The book has two aims. The first is to promote what the authors
call "community-based research," which shifts control
of social-science research from the investigator to the investigated-or
at least pushes it in that direction, so that power is shared
between them. The second promotes the use of students in community-based
research (CBR), not only because it gives them experience with
research methods and techniques, but also because it teaches them
that research is good for something other than itself, that research
can be used for "community betterment and social change."
These notions--that researchers should give up control of their science and that research should be used as a catalyst for change--are likely to alarm a few social scientists.
"A defining feature of CBR," the authors write, "is that the research focus, if not the question itself, always derives from the needs of the community rather than the theoretical interests of the discipline, as is the case with traditional academic research." A little later they add that "(f)or those used to objectivity and scientific distance, CBR insists on connectedness and relationship building."
The underlying idea is that the production of knowledge about communities ought to be a shared enterprise. People are not rats in a maze. They are agents who ought to be involved in affairs that concern them. Kant is not mentioned, but the logic is Kantian: people are to be regarded, even by researchers, as ends in themselves, not means. Of course, doing so raises the specter of bias: how will we ever know the observer's effect if the observed are not only aware of the gaze but directing its focus?
But science, we must remember, is only ever the art of the possible; and when the art involves human beings, there are huge ethical constraints. The study of people involves inevitable antinomies. On the one hand, what sort of shape would the world be in if none of us bothered to find out about each other? On the other hand, what business is it of ours to pry into their lives? There is something at least voyeuristic, perhaps also exploitative, and certainly extractive about building academic careers off the local knowledge of particular, often disempowered communities.
My discipline, cultural anthropology, is an exemplar of just this sort of extraction: what anthropologists have nearly always done is study the ordinary lives of folks all over the world-but usually elsewhere, and often among the meek, the poor, the peripheral, the colonized, the oppressed. And for several decades we have also wrung our hands over the moral implications of doing what we do: representing those lives in articles, monographs, films, and photos-all representations that benefit us, but seldom obviously the people we study.
So this book, which offers a moral-and scholarly-alternative, caught my interest. The guidewords are "research with" rather than "research on." A touchstone is Paolo Freire's classic, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. If learning ought to liberate, then so should research. The authors are social scientists in departments of sociology, political science, and education. They are also clearly community members and teachers, concerned not only with the production of knowledge but also the good of community and pedagogy of students.
"What," they ask early on, "is the purpose of higher educationif not to reach out so as to provide something useful to society, starting with the communities that surround them?" (2). Later they point out what we have long known: "that students learn better when their learning is not bound by classrooms and textbooks and when they are called on to do more than memorize information so as to reproduce it on an exam."
The book discusses how researchers can build trusting, collaborative relationships with the communities they study, ways to put communities themselves in charge of aspects of the research, and techniques for making sure research addresses community needs as much as it satisfies researchers' interests. There are many useful ideas, such as pairing student fact-finders with resident community organizers. It's a lovely exchange. Students gain legitimacy and experience. The community gets research labor.
I am not without quibbles. The book offers no real argument for why CBR is better than traditional social research. There is a chapter on its benefits-but it is a list of obvious advantages for communities studied rather than a defense of the moral and epistemological advantages for scholarship itself. The book sings for the choir. It offers insights and encouragement and models for how to go about doing community research that empowers its subjects. But given that the audience is presumed to be friendly to the idea, the book is surprisingly thin on case material. It is sprinkled with examples, but these come in the form of cut-away sidebars, textbook anecdotes, and graphs that are sometimes laughably general. They tell all-too-briefly what could, and probably should, have filled several chapters. A well-described case study, from start to finish, with details about scholar-community relations, student involvement, problems and pitfalls, and write-up, would have been especially useful.
This is a much-needed handbook for faculty and students and community activists looking for ways to form partnerships. I encourage you to read it. I have already shared it with colleagues.