Focus on Relationships

At the heart of CER is a focus on relationships – relationships between people, institutions, places, and knowledge (to name a few). Community-engaged research is a framework or approach to research that is especially founded upon sustainable, trusting, and equitable relationships between researchers and communities.

What characterizes community-engaged research is not the methods used, but the principles that guide research and the relationships between researchers and the community (Lasker & Weiss, 2003; Minkler, 2005). Whereas traditional modes of academic knowledge seeking may put the collection of accurate and rigorous data at the centre of the process, CER firmly positions relationships and particularly community relationships at the centre of the work. Using a strengths based approach, CER recognizes the strengths of community organizations and individuals, and seeks to build on those collectively.

Tips & Considerations

Apply a relationship paradigm to the research

Despite the temptation to conceptualize university-community partnerships using familiar notions within the academy (e.g. theoretical constructs or prescriptive checklists), several scholars recommend thinking about it as an ongoing relationship (Grain et al., 2019; Isler & Corbie-Smith, 2012). 

Commit long term to relationships with community

Mulligan and Nadarajah (2008) suggest that CER relationships should include a “commitment to maintain relationships for a matter of years rather than months” (p. 81). Though this can be challenging with smaller research projects, it should be considered the gold standard to maintain long term connections where ever possible. In instances where longer term relationships cannot be maintained or committed to, it is worth considering whether or not a project should go ahead as a CER project.

Be realistic, honest, and transparent with expectations and goals

As in any relationship, honesty is vital to trust building. Despite lofty hopes for any project, primary researchers have the responsibility to instill realistic expectations of their own intentions (e.g. how often or for how long they plan to remain involved in the community or project).

Focus on people first

The cultural framework laid out by First Nations Information Governance Centre asserts that, “From the beginning, First Nations peoples have been taught that we start with a focus on the people – by giving thanks for their caring, honesty, sharing, and strength” (2011, p. 7).

Be clear and consistent about boundaries

Be clear and consistent about boundaries. Primary researchers often become (or were already) friends and colleagues with community members through CER projects. As in any relationship, it is vital to set boundaries that simultaneously maintain trust with community members, and also address issues of power imbalances and inequity. Boundaries are not necessarily explicit and should be discussed and this is the main point of dialogue and negotiation throughout a project, as it can build deeper trust. It is the responsibility of both parties to understand the professional and relational boundaries in any given circumstance.

Address conflict quickly and constructively

Relationships are bound to face moments of compromise, miscommunication, or even conflict. Regular meetings and transparent, honest communication can often help to mitigate conflict. Space needs to be created for conflicts to be addressed in a way that is most appropriate to the communities that university researchers are engaged with. In some cases this may mean that the university researcher has to step back and allow the process to happen or unfold inside community. Researchers must be able to recognize or ask whether they should be in the room and what would be most helpful in supporting a swift resolution to the conflict.

Questions to Ask Yourself

  • What are the expectations of the community partner in terms of their time commitment for a research partnership? 
  • What is the community partner able to commit to? 
  • What is the community partner's expectation from the university researcher in terms of their time?
  • What are the institutional and professional boundaries that the university researcher must operate within? 
  • How are these made clear and discussed throughout the research process?
  • How does the research plan integrate multiple modes of communication, recording, accountability, and transparency in order to continue to strengthen the research relationship?
  • What are the personal boundaries of the primary researcher, how is the university supporting them and helping them to define these boundaries and have these been clearly communicated to the community partners? 
  • What are the personal boundaries of the community partners and have these been clearly communicated to the university researcher(s) ?
  • In what ways will you ensure that your relationships to the communities and people you are working with are prioritized?
  • What do the people, community, Nation or organization need to feel protected and respected in the research process?
  • What are their conditions for working together?