Challenging the empowerment expectation: Learning, alienation and design possibilities in community-university research

Joe Curnow

Abstract


As community-university partnerships have become mainstream, researchers have argued that these approaches have the potential to be transformative, supporting community learning and creating capacity for community development. While this remains the dominant narrative of community research, some researchers have questioned the impacts of community research on frontline community, or peer, researchers who represent partnerships in their communities. These studies complicate the narrative, suggesting that learning and capacity building are not straightforward processes. While on the whole community-university partnerships tend to be empowering for community researchers, research is needed to understand the experiences of community researchers for whom this is not the case. My research examines a Toronto-based community-university participatory action research partnership, asking what community researchers learnt through their participation. I argue that, while community researchers learnt a great deal from their participation, the overall impact was not empowerment, but alienation. They did have their knowledge of community validated, and they built research skills, developed grievances through their conversations with neighbours and interrogated the links between grievances, all of which were important aspects of their participation. However, through the process they developed, or entrenched, a sense of powerlessness and dependence on the university researchers to take up their cause politically. This contradicts the aspirations of community-university partnership models, especially participatory action research, and raises questions about the inevitability of empowering social action stemming from these research projects. I argue that the disempowerment that the community researchers reported points to the need for community research to be embedded within existing social action organisations and infrastructure to provide clearer pathways to action because, without this, peer researchers may become overwhelmed by the scope of the grievances in their neighbourhoods and withdraw from, rather than embrace, the need for collective social action.


Keywords


Community-university research partnership; participatory action research; community-based research; learning; adult education; social action

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DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.5130/ijcre.v10i1.5151