Caught up in Power

Exploring discursive frictions in community research

Cindy Hanson
Adeyemi Ogunade

University of Regina

Gateways: International Journal of Community Research and Engagement
Vol 9/No 1 (2016)

© 2016 by C Hanson & A Ogunade. This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 Unported (CC BY 4.0) License (, allowing third parties to copy and redistribute the material in any medium or format and to remix, transform, and build upon the material for any purpose, even commercial, provided the original work is properly cited and states its license.

Citation: Hanson, C & Ogunade, A 2016, ‘Caught up in power: Exploring discursive frictions in community research’, Gateways: International Journal of Community Research and Engagement, vol. 9, no. 1, pp. 41–57. doi: 10.5130/ijcre.v9i1.4729

Corresponding author: Cindy Hanson;


ISSN 1836-3393

Published by UTS ePRESS

Community-based research (CBR) is a preferred approach to conducting research that affects disenfranchised groups because of its egalitarian tenets and its emphasis on building partnerships between the researcher and the community. Strand et al. (2003) characterise CBR as a collaborative engagement between academic researchers and the community that endorses multiple sources of knowledge and has as its goal the pursuit of social justice. Over the past decade, the promotion and practice of CBR have significantly increased, not just in the health research domain from which it emerged, but in other areas of inquiry as well. The view that CBR engages ‘marginalised community residents as valued participants in decision-making and community solution-building processes around issues that concern their lives’ (Jacobson & Rugeley 2007, p. 22) has led many researchers to adopt this approach without considering and negotiating the contradictions, or frictions, that may arise in CBR. When these contradictions, which we refer to as discursive frictions, are not considered within the research project, they can hinder, truncate or subvert the emancipatory potential of the CBR project. Murphy (2012, p. 2) suggests that discursive frictions are ‘tensions that can arise when various national, social, organizational, and individual cultural differences materialize in our everyday discourse and practices’. He suggests that tensions privilege certain knowledge and create inequitable power relations. To ensure CBR projects are ethical and effectively achieve their goals of social justice and social change, it is necessary not just to detail the pitfalls of adopting CBR uncritically, but also to highlight the pervasiveness of power asymmetries in CBR relationships and suggest ways that the negative effects of power asymmetries may be mitigated by adopting participatory methodologies rooted in Foucauldian thinking.

Consequently, the purpose of this article is to detail some of the dangers inherent in uncritical CBR practice, highlight the pervasiveness of power asymmetries in CBR relationships, and explore how Foucault’s notions of power can be used to interrogate how CBR partnerships function and how they might be challenged through participatory methodologies to achieve more sustainable and ethical results in research practice. The first section of the article reviews studies that highlight the significant harm that may result from adopting a CBR approach without addressing discursive frictions. It also makes a case for additional theorising on CBR processes prior to practice. Here we argue that, when a discursive friction occurs, it neither sustains oppressive power structures, as Janes (2016) suggests, nor is it inherently emancipatory as many CBR scholars indicate. The next section considers Foucault’s notion of power and how it applies to discursive frictions in CBR. Notably, these notions of power and truth in community-university relationships also illustrate how institutional and community pressures create irreconcilable conundrums for academic researchers. We then discuss researcher/community relationships in CBR from an adult education perspective, with the goal of better understanding the role discursive frictions play in CBR practice. Next we examine how discursive frictions play out in different relationships in specific CBR projects to illustrate Foucault’s notion of the pervasiveness of power in CBR relationships and highlight the need to ethically address discursive frictions that occur as a result of power relations. Finally, we discuss how participatory methodologies prominent in adult education might be used to address certain discursive frictions and further facilitate ethical CBR research practice.


