University-Community Engagement: A grid-group analysis

David Low


University-community engagement involves complex issues, entangling multiple and interacting points of view, all of which operate in a wider dynamic evolving social environment. For this reason, there is often disagreement about why engagement is necessary or desirable, and whether there is one optimal method to practice it. To address this issue, I argue that university-community engagement can be examined as a form of enquiry. In this view, engagement is viewed as a system that arises through the recognition of the dissent it embodies. As such, enquiry functions to process disagreements into diverse methods of communication.

Most of the disagreements utilised by universities are derived from external sources, thus university-based enquiry must necessarily involve a dialogue with a broader community or environment. In this sense, university-community engagement can be viewed most generally as a method that processes disagreements into shared understandings through enquiry.

To demonstrate how university-community engagement functions from an enquiry point of view, I use Mary Douglas’ grid-group diagramming method to develop a critical typology for classifying university-community engagement. My modified grid-group diagram provides a structured typological space within which four distinct methods of university-community engagement can be identified and discussed – both in relation to their internal communicational characteristics, and in relation to each other.

The university-engagement grid-group diagram is constructed by locating each of Douglas’ four quadrants within Charles Peirce’s four methods of enquiry. Peirce’s work is introduced because each of his four methods of enquiry deals specifically with how disagreements are processed and resolved. When Peirce’s methods for fixing belief are located in Douglas’ grid-group diagram, they create a sense-making framework for university-community engagement. It is argued that the model offers a heuristic structure through which to view the diversity of university-community engagement and create shared understandings of the appropriateness of a wide range of possible engagement methods.

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