In this blog, I asked colleagues from SHLC partner countries to reflect on what community engagement means to us, what we have done to work with community members for mutual benefit, and what lessons we have learned in the process.

Rigorous research is critical to build sustainable, cohesive, and peaceful societies. It’s a means to understand the world and create evidence to make a change where it is needed.

In recent years, working closely with community members to do research collaboratively and for the explicit and relevant benefit to communities in question has become of particular importance. Community engagement, co-creation of knowledge, and impact have become the words to describe the work of researchers who leverage collective expertise to create lasting change.

Why is community engagement important in research?  

The way research has been done is not unproblematic, especially where power imbalances are already in place and strong.

As one example, research places academics at the nexus of information exchange. An academic is viewed as an ‘expert’ who ‘discovers’ and ‘extracts’ information from their participants to then create and distribute new knowledge to inform policy and practice.

Linda Tuhiwai Smith – a renowned Māori scholar in Aotearoa/New Zealand – famously referred to this process as ‘They came, They saw, They named, They claimed’.

In some instances, less privileged participants – the researched – are mistreated and misled by researchers.

Arguably, despite the attention to such groups by researchers and practitioners, not much has improved in their lives as we continue to see a lot of poverty and devastation.

It has now been acknowledged that research is rife with ethical and methodological challenges. And to avoid them, we need to re-think how we do research and how we can de-centre the researcher. Community engagement allows us to do it, but are there any risks and challenges?

Hon. Derrick B. Arago, Barangay Chairman of Barangay Sta. Clara, Batangas City shares with the SHLC Partners how a barangay leader handles issues and concerns in their neighbourhood.
… and particularly in research at the neighbourhood level …

My colleagues at SHLC in the Philippines, Aira Caluag and Irish Manlapas offer another angle on the importance of community engagement:

SHLC recognises the importance of community engagement especially in defining the sustainability of different neighbourhoods. By involving neighbourhood partners in the process, the research can lead to sustainable research outcomes and can also lead in influencing the policymakers – both at the local and national government levels – by making informed decisions and recognising the needs of different neighbourhoods.

Community engagement widens the sense of ownership of the research that could result in more tangible outputs felt by the research subjects from translating empirical evidence from research to policies and even to specific development projects. It likewise ensures the creation of collective science that merges systems science and citizen science.

The research also paves the way for extended community engagement with the neighbourhoods. The research team in the Philippines provided material support to the neighbourhoods through Kapitbahayan laban sa COVID-19 (Filipino neighbourhood against COVID-19).  It provided support in the form of face masks, hand soaps, disinfectants, thermal scanners, and food packs while preventing, containing, and mitigating COVID-19. The research team sustains community engagement through the collaboration for different projects which can lead to well-detailed information that will be needed before, during, and after the research process.

The residents of Barangay 654, Intramuros warmly welcome the SHLC partners during the Manila neighbourhood interaction, an activity held during the International Partners’ Meeting held on February 17-22, 2020
What is community engagement?

At its core, the Wellcome Trust notes, community engagement challenges the notion of communities as ‘recipients’ and ensures that community members become ‘agents’ of change. Essentially, this means supporting people through research activities to be in charge of shaping their and their community’s lives.

To be able to achieve this, the 2005 Brisbane Declaration on Community Engagement identifies the need to

1. incorporate aspirations, concerns, needs, and values of participants and communities in all stages of research – from initiation, planning, and decision-making to completion and deliverables, and

2. involve communities in all such processes.

Aira and Irish, draw on their work to define community engagement as:

“a process wherein the research team and the community work collaboratively to understand phenomenon and collaboratively produce knowledge. As the SHLC project focuses on understanding urbanisation and development at the more granular level, establishing the research at the neighbourhood level is fundamental as it creates a two-way process wherein the community will communicate through pointing out issues and concerns, and the research team will listen and provide a well-informed research output that can offer sustainable solutions for the neighbourhood.”

What are some of the examples of community engagement?

Our colleagues in the Philippines have done an impressive work of building and sustaining strong relationships with local communities in Manila and Batangas.

Aira and Irish offer but a few examples here:

SHLC Philippines has partnered with 22 barangays–twelve barangays in the City of Manila, and ten barangays in Batangas City. The research team promotes an inclusive approach to data gathering by placing the neighbourhood at the forefront of neighbourhood science. Knowledge co-creation and knowledge dissemination were made through a series of partner consultations. The research team does not only view our kapitbahayan (Filipino term for neighbourhood) partners as research subjects, but as partners in conducting the research and project activities.

Knowledge co-creation and knowledge dissemination were made through participatory mapping, walking neighbourhood interviews, photo-elicitation, series of mapathons, and workshops. These data gathering techniques, such as participatory mapping, were important aspects as this process helped bring out the nuances of the phenomenon being studied (e.g., identification and mapping of types of neighbourhoods that were not reflected in official district/city maps).

Our kapitbahayan partners assisted the research team in classifying the neighbourhoods according to the neighbourhood classification of the project. They also served as the main actors in identifying different focal and spatial locations that they think make their neighbourhood sustainable. As the Philippines is home to unique barangays and neighbourhoods, inputs from our kapitbahayan partners – from the audio, photos, and visuals captured by them – proved to be important in the country’s operationalisation of the roles and delineation of neighbourhoods.

