Empowering communities: the case of participatory research

indexI started this 3rd workshop with knowing only action research as an exemplar of participatory research. Upon doing the workshop activities, I am pleasantly surprised that this method has similar vein to my research. Participatory research is an umbrella term for different kinds of research partnership between researchers and the subjects. I am particularly sold to the notion of community partnership research (CPR) that is proposed by Sue McKemmish (my lecturer for this workshop) and her colleagues.

CPR puts away the dichotomy between researchers and the subjects. Instead, it focuses on how planning, conduct, and reporting of research is a shared responsibility between researchers and participants. Thus, research objectives, data collection techniques, and even publication of results entail collective ownership by both parties as a team.

Within this collective ownership, researchers and the subjects collaborate based on their expertise. For instance, the researchers with their skills in conducting academic research can complement subject matter expertise that is held by the subjects. The main goal of this type of partnership is generally around the notion of empowerment for the research partners (e.g. communities).

This type of partnership is really neat, I think, because of the collaborative nature.

However, it is precisely this same reason that will put CPR (or participatory research in general) to criticism.

When the researchers and subjects are intertwined and combined to one entity, it is then difficult to distinguish research from action. In other words, it is hard to determine what is the phenomena being studied, and what is the result of the investigation of the phenomena. I had this thinking confirmed when I talked with my supervisor about the possibility of using participatory action research for my study. She also felt that it is problematic to tease out the pre- and post-intervention phenomena in the context of my study.

My research aims to investigate how social media is used in building community resilience. In particular, I’d like to examine a few community groups in Indonesia which have been using social media extensively.  Note that I don’t have yet the intention to ’empower’ these community groups through the use of social media. That is because they have been active and using social media a lot. So, I don’t think I can offer something new to those particular community groups that are going to be the site of my case studies.

Instead, I envision my empirical findings to be useful for other community groups that are not currently active on using social media (which most likely are not going to be selected for my case studies). So, knowledge and lesson learned from the more active community groups will be transferred to the less active community groups through my research.

In this line of thinking, the empowerment message is not directed to the communities that are going to be the partner in my research. This, of course, can change during the course of my research later on.

But, there is another concern that may hinder the application of CPR or PR in my research.

In participatory research (CPR included), the research objectives are co-constructed between researchers and the partners (i.e., communities). This can work well only if there was early engagement between the researchers and partners. In some cases, even the researchers are the subjects or (at least part of) the subjects of the research. This idea, thus, involves double hermeneutic in ways of collecting and analysing data. One of the most commonly applied research techniques in this context is auto-ethnography.

I want to conduct my case study based on two community groups, (1) Indonesia Urban Farming; and (2) Bike2Work Indonesia. Yes, I have been supporting Bike2Work and joining their events here and there back home, but I am clearly an outsider to these communities. I don’t even know who the community leaders are, let alone their agenda in making these communities grow.

So, coming off cold calls to these communities and then offering them a chance to get empowered through social media is almost nonsensical. It is not impossible, but it is clearly over the top for now. I would need to get to know the community leaders before and immerse in their activities before able to come up with an idea of empowerment. And this is impractical for the time being, as I need to do my confirmation in less than 6 month time.

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