Seven issues in community-based research practice – Part 1

Daniel Reeders writes social marketing and public health strategy for a living.  He writes a blog, Bad Blood, about stigma and public health, and tweets as @onekind, for fun.

He has a Bachelor of Arts/Bachelor of Laws (Melbourne) and is currently enrolled in a Masters in Public Health at a university he prefers not to name in case he decides to write about it. His ORCID is 0000-0002-4876-7900

Safety first (Photo by Tseen Khoo)
Safety first (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

I got started in community-based research more or less by accident. I had always used interviews and focus groups as a social marketer in HIV prevention, but I could see neglected issues in my field of practice that seemed to warrant in-depth investigation.

They involved personally catastrophic but fairly uncommon events in small groups, such as HIV infection among gay and bisexual men from migrant and refugee backgrounds.

Survey and statistical methods can’t get much purchase on rare events in small groups of vulnerable people, but funders and service providers were nonetheless waiting for what they considered ‘real’ research to quantify the issue before taking action.

I wanted to break this impasse, even if it meant producing research that doesn’t count as ‘evidence’. Something is better than nothing, right?*

I applied for funding, got it, and wrote a research plan involving focus groups, in-depth interviews, literature review and consultation. I had no postgraduate research qualifications at the time, and I was working within the ‘DIY social research’ (Wadsworth, 2011) tradition, also known as action research, which has a strong history in my sector (community health).

A second tradition involves HDR-qualified researchers employed to conduct social research in settings not organised around that purpose – such as in social policy or social justice organisations or health and community services providers.

Community-based research is common in these settings. Human services work is constituted by knowledge practices, and community-based research translates community and practitioner knowledge into ‘evidence’, needed for planning, funding and advocacy. The rigour and reliability of the outputs vary enormously between and within organisations.

Some years down the track, I’m keen to pose some questions about it based on my experience in a variety of projects. This is a personal account based on things that went awry in my work. I have listed a couple of dot points on practical steps readers might consider to manage the risks I encountered, in case you are contemplating or currently working in a community-based research role.

I’m grateful to the RW team for the opportunity to share these reflections on this blog. I’m also keen to hear other experiences and perspectives of this form of research practice, either in the comments or by e-mail.

A quick note: I never write or blog about my current place of work, and I’d encourage commenters to de-identify your own places of work.

1. Supervision

At first I got lucky – my supervisor was an inspiring woman who intuitively grasped the issue, respected my passion, and was herself completing a PhD thesis in social research at the time. I didn’t realise how lucky I was until she left.

For your own sanity and productivity, in a community-based research role, you really need a manager who can read an incomplete draft and understands the emotional work involved in the writing process. Watch out for ‘I don’t want to see it until it’s done!’ – to paraphrase the popular disclaimer, that’s a ‘no care, all responsibility’ approach.

  • Prevent: ask in job interviews ‘how do you feel about reading drafts?’
  • Mitigate: seek external supervision with someone who understands the writing process.

2. Ethics

There is a lack of structures and policies supporting ethical research practice in many community organisations. Frankly, it’s a mess.

One organisation I worked for had a research ethics committee – but it did not oversee projects initiated within the organisation. Another org had no ethics committee but did have an information privacy and retention policy – that applied only to clinical records.

At one org, when I left, a colleague made a concerted appeal to our boss to get access to audio recordings of in-depth interviews I had done. On leaving another, I carefully detailed my ethics process and agreements with my respondents in the hand-over process – only to find them breached within weeks of leaving.

  • Manage: you’ll need to consciously recreate many of the taken-for-granted processes that encourage ethical research practice in academic settings.

The up-side is that you may wind up with a more engaged and practical understanding of ethics issues and principles. A reference group can provide timely and ongoing oversight, not just at the start of the project or when contacted to review a change of protocol.

You can learn a lot from how experienced practitioners recognise and deal with issues of autonomy, integrity, authenticity, beneficence and privacy in their everyday work – a concern for what Paul Komesaroff (2008) calls ‘microethics’.

A challenge is that in your heightened attention to these issues, you may notice how often they are overlooked in routinized service provision as well.

  • Manage: reflective practice and external supervision (or community of practice) can be essential to manage the tension between your critical vocation and needing to keep working in organisational settings that ‘push your buttons’ around values/ethics.

3. Discipline

By ‘discipline’ I mean the field you trained in. Disciplines still exist in community-based practice, but the differences are a lot cruder, less granular, and they are generally not surfaced for negotiation; they play out in hierarchical power relations instead.

Clinical dominates social. Quantitative dominates qualitative. Funder dominates funded.** Practical dominates theoretical.

  • Mitigate: often, you can still incorporate the values and methods of your background, but you may need to articulate them in language more familiar to your stakeholders.

In this work, over time, you develop a repertoire of ‘bridging’ concepts and statements. For example, I frequently invoke Social Cognitive Theory to bring cultural and social theories into conversation with the individualism of the psychological models that dominate my field.

At other times – when your research findings suggest part of the problem is how it is seen – you may need to negotiate permission to include critical language and theory.

  • Manage: write a glossary and executive summary and ‘take home points’ in plain English; use an online tool like Readability-Score, iteratively, to reduce the density of your text; extensively ‘signpost’ what you’re doing; use document structure to separate out the ‘scary’ bits (appendices are your friend).

Although it’s more difficult, I think it’s worth doing. As a practitioner, I can’t place any weight on ‘research’ that doesn’t show any sign of reflection on ‘how we know what we know’.


Next week: PART 2 – The tricky issues of ownership, methodology, independence and resources.



* That was my thinking at the time – I now believe there’s nothing better than good, careful qualitative research to illuminate the causation of this particular type of problem.

** This wasn’t the case in our project, because we had a staggeringly good funding person, who had years of experience in working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.  She fought for our project right up until the day she took a redundancy package.


Other relevant RW posts:

  1. Community House Rules – Part 1 (Melissa Phillips)
  2. Community House Rules – Part 2 (Melissa Phillips)


  1. It’s rare to read an honest post about community based practice/participatory research, especially qualitative research. Although there are issues, the rich and relevant data which emerges is worth it. I’m looking forward to the next post.


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