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

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 explicit boundaries that simultaneously maintain trust with community members, and also address issues of power imbalances and inequity. It is the primary researcher’s responsibility to ensure that community partners understand the professional and relational boundaries in any given circumstance. Additionally, the primary researcher should encourage community collaborators to discuss their own boundaries.

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, but in the instance that conflicts arise, community engaged researchers are encouraged to address them as soon as possible through open dialogue, mutual sharing, and an explicit plan for moving ahead (or in some cases, looping back around to attempt certain components of the research process in a different way).

Questions to Ask Yourself

  • Are there any expectations that the community partner has in terms of time commitment required for a research partnership?
  • What length of time can the primary researcher reasonably commit to working in and with the community in question? Is this length of time satisfactory to the community itself?
  • What relational boundaries are required of the primary researcher based on their institutional policies and professional commitments?
  • How does the research plan integrate multiple modes of communication and transparency in order to mitigate potential misunderstandings?
  • What are the personal boundaries of the primary researcher, and have those been clearly communicated to the community partners?
  • In what ways has the potential for conflict (and an accompanying plan for handling of conflict) been discussed openly with all stakeholders?