Despite the positive depictions of CBR, some researchers have started questioning the veracity of the emancipatory claims of CBR set forth by early proponents of this research approach (Guta, Flicker & Roche 2013; Janes 2016; Stoecker 2009). The emancipatory claims can be challenged when power asymmetries and discursive frictions are scrutinised. Power asymmetries refer to differences or imbalances in power among participants in CBR projects, made evident by prominent binary subjectivities in CBR such as the academic researcher/community researcher binary and the community researcher/community member binary. Discursive frictions refer to the ‘tensions that can arise when various national, social, organizational, and individual cultural differences materialize in our everyday discourse and practices, often privileging, but at times shifting traditional, colonial, and postcolonial power relations’ (Murphy 2012, p. 2). Discursive frictions arise as a result of power asymmetries in CBR partnerships. They can impact the outcome of research because they reinforce existing power asymmetries or, conversely, produce new power relations that can advance community goals and social justice. Discursive frictions can also highlight inconsistencies in CBR theory and practice and paradoxes in academic-researcher relationships.

Janes (2016) provides one of very few studies to theorise about how power asymmetries within CBR projects promote academic epistemic privilege and truncate the emancipatory potential of CBR. Janes (2016, p. 76) troubles the emancipatory claims of CBR and notes that it is ‘deeply contextual, inevitable and uneven, not easily manipulated yet still dynamic’. She questions the material practice in CBR by academic researchers of ‘giving up’ power and ‘taking up’ new subject positions, and suggests that this practice is used to co-opt the voice and knowledge of the community by reinscribing academic privilege to the academic in the production of knowledge. Guta, Flicker and Roche (2013) explore the disconnect that exists between the stated emancipatory goals of CBR projects and practices that inadvertently advance oppressive neoliberal agendas. They identify the process of community ‘capacity-building’ that involves finding the ‘right’ community members to train, to help achieve the goals of the research project, as a technology of governance that reshapes community life by differentiating between community members who can do research and those who cannot. This artificial divide empowers those community members trained to conduct research with the right to speak for the entire community, invariably usurping pre-existing power structures in the community, which may be detrimental to community relationships. This fracturing of the community is more paternalistic than emancipatory and raises questions about the veracity of the claims of CBR. Conflicting claims about CBR means that more sustained theorising is needed to better understand how CBR works, what role power asymmetries play in CBR, and under what social, political and economic conditions its emancipatory potential can be realised. Situating power asymmetries and discursive frictions in CBR is crucial, because it addresses under what material conditions discursive frictions yield positive outcomes for the community. Theorising about power asymmetries and, specifically, discursive frictions offers a unique perspective that frames CBR as part of a dialectical continuum in the history and politics of community engagement that is neither inherently emancipatory nor repressive. This perspective offers the opportunity to critically examine CBR praxis on a case-by-case basis.


Power plays an important role in defining human relationships. It is defined simply as the ability to influence or impact the actions of others. Numerous scholars have theorised about power, but the thoughts of Michel Foucault stand out because they signal a departure from modernist notions of power (Mansfield 2000). Foucault posits that power is neither a commodity nor solely embodied in a person, institution or structure to be used for organisational or individual purposes. Foucault (1980, p. 98) notes that power ‘is never localized here or there, never in anybody’s hands, never appropriated as a commodity or piece of wealth’. Rather, power is relational and circulates within human relations.

Power for Foucault is not inert in human relations, but individuals ‘are always in the position of simultaneously undergoing and exercising power’ (Foucault 1980, p. 98). It is within the fluid exertions of human relationships that power becomes apparent, constantly shaping and reshaping truth, knowledge, identity, and ultimately human relationships themselves. Power is constantly at play in human relationships and becomes evident in what is acknowledged as truth/s, the knowledge held valid, and the social systems that enshrine order in human relations. In this regard, Foucault (1978, p. 92) noted that:

Power must be understood … as the multiplicity of force relations immanent in the sphere in which they operate and which constitute their own organization; as the process which, through ceaseless struggles and confrontations, transforms, strengthens, or reverses them; as the support which these force relations find in one another, thus forming a chain or a system, … whose general design or institutional crystallization is embodied in the state apparatus, in the formulation of the law, in the various social hegemonies.

