What does ‘community’ in community-based research really mean?

community-based research

The 21st century has seen a resurgence of interest in community-based approaches to research. This interest is primarily driven by the ineffectiveness of top-down approaches in addressing the needs of many communities across the globe. Furthermore, there is greater recognition that local people should be at the center of determining project priorities and solutions.  Community-based approaches aim to ensure that projects are integrated into, and owned by, the community, as well as integrate local knowledge and use participatory processes throughout the project to facilitate this. Engaging with communities as co-researchers often claims to produce more credible data, build resilient communities, and reduce costs in the long term.

What is the difference between community-based research and conventional research?

Some conventional research projects involve limited interactions with people, while others achieve a high level of participation, without being considered community-based. The primary differentiation between community-based research from conventional research is power within the research process, and specifically “how and by whom is the research question formulated and by and for whom are research findings used” (Cornwall & Jewkes 1995, p. 1668). The extent of participation can vary from consultative (i.e. local people asked for their opinions) to collaborative (i.e. researchers and local people work together), with participatory research theoretically aiming towards the latter. Bergold & Thomas (2012) suggest that “unless people are involved in decisions – and, therefore, research partners, or (co-)researchers – it is not participatory research” (p. 200).

Participation inevitably stands alongside any work considered ‘community-based’. Cornwall and Jewkes (1995) offer a useful comparison between participatory and conventional research:

Participatory research Conventional research
What is the research for? Action Understanding first, action later
Who is this research for? Local people Institutional, personal and professional interests
Whose knowledge counts?


Local people Scientists


Topic choice influenced by? Local people Funding priorities, institutional agendas, professional interests
Methodology chosen for? Empowerment, mutual learning Disciplinary conventions, objectivity and truth


Who takes part in the stages of research process (problem identification, data collection, interpretation, analysis, presentation of findings, action on findings)? Local people mostly Researcher mostly
Who takes action? Local people (with or without external support) External agencies
Who owns the results? Shared The researcher
What is emphasized? Process Outcomes


Challenges with the conceptualization of ‘community’

As community-based approaches are increasingly adopted in research, it is important to critically examine the very concept of ‘community’. What constitutes a community? Who is participating, and who is not? What does participation look like? The term ‘community’ is inherently ambiguous and there appears to be no consensus among social scientists on the definition of ‘community’ (Mulligan 2015).

‘Community’ can be referred to as “a commonality of values, identities and interests that help people to live together” (Solesbury p. 140), or a social entity with shared experiences and social interests in a clearly defined geographic area (Titz et al. 2018). The simplistic conceptualizations of ‘community’, however, is problematic as it overlooks diversity within communities and precludes analysis on why people within a ‘community’ are vulnerable and marginalized. Titz et al. 2018 emphasize that ‘community’ and commonality are a dichotomy, or a pair that do not coincide in real life. They suggest ‘community’ should be “replaced either by less charged terms that are equally broad but do not carry with them the burden of commonality or consensus (e.g., ‘people’) or by much more specific terms that clearly express whom one is working with” (p. 23).

Buggy & McNamara (2015) explain two key issues relating to the conceptualization of ‘community’, the first being the tendency to limit our understanding of ‘community’ to something that is geographically determined. They argue that ‘community’ has greater application and meaning beyond geographic boundaries and is determined by a socio-political context which is important but inherently ignored in this definition. Secondly, ‘community’ is presumed to be a homogenized and unified social entity, and within these, needs, values, and ideologies are shared. Unfortunately, however, this is invariably not the case – a ‘community’ may be a heterogeneous group of people with different gender, race, age, class, and power relations. These conceptualizations ignore the complexity within communities; as a result, issues of power, inequity, and marginalization within a community are not often being considered in projects, and thus, may perpetuate the critical issues they are trying to address.

Ways forward

We cannot assume that projects will be successful because they are being undertaken at the ‘community’ level. Buggy & McNamara (2015) offer some insights to improve community-based approaches:

Understand the socio-political context of the community. Determine the inherent power dynamics that exist at the local level. This is particularly important if projects are to be successful in targeting those within the community that are most vulnerable.

Involve local people but avoid only elites. Ensure that the most vulnerable are at the centre of project development and ongoing implementation. This means that processes are in place that encourage everyone within the community to participate, especially the most vulnerable.

Foster involvement. Once vulnerable people within the community are placed at the centre of projects, foster meaningful cooperation through active community support (meetings, reports, informing the community through different representations). Cohesiveness within community and sustainability can also be supported through capacity development in project management.

Finally, Titz et al. (2018) encourage some reflection: can a ‘community’ be identified in the first place? If yes, have you considered targeting individuals or groups with specific characteristics rather than the ‘community’? Have you considered why you are working with the ‘community’ when a more precise identification of partners and beneficiaries is possible?

In the context of my PhD research, I propose to use community-based approaches to understand Indigenous food security. Initially, I admit, I simply considered the ‘community’ to be those within my study location. While I explored to some extent the socio-political context of the ‘community’, moving forward I will be more cognizant of who is participating (and who is not) and in what ways.

What does community mean to you?

Photo by thinkpublic on Foter.com / CC BY-ND

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