Working with community researchers in asymmetric research settings

Stefano Piemontese / November 2023

In the previous post on the ethics of place, access and positionality in migration research I have suggested that the question of trust between researchers and their interlocutors should not only be interpreted in terms of shared identities and experiences but (as long as that there is mutual and critical reflection on these) also as a convergence of intentions. If so, we cannot separate the commonality of research objectives from the discussion of how and where knowledge is produced, the unequal power dynamics surrounding this process, and the almost inevitable resulting epistemic injustice.

Within the I-CLAIM project, we decided to address these issues by creating collaborative spaces involving different types of research stakeholders. This includes holding regular meetings with grassroots, migrant-led organisations; involving “community researchers” during the ethnographic phase of the project, and providing artistic bursaries to artists who (hopefully) will share experiences and identities with precarious migrants. In addition to these operational elements, there are also intangible aspects, such as the emotional work involved and the role of reflexivity in data collection, analysis, and communication. While we take pride in the project’s overall openness to collaboration, it is not without contradictions and difficulties, particularly when working with “community researchers,” which is a crucial avenue for cooperation between researchers and those being researched – and the focus of the following stream of reflections.

Beyond the idea that it is desirable to have representation of oppressed social groups in higher education (i.e., individuals who are racially minoritised or discriminated against based on their gender, class, religion, and legal status), their participation in research teams also holds fundamental epistemological value. The I-CLAIM project has designated the role of “community researchers” for individuals who share with other research participants similar work experiences in specific sectors of the labour market, previous experiences of irregularity or precarious legal status in their country of residence, as well as the same language and national origin. As simple as it is to define the ideal I-CLAIM community researcher, it seems more complicated to ask what advantages they are expected to bring and what challenges to be considered.

The “epistemic advantage” of community researchers

The involvement of community members as co-inquirers is based on