The collaboration between our kapitbahayan partners and the research team has grown to include implementation of project grants to assist Filipino neighbourhoods to become inclusive, resilient, and sustainable. Our partners identified these projects as critical to their development during the SHLC research. Now, in partnership with the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany Manila, SHLC-CeNS Philippines is implementing several projects including a neighbourhood-led restoration of water distribution and construction of inclusive comfort rooms.

Visiting communities in the Philippines.
Insider or outsider to the community? What are the challenges?

Dr Caryn Abrahams, our Co-PI at SHLC in Johannesburg, discusses what happens when the ideals of community engagement discussed above simply do not fit, or when the researcher considers herself part of the community that is being studied. Valli Kalei Kanuha argues that while

being an insider researcher enhances the depth and breadth of understanding a population that may not be accessible to a nonnative scientist, questions about objectivity, reflexivity, and authenticity of a research project are raised because perhaps one knows too much or is too close to the project and may be too similar to those being studied.

De-centering the researcher is not quite so simple in this scenario. There is a constant challenge between the so-called ‘self-evident’ knowing, and the weight of analysis through the data. Engagement requires constant reflexivity, positionality checks, and self-correcting pre-emptive and presumptive knowledge with an objective gaze, to whatever extent possible.

Indeed, feminist scholars remind us that we needn’t remove ourselves from the research context, or distance ourselves, but call out the possible relationship of power than may be present or emerge. Sonya Corbin Dwyer and Jennifer L. Buckle offer some useful advice about how to think of ourselves as directly in the middle of the insider-outsider binary that often exists in qualitative studies. They conclude that researchers are well placed to “abandon these constructed dichotomies and embrace and explore the complexity and richness of the space between entrenched perspectives”.

SHLC Philippines team, represented by Aira and Irish, have a different take on the insider-outsider dichotomy:

The research team aims to go beyond the research, hence, does not see this as a challenge, but an opportunity to facilitate and improve the analysis of the research. Although initially considered as an ‘outsider’, the researchers have become considered as ‘insiders’ to the neighbourhood, allowing the research team to deep dive and have a more in-depth knowledge of the neighbourhoods covered by the research. While the researchers developed a close working relationship with the neighbourhood, the research team is still guided by the neighbourhood partners and respects the boundaries between the researchers and the neighbourhood partners.

This kind of working relationship paved way for a knowledge co-creation between the research team and the neighbourhoods in these trying times. In efforts of helping barangays and neighbourhoods in the Philippines, the research team created a primer that aims to simplify legal statutes and regulations related to COVID-19 from a perspective of a policy implementer at the neighbourhood level. This primer was sent out to neighbourhood partners and other barangays in the Philippines.

Visiting communities in the Philippines.
Are there any risks of engaging with communities?

As Dr Andreas Scheba, a Research Fellow at SHLC in South Africa, explains below, indeed, there are.

Engaging and working with communities to co-produce new knowledge can contribute to significant transformative change, as my colleagues have discussed above. However, focusing research and knowledge production at the community scale also bears considerable risks, one of which is to fall into the ‘local trap’.

By immersing ourselves into the rich and complex world of community-engagement, where we encounter the limitless array of everyday practices, community politics, gossip and the mundane, we run the risk of viewing the observable out of perspective.

In other words, it is easy to lose sight of the more structural and multi-scalar processes and actors that shape specific places. In doing so, we not only misread and misrepresent what is happening with and in our ‘communities’. We also severely limit our understanding of critical points of change and potential course of action.

To be truly transformative, a different approach is needed. One that links the immediately observable to wider processes and ‘outside’ actors.

However, understanding the structural and multi-scalar processes that influence everyday practices and community-dynamics in specific places is difficult. As Liza Cirolia and Suraya Scheba in their study of informality in a Cape Town township show, it requires us researchers to trace connections and disconnections across space and time, using different sources of data to illuminate complicated entanglements between people and places. A key challenge is to identify and examine those connections that are most relevant in co-producing the issue under investigation. This necessarily includes collecting and analysing different sources of data at various scales, sometimes with and sometimes without community engagement, but always in relation to each other.

I believe that as privileged researchers, who (should) have the time to stand back and reflect deeply, this is where we can offer tremendous value to communities. While analytically exhausting and methodologically complicated, it is this deep work of illuminating how multi-scalar, political-economic processes shape specific places that can best support communities in transforming their neighbourhoods and cities. Alongside traditional methods, new technologies (big data, social media, GIS) offer new possibilities to uncover hidden connections. Let’s be brave and use them in innovative and creative ways to ensure community-engaged research steers clear of the local trap!

Our colleagues, Aira and Irish, agree, adding,

While knowledge co-creation with the neighbourhood has a significant contribution in research, it can pose a risk when a neighbourhood’s expectations for assistance and project grants do not match the current research project remit. It could result in false hopes and expectations that the issues and concerns identified during the research process would be immediately addressed by the research itself.

 Our recommendations

My recommendation for researchers who want to engage with communities is to be open, flexible, and adaptable. Community engagement, especially building trust and a relationship with others may be a long and time-consuming process. But it is essential to ensure that research is relevant, targeted, and has a local buy-in.

Aira and Irish conclude,

Community engagement strengthens the trust between the researchers and the neighbourhoods involved. The research team must be willing to establish rapport with the neighbourhoods. It is important to provide knowledge co-creation activities such as participatory workshops, seminars, and talks. In these ways, the neighbourhood will be able to sustain the project even after it ended as they have the knowledge to continue the process.