Making Space for Community Learning: Engaged Research with Teacher Aides in Disadvantaged Schools

Kerry Aprile and Helen Huntly

Abstract: Community groups are connected to much larger social, cultural and organisational systems that shape members’ perceptions, identities, roles and capacity to adapt to change. This chapter examines the constraints that social and organisational discourses place on the role perceptions of community groups and their subsequent ability to participate actively in collaborative partnerships in engaged research projects. Using data from one community research project conducted with teacher aides in a regional city in Queensland, significant themes emerge to illustrate the power implications of discourse memberships that threaten to constrain reciprocity and true collaboration between university researchers and communities. This study highlights the importance of engagement strategies that acknowledge and respond to these contextual factors to empower community groups.

Madsen, Wendy, Lynette Costigan, and Sarah McNicol, eds. Community Resilience, Universities and Engaged Research for Today’s World. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. doi: 10.1057/9781137481054.0010.


Contemporary definitions of engaged research assume that universities and communities can achieve a sense of singularity of purpose by nature of the power-sharing processes underpinning these collaborative partnerships. However, Delanty (2003) describes community in multiple rather than singular terms because people play out their lives as members of many different groups which define their identities and behaviour in particular settings. Inevitably then, engaged research activities are tied to contexts that operate within much larger social, cultural and organisational systems where particular community groups construct their identities in relation to the symbolic boundaries that set them apart from other groups (Cohen, 1985). These socially constructed sets of meanings, or discourses as they are commonly termed in the literature, have power implications because they are connected to particular possibilities for acting in the world (Burr, 2003). Engaged research aspires to address such social inequities through a process of knowledge exchange that recognises and validates the contribution of local community knowledge in responding to real-world challenges and adaptations to change. However, the review of literature presented in Chapter 1 (Madsen & Chesham, 2015) suggests that the process of nurturing or eliciting this type of adaptive capacity is a challenging one when engaging with community groups that position themselves as passive actors in relation to other more powerful groups.

This chapter reflects on participant perspectives of the boundaries that signify their membership of particular communities and the implications these role perceptions have for engaged community and partnership development work. These reflections have particular significance for recognising the discourses that constrain the resilience or adaptive capacity of particular groups within large social and organisational systems. Subsequently, this chapter challenges the notion that passivity resides within a particular community group by showing how the characteristics of context shaped the role perceptions and behaviours of participants in one engaged research project conducted in the regional city of Bundaberg, Australia. Examination of these concepts highlights implications for establishing effective community-university partnerships that must take account of contextual factors if relationships based on knowledge-sharing, reciprocity and capacity building are to be achieved.

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