Past Experiences with Research and Researchers
The second area we explored in the interviews was the history of contact with research and researchers experienced by participant groups. We were interested in how frequently communities had participated in university research and what sorts of studies they had taken part in; whether the experience had been good or bad and why; and their ideas for how research could be improved so as to be more participatory and inclusive of communities. The groups we spoke with described a wide range of experiences — from no contact at all with universities to lots of contact; and from extremely negative to extremely positive — and identified numerous barriers to working more collaboratively with universities.
Some of the main findings include:
- Communities’ most frequent encounters with research were via academic research, but they had lots of contact as well with other groups: journalists, government agencies, and advocacy groups. Internal research was also important for many community organizations and activist groups.
- Communities reported more (and frequently more positive) contact with students than with professors. Faculty research tended to be more quantitative and scientific and less directly involved with communities.
- Communities had mixed responses to the question of whether the academic research they had been involved in was participatory or not. Some studies were described as very inclusive in that they treated participants as experts and worked collaboratively with them to produce data that was useful to communities. Other studies were described as more top down, where researchers came in as experts with their own agenda and took what they needed, as opposed to pursuing a reciprocal relationship with community members.
- Most participants reported poor follow-through on academic research. That is, they seldom received or saw the final product of studies conducted in their communities.
- Communities with the greatest need for infrastructure and most excluded from environmental decision-making reported the most limited contact with university research. These communities tended to lump university researchers in with other experts who in their experience came to the community to “talk and talk” but never produce tangible results or benefits for the community. For that reason, these communities expressed a great deal of impatience and frustration with research, instead wanting action or at least evidence that their participation in studies would lead to real change.
- Bad experiences with researchers, including:
- researchers who positioned themselves as experts in relation to communities;
- exclusion of community from research design leading to researchers asking the wrong questions and consequently producing bad or useless data;
- university neglect of communities as resource for, collaborators in, or audience for research, even if working on similar issues as activists;
- one-way or extractive research — researchers who came, took what they needed, and left or researchers who did not provide compensation to communities for their time and effort;
- research corrupted by the corporate university; and
- problems with local institutions in particular.
- Conversely, all good experiences stemmed from universities seeking collaborative relationships with communities and listening to what they needed, wanted to know, and thought should be done. Participants generally felt that this produced a better, more useful end product.
In addition to communities’ positive experiences as participants in research, we were also interested in the experience of communities as users of research — what studies had been useful to communities and how?
- Biggest uses of research were in grantwriting, influencing policy makers, and for purposes of self-education so as to be able to propose further studies or research projects.
- Research produced by government agencies or advocacy organizations and internal research were more frequently utilized than university studies because these sources were perceived as more easily accessible.
- For the most disenfranchised communities, research was less useful or important than gaining political power; these communities frequently voiced their impression that good data or research was irrelevant given that those in power did not listen to them or discounted whatever they said.
Given all these experiences — both good and bad — it is possible to identify multiple barriers to the creation of more participatory relations between communities and universities. Some of the most salient include:
- Lack of continuity in most relationships between universities and communities, leading to a general fragmentation of efforts among activists, communities, and universities
- Burnout among community participants, caused by lack of continuity, that leads researchers to repeat the same questions again and again
- Perception that research is exploitative/extractive — that researchers come in and take what they need without giving back or changing anything
- The institutional politics of research — the perception that research is driven by the very interests activists are attempting to fight
- Institutional norms of insularity — universities being cut off from larger community
- Universities’ lack of accessibility compared to other sources of research/information, especially agencies or advocacy groups