Thus, for Foucault (1980), the identity and characteristics of an individual in society are produced and reproduced by relations of power exercised over bodies, multiplicities, movements, desires and forces. For instance, Janes (2016) indicates that in the relationship between the academic researcher and the community, the academic researcher can co-opt the voice of the community, thus exerting power over the voices or ideas from the community and, ultimately, the material practices of the community. Here power is used to create a new regime of truth and meaning which can either facilitate community cohesiveness or serve to advance only the agenda of the researcher or, alternatively, both of these. According to Foucault, power is not just a negative, coercive force, but also a creative force that produces knowledge. Power in this sense is made tangible by the knowledge it creates. Foucault, as cited in St Pierre (2000, p. 496), states that ‘power and knowledge directly imply one another; there is no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does not presuppose and constitute at the same time power relations’. For Foucault, the workings of power and knowledge are so interconnected that it becomes impossible to think of one without the other. This is because ‘the exercise of power itself creates and causes to emerge new objects of knowledge and accumulates new bodies of information … the exercise of power perpetually creates knowledge and, conversely, knowledge constantly induces effects of power’ (Foucault 1980, p. 52). Power is thus seen as being ‘produced in everyday practices of gestures, actions, and discourse’ (Hall 1989 cited in Murphy 2012, p. 4). Power, therefore, plays a significant role in CBR because it shapes the relationships, actions and discourses that are being investigated.

The post-structural notion of discourse refers to ‘a way of reasoning (form of logic), with certain truth effects through its impact on practice, anchored in a particular vocabulary that constitutes a particular version of the social world’ (Sveningsson & Alvesson 2003, p. 1171). This depiction of discourse highlights its political nature and indicates that discourses only represent a particular version of reality. The political nature of discourse implies that discourses are always tied to the interests of a particular group of people who see things in a particular way. Discourses are thus never neutral, but are tied to interests of those in power and generally define the limits of intelligibility in a given situation. This post-structural truism means that both discourse and groups who participate in shaping discourse wield tremendous power/knowledge in that they can proscribe or enable certain thoughts and actions. In this sense, discourses are seen as productive in post-structuralism because they work ‘in a very material way through social institutions to construct realities that control both the actions and bodies of peoples’ (St Pierre 2000, p. 486).


Through a Foucauldian theoretical lens, it appears that the seemingly mundane interactions between the academic researcher and communities are steeped in expressions of power that impact the trajectory of CBR projects. For example, a study by Nation et al. (2011) suggests that whoever initiates a CBR partnership, whether it is the academic researcher or community members, plays an important role in framing the discourse, defining the limits of intelligibility within the project, and ultimately determining what success means for the CBR project. They suggest that the initiator of the CBR partnership typically has privileged knowledge of the issue to be investigated and is in a better position to dictate research objectives, make administrative decisions, determine data gathering and analysis techniques, and ultimately frame the discourse around such an issue. In this instance, the power to initiate a CBR partnership is facilitated by the knowledge of problems of import that can be funded and access to information about how to obtain funding to investigate these problems, highlighting the subtle nexus between power and knowledge. Thus, though the goal of CBR is often to address issues facing marginalised communities, the power asymmetries between the researcher and the community may lead to exploitative discourses remaining unchallenged.

As adult educators, we are reminded that a major contribution of critical adult education to CBR is the role of adult education in advancing community learning and personal or social transformation aimed at serving social justice practices (Ewert & Grace 2000; Welton 2013). Key to adult education is attention to, and discussion of, the experiences of the learners. Extending this idea to communities involves attention to the relationship between the adult educator/facilitator and people-centred ideas. Schenck, Nel and Louw (2010, p. 133) suggest that facilitating community practices includes understanding of oneself as a facilitator, having connections with the community, understanding the broad context of the community and its strengths, providing opportunities for the community to get to know the facilitator, and a period of discovery for the community to assess its situation and its social assets. There are frequently discrepancies, however, in the intention and the practice of facilitation. As Groot and Maarleveld (2000, p. 5) explain, facilitation is often focused on techniques and tools and thus, ‘the underlying diversity in intentions, epistemological, and theoretical assumptions underpinning facilitation practices usually remain implicit and unclear’. This can intentionally or not determine ‘“who” participates in “what” [way], “how”, “when” and, very importantly, “why”’ (Groot & Maarleveld 2000, p. 190). Therefore, in order to work with community perspectives in adult learning, there needs to be a conscientious effort to understand diverse positions and subjectivities – in the community as well as in the research process.

CBR, like other fields of knowledge, is a product of pervasive power relations or asymmetries. The desire of the academic community to be more involved in real-world problems like addressing health disparities has resulted in community-based projects which morph into CBR (Israel et al. 1998). By getting involved in communities through CBR, academics bring to bear power in the form of their status and resources, while the community also exercises power in the form of control of the research site. This invariably creates discursive frictions that represent a dialectic process from which community development emerges. The critique of CBR practices offered by Janes (2016) suggests that the re-inscription of academic privilege in knowledge production in CBR positions the community as different and, subsequently, subordinates the community’s interests to academic interests. However, this is not necessarily the case in all CBR projects. A Foucauldian interpretation of power suggests that both the academic and the community exercise power in CBR relationships and that the outcome of the project is a product of a dialectic process in which discursive frictions produce a denouement acceptable to both the researcher and the community, given extant power asymmetries. Consequently, community-based researchers need to know that CBR practice is never outside of power asymmetries and understand under what material conditions discursive frictions yield positive outcomes for the community. This requires that researchers understand how to facilitate discursive frictions when they occur. Later in this article we explore examples of adult education and participatory methodologies that may help CBR practitioners facilitate discursive frictions among adults in CBR projects. Most of these are from our own practice as researchers in the field of adult education and as academics concerned with dynamics between universities and communities. First, however, we consider two examples of CBR partnerships in which discursive frictions frequently arise.

Discursive Frictions in Academic Researcher-Community Partnerships

The relationship between the academic researcher and the community is a key part of CBR and in many regards can be considered the driving force behind its emergence as the preferred approach to dealing with marginalised communities. Ideally in CBR partnerships, research does not just occur in a community as a place or site for gathering data, but rather community members are actively involved in all stages of the research process from determining the issue to be investigated to the dissemination of results. However, some studies indicate that the relationship between the academy and the community is particularly susceptible to discursive frictions that are a product of power asymmetries (Murphy 2012; Nation et al. 2011).

In Nation et al (2011), the power relationship between the academic researcher and the community is examined to highlight how the method of power sharing plays a central role in determining the kind of engagement that occurs during CBR projects. The study found that in community-initiated CBR projects, where the community is organised and initiates the partnership with academic researchers on a predetermined issue, ‘communities tend to have the most power’ (Nation et al., p. 91). They note that academic researchers may have to negotiate aspects of the project, such as the choice of methodology, which changes their role when compared to traditional or university-orchestrated research and makes the research project more emancipatory for the community, but more problematic for the researcher. Academic researchers here are forced to relinquish their privileged position in knowledge production, give up control of the leading role in the research process and assume more of a pragmatic participant role in the research project, as opposed to being a facilitator of key issues. On the other hand, Nation et al. notes that in situations where academic researchers develop the research agenda and determine the issues before collaborating with the community, the researchers hold most of the power. It then becomes difficult to share ownership of the project and meaningfully engage members of the community because the academic researchers have predetermined goals and they may not have the same interests as the community. This could lead to the project being largely researcher driven and issues that concern the community may be ignored in favour of the researcher’s academic interests or demands of funders. Likewise, institutional pressures on academics to meet funding deadlines and to write peer-reviewed publications sometimes puts academic researchers in a conundrum with communities – one where the commitment of the academics appears to be in conflict.

A case study of an international CBR partnership between US government sponsored academics (USACAD) and a Kenyan non-governmental organisation (KNGO) in Murphy (2012) highlights how power and knowledge are interconnected, diffuse, non-linear and complex, and constantly being exercised by both partners in the CBR relationship ‘from innumerable points, in the interplay of non-egalitarian and mobile relations’ (Foucault 1978, p. 94). The study details the attempt to establish a program that would help build the KNGO’s capacity to implement family-based curricula on HIV/AIDS. Members of the USACAD team found it difficult to get a timely response from the KNGO team regarding items to be included on the agenda for a training workshop. The key issue causing tension was whether the teams would include references to anal sex as a means of transmitting HIV/AIDS on the agenda of the training program. The KNGO team eventually responded to the USACAD team’s requests, but the agenda sent to the American team turned out to be radically different from what they had expected. In this case, reference to anal sex leading to the transmission of HIV/AIDS was removed from the agenda. This led to discursive frictions between the teams, with USACAD claiming that their position was scientifically backed, while the KNGO team refuted their claim, noting that the supposedly dominant scientific position ‘promoted homosexuality’ and contravened the religious, cultural and political beliefs of the Kenyan people. Thus:

While the KNGO, as the south partner, is placed positionally as the partner ‘in need’, they continually exercise power based on their cultural knowledge and expertise. In this example, the U.S. partners’ strategies to use/impose a particular knowledge system and language practice were rerouted to accommodate Kenyan cultural norms. And numerous attempts at negotiating ways to overtly connect certain sexual practices and HIV/AIDS transmission through the USACAD’s direct communication style were met with a respectful silence (Murphy 2012, p.10).

By remaining silent and refusing to compromise on certain language, the KNGO group exerted power in the relationship, despite the fact that the American team funded the partnership. This case highlights the Foucauldian notion of power being diffuse and continually being (re)negotiated in relationships (Foucault 1980). The ‘USCAD may have the technical knowledge and control the economic power (they secured the U.S. funded grant), however, KNGO has the practical knowledge and controls the local cultural power’ (Murphy 2012, p. 10) that in turn allowed the Kenyan team to control the discourse about HIV/AIDS transmission. The fact that power is relational makes it malleable and allows for all participants in such relations to exert some control over others in CBR partnerships.

Discursive Frictions in Intra-Community Partnerships in CBR

During CBR projects, discursive frictions occur not only between academic researchers and community partners, but also among various community partners (Cullen et al. 2013; Nation et al. 2011). Communities are not monoliths and there are ‘several community constituencies who both contribute and (at times) compete to influence the project. Because of this, many of the issues that develop are not tensions between the community partners and the researchers, but instead among community partners’ (Nation et al. 2011, p. 95). This can create additional tensions for the researcher.

Discursive frictions within communities speak to the Foucauldian notion of power being relational and exercised even within supposedly familial community relations. Power pervades communal relations where competing interests arise that impact the outcome of the CBR study. For instance, equity-seeking groups within a community may feel less inclined to participate in a CBR project if the views of other community partners dominate the research. Academic researchers can find it difficult to navigate a scenario where community partners have opposing interests and want to influence research outcomes to suit their interests. Janes (2016) suggests that academics attempt to avoid the messiness of conflict within the community by presenting an image of a unified community in research findings, whereas acknowledging conflicts within communities may be more beneficial. Although presenting a unified story may assure easier take-up of results, such a coherent truth ignores the diversity of community perspectives. Multi-perspectives instead create a multifaceted interpretation of results and help researchers avoid meta-narratives.

A CBR study of ways to improve natural resource management (NRM) in the highlands of Ethiopia by Cullen et al. (2013) indicates that it is indeed precarious for academic researchers to navigate the power dynamics in a community with different factions and competing interests. The study illustrates that, even within innovative community-based partnerships with commonly agreed upon issues to be studied, the views of more powerful members of the community tend to dominate, further marginalising weaker members of the community. In this case, the views of government partners were being advanced over and above the views of farmers in the community. Even though government representatives and farmers in the community ideally ought to share common interests, the study revealed that government representatives had longer term goals while farmers in the community had goals that addressed more immediate material needs. Further, it assumed that the farmers were a homogenous group with common goals. A study by Hanson and Matheos (2007), which initially exhibited similar dynamics, later used tactics foundational to critical adult education and agriculture extension work to challenge the way knowledge was being presented and to include the knowledge of multiple farmers. The researchers insisted on interviewing female farmers and farmers who were not considered model farmers by the government. The knowledge from this group demonstrated the lack of homogenous thought in the process and demonstrated that the knowledge of the farmers was as valid and relevant as that of the extension workers employed by the government, despite the fact that this farmer group was systematically ignored in most cases.

Differences in power between groups within a community at times influence whose knowledge is adopted and shared in the CBR project. In Cullen et al (2013, p. 83), ‘initially farmer knowledge was not valued during platform discussions. During early platform meetings, decision-makers frequently complained about farmer ignorance of key issues, their lack of knowledge of natural resource management, backward or inappropriate farming practices and short-term visions. This did not create a favorable environment for the sharing of farmer knowledge and represented a major barrier to innovation’. This example illustrates that, even within communities, power differences exist and these differences are played out in ways that may hamper the dissemination of knowledge, thus perpetuating discourses that undermine the interests of marginalised groups and advance the interests of community members in positions of power. However, the use of innovative participatory facilitation techniques like participatory video helped the community in this case ‘identify and prioritise problems faced by previously marginalised farmers situated across the landscape and helped achieve a more balanced representation of issues’ (p. 82). The link between power and knowledge was made evident in this case as the knowledge of farmers was initially ignored because they lacked the formal education and credentials of government officials that would give them the power to make decisions of import to the CBR project.

In the next section we explore some adult education and participatory facilitation methods that have been used to foster inclusiveness, trust and respect both between academic researchers and communities and within the community in CBR projects, which may help facilitate discursive frictions when they occur.


Participatory research and facilitation methods are useful in addressing power differentials in CBR because participatory approaches are inherently political and aimed at addressing discrepancies in power. This section focuses on such methods, drawing on examples in the fields of health and adult learning. While there are obvious exceptions to these approaches in practice, we believe the studies presented here may open up discussion on facilitation, power asymmetries and discursive frictions in CBR.

Story Circle Discussion Groups

Hanson (2015), for example, wrote the results of her study on intergenerational learning in Indigenous textiles well aware of taken-for-granted knowledge results that could emerge due to academic privilege in the project. She therefore included measures in the design of the study to address the academic researcher/community power asymmetry and preconceived ideas that emerged from this privilege. Her study used arts-based story circle discussion groups to explore intergenerational learning in Indigenous contexts in Northern Canada and Southern Chile. Inspired by the work of Lavallée (2009), who used Anishnaabe symbol-based reflection as part of an arts-based research approach that emphasised storytelling and community engagement, Hanson invited the study participants to bring artifacts from their textile practice (the study participants engaged in beading and weaving practices that were passed between generations) to the group. The items were used to trigger memories about how the women had learned to weave or bead. The methodology illustrated multiple understandings of what was considered a single concept. As the women spoke in turn around the circle, the items came to represent memories that privileged oral tradition and the stories upon which the reciprocal relationship between the teller and listener was premised – something advocated in Indigenous research methodologies (Chilisa 2012; Lavallée 2009). The method also encouraged participants to engage through creative approaches that connected with memory, personal narratives and collective histories. Although initially several generalisations about the participants’ experience were made, the local collaborators and community coordinators reminded the researcher that not all communities had equal histories in this work and challenged the way the results had been generalised. The challenge for the researcher was to give breadth to the interpretations by involving other community members in decisions around how the data would be interpreted. The ensuing discussion was ultimately richer and more varied as a result.

Also significant for this study and Indigenous methodologies was the way knowledge sharing was built into the study. The study participants were asked how they wanted to share the results of the study. The study participants in Canada requested an exhibition of their beading at an art gallery and the study participants in Chile asked for a book about the study to be published (see Hanson, Bedgoni & Fox Griffith 2015). These demands ultimately extended the outcomes of the study to a broader audience, and the reciprocal nature of the process allowed for greater ownership of the results by the study participants themselves. In sharing the paradoxes inherent in the process, however, it is appropriate to mention that, during at least one academic review, the study was critiqued for not producing sufficient peer-reviewed publications. Ironically, the value of the community-driven materials for knowledge mobilisation was muted by the academic pressure for peer-reviewed publications, ultimately privileging certain forms of knowledge sharing and dominant research positions.


Another facilitation approach that has gained prominence in the literature is the use of photo-voice as a means of bringing to the fore the voice, experiences, knowledge and narratives of marginalised groups (Becker et al. 2014; Castelden, Garvin & Huu-ay-aht First Nation 2008; True, Rigg & Butler 2015). Photo-voice is an advocacy and research technique that sets out to influence systems and policies by using ‘photographic images taken by persons with little money, power, or status to enhance community needs assessment, empower participants, and induce change by informing policy makers of community assets and deficits’ (Strack, Magill & McDonagh 2004, p. 49). Catalani and Minkler (2010, p. 438) ‘note that photo-voice projects consist of an iterative cycle that involves photo assignments, community members taking photographs, and engaging in critical group discussions on photographs they see as relevant’. They also note that during this iterative cycle, community members assume more control of the research process because they decide what issues are highlighted in the photographs and how these issues ought to be interpreted. Photo-voice also uses the stories behind each photograph as research material or text, which is analysed by participants and researchers as data and used to arrive at findings. Since the photo-voice process demands active participation of community members, it allows for participants to productively contest power in the community-based research process and actively strive for the subtle balance between community and academic interests. One key feature of the photo-voice process is that it emphasises community action in the form of exhibits of photographs, accompanied by narratives that illustrate the views, concerns and experiences of the community. This research outcome is critical because it helps facilitate the changes the community needs. These exhibits achieve this goal by offering an ‘opportunity for participants to directly communicate with influential people, to creatively express their concerns, and to become further engaged in efforts to address these concerns’ (Catalani & Minkler 2010, p. 438).

Thus, a key outcome of photo-voice research is that it offers an avenue for the community’s voice to be heard by people in positions of power and influence, who can make the desired change in policy to address the community’s needs. This action-oriented outcome of photo-voice makes it particularly useful in CBR because it not only helps foster community self-determination, but also places power squarely in the hands of the community, thus embodying the egalitarian ideals CBR is founded on. The following studies illustrate the effectiveness of the photo-voice method in power redistribution and in addressing discursive frictions and the needs of participants by facilitating change.

True, Rigg and Butler (2015) set out to explore the barriers to adequate mental health care for recent war veterans using the photo-voice technique. Participants in the study were veterans who served in Iraq. Beyond exploring the barriers to mental health care among veterans, the study set out to generate suggestions on how to improve ‘patient-centered post-deployment care that [is] informed by the real-world experiences of veterans’ (True, Rigg & Butler 2015, p. 1443) and communicate these suggestions to influential health-care providers and policy-makers to effect change. Generating dialogue between veterans on the one hand and health-care providers and policy-makers on the other was critical in this project because it was seen as an effective intervention to enhance mental health care delivery. The researchers indicate that the photo-voice technique proved to be useful in creating dialogue with participants because it ceded control of data gathering to the participants and allowed participants the freedom to explore narratives they considered important, as opposed to narratives researchers and policy-makers thought were important. The use of photo-voice initiated a dialogue between veterans, policy-makers and health-care providers involved in Veterans Administration Health Services, and this led to substantive recommendations to change the approach to mental health care for veterans. The photo-voice technique also helped both participants and researchers to explore traumatic experiences in a way that alleviated the discursive frictions that could have arisen.

Another study by Becker et al. (2014) offers some insight into how a photo-voice project was used to create a curriculum that teaches researchers to effectively use the technique to effect change. The study sheds light on the experiences of researchers and participants in a Wyoming photo-voice project. In this project, photo-voice was used to bring to the fore the voices, experiences and perspectives of community members who use mental health services ‘in an attempt to engage their expertise on what is working within the mental health system and what needs to be changed’ (Becker et al. 2014, p. 191). The Wyoming project set out to address the stigma, prejudice and isolation experienced by individuals with mental health needs from the public, mental health and health-care professionals, and themselves. The authors indicate that by actively disseminating the photos and narratives among community members and mental health providers, ‘participants invite critical dialogue about personal and community issues’ (Becker et al. 2014, p. 204) and thus facilitate emancipatory change not just in the researcher/participant relationship, but in the relationship between the individual with mental health needs and providers of mental health services. In the Wyoming photo-voice project, a number of exhibits were conducted by participants in residential treatment centres, at the state legislature and at an art gallery, which not only shed light on their concerns but also served as a tool to initiate dialogue with people in positions of influence. This dialogue ultimately led to a push for change in mental health services and policy. The study shows how photo-voice was used as a tool to give voice to previously marginalised groups and to influence power asymmetries in CBR relationships by changing knowledge about the issues and shedding light on silenced perspectives. The study also helped to foster inclusiveness, trust and social cohesion, factors critical to co-learning and necessary for CBR to succeed.

Community-Based Participatory Action Research

In a study using community-based participatory action research with the Prairie School for Union Women (PSUW), Hanson (2014) used facilitation techniques involving feedback loops. Through the feedback loops she interacted with the school’s coordinating committee and this created a mechanism whereby the coordinating committee ultimately decided how the study recommendations would be implemented. It was considered that this process would shift power from the university researcher to the PSUW. This idea was premised on the knowledge that participatory research is designed to ensure that the participants’ concerns, interests and preferences are guided by the participants themselves (Bishop 2008) and that the process ‘placed researchers in the service of the community members’ (Elliot 2012, p. 11). In practice, however, discursive friction emerged and the implementation of the recommendations by the school’s coordinating committee remained in the hands of only a couple of the committee members who continued to determine the agenda and design for the school. What the study did, however, was alert other women on the committee to the way power was being operationalised in the planning of the school and, because of this, additional efforts towards critical engagement emerged. Ultimately, whether this led, or will lead, to substantive actions remains unknown. Acknowledging the multiple perspectives at play in community-based research was important in illustrating that the results of research are not experienced equally. When theories of participation are integrated into power dynamics, important differences in the way experiences are understood begin to emerge.

For CBR to be truly emancipatory, change for social good cannot be forced by academic researchers, but must be actively pursued by community members involved in the research project. The PSUW study illustrates how community and organisational structures of leadership, and power asymmetries within those structures, can subvert the direction the group chooses, but also how they can be challenged when the process continuously involves the community in an iterative process. While this is ultimately taxing on the researcher, it can result in greater take-up from the community group involved. This is also important because academic researchers run the risk of re-inscribing their own values and realities on communities and appearing paternalistic or controlling if change is driven by their actions only. This may mean that researchers need to be comfortable taking no action and allowing the change process to organically emerge from the community.


Troubling how power operates and is constructed in community-based research is ultimately an attempt to conduct research more effectively and ethically. It is also an attempt to generate dialogue and understanding of how a research practice that is aimed at restructuring power relationships can also be used to reinforce inequities. Cannella and Lincoln (2011, p. 84) call for the ‘cultivation of a consciousness that is aware of both the sociopolitical conditions of the times and one’s own self-productive reactions to dominant disciplinary and regulatory technologies’ through engaging with the complexities of power and understanding how it operates in the social order. Thus we have presented discursive frictions that occur as a result of power asymmetries as neither inherently emancipatory nor repressive, but as an important dialectical point from which different research outcomes may emerge depending on the material practices of research participants. We have explored a few material practices that have helped researchers navigate discursive frictions with varying degrees of ‘success’ and surmise that adopting multiple facilitation methods may help CBR participants achieve the emancipatory potential of the methodology. However, more research is needed to determine whether these methods necessarily lead to emancipatory research results and, if so, under what material conditions they succeed. Although this article presents examples of CBR from critical adult education in addition to other fields, there is an increasing need to determine how community-based researchers can trouble the notion of generalised results about communities. Critical reflections on how power is both built into and exercised in community research using a Foucauldian analysis is our humble attempt at challenging our own actions in the field of community research as well as a call to others involved in such ‘noble’ pursuits.


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