and responsibility (Weerts & Sandmann, 2010). While regional universities have been more likely to have community partnerships than metropolitan institutions, all universities need to make considerable social, cultural and political shifts in order to fully realise university-community partnerships that have transitioned from a one-way dissemination paradigm to a two-way constructivist model (Weerts & Sandmann, 2010).

Nicolas Buys and Samantha Bursnall (2007) have identified five steps in fostering university-community partnerships: engagement needs to be seen as a core value in the policies and practices of the university; academics need to see the benefits of pursuing partnerships with communities; formal marketing strategies that engage communities need to be adopted; rewards systems/incentives need to be implemented to encourage academics to engage with community partnerships; and more resources need to be devoted to encouraging authentic engagement. It is not enough for universities to write in their mission statements that they value engagement. As these five steps illustrate, considerable attention also needs to be directed towards encouraging staff to undertake engaged research and the structures within the university need to be such that this activity is adequately recognised and supported. At present, there is considerable evidence in the literature to suggest most universities are yet to have such recognition and support fully in place (MacLean, Warr, & Pyett, 2009; McNall et al., 2009; Nicotera et al., 2011; Savan, Flicker, Kolenda, & Mildenberger, 2009; Weerts & Sandmann, 2010; Wells et al., 2013).

The barriers to expanding community collaborative research are multi-level, complex and interdependent. From an individual academic’s perspective, undertaking such research requires a shift in civic consciousness, frequently changing one’s underlying assumptions about research, and learning additional skills and knowledge in order to participate in community and partnership development work (Harkavy & Hartley, 2012; McNiff, 2013; Savan et al., 2009). In addition, because establishing community partnerships is a very time consuming process as well as the time community-based projects take to carry out, academics need to have considerable time to be able to be involved (MacLean et al., 2009; Wells et al., 2013). Coupled with this, few external funding bodies are willing to support community-based research projects, not recognising them as ‘real’ research (McNall et al., 2009; Savan et al., 2009). These factors impact on the academic being able to seek funding to conduct research which has the effect of decreasing publications and thus, opportunities for promotion. As such, there is a perception (and frequently a reality) that community collaborative research is a ‘death-knell’ for an individual’s academic career. Such perceptions are not likely to help further any university’s mission of increasing engaged research.

Some of the solutions put forward include: having separate funding for establishing community partnerships to that being sought to support the actual project work, as the Wellesley Institute in Canada has done (Savan et al., 2009); universities providing internal funding to support partnership establishment (MacLean et al., 2009); and reviewing promotional criteria to incorporate or at least recognise the different requirements around community collaborative research (Nicotera et al., 2011; Savan et al., 2009).

Other issues relate to the quality of the relationships that are built between academics and community partners. Michele Allen and colleagues (2011) point out the partnerships between researchers and community members/agencies are impacted by: how prepared community partners are to be involved in research; how prepared and motivated academics are to adhere to community participatory research principles; the levels of trust between the partners; and how dynamic and responsive the university’s infrastructure is to deal with the logistics of community-based research. In a quantitative study of 58 community- university research partnerships related to Michigan University, Miles McNall and colleagues (2009) found most of the partners perceived their group dynamics to be effective, but identified a number of areas for improvement related to the sustainability of the partnerships and in some cases a lack of collaboration. They indicated that effective partnerships are associated with: increased focus on community issues, problems or needs; co-creation of knowledge; and shared power and resources. Many of these issues are addressed in the principles that underpin Community-Based Participatory Research (CBPR). Barbara Israel and colleagues (2013) hold that CBPR is research that:

  • 1 acknowledges community as a unit of identity;
  • 2 builds on strengths and resources within the community;
  • 3 facilitates a collaborative, equitable partnership in all phases of research, involving an empowering and power-sharing process that attends to social inequities;
  • 4 fosters co-learning and capacity building among all partners;
  • 5 integrates and achieves a balance between knowledge generation and intervention for the mutual benefit of all partners;
  • 6 focuses on the local relevance of public health problems and on ecological perspectives that attend to the multiple determinants of health;
  • 7 involves systems development using a cyclical and iterative process;
  • 8 disseminates results to all partners and involves them in the wider dissemination of results;
  • 9 involves a long-term process and commitment to sustainability.

While CBPR is a specific form of engaged research that has been derived from a health promotion perspective, CBPR is a form of Participatory Action Research (PAR) and thus most of these principles are applicable to other collaborative engaged research approaches, which adhere more or less to PAR philosophy and processes. Randy Stoecker (2013), an academic who has many years of community-engaged research experience, warns about ‘colonising’ research which he describes as researchers who come into communities and take what they want but give nothing in return. Instead, he sees engaged research as a process of community learning, of knowledge production resulting from action. He acknowledges that while a professional researcher can often come into a community to do the work of diagnosing a problem, prescribing a solution and evaluating the results, engaged research can do so much more and can help build a sense of community so the community recognises its own knowledge in the form of consciousness-raising. It is in this way that communities truly benefit from being involved in collaborative research through increased capacity to identifying creative solutions to community problems. It is this type of research that can contribute to building community resilience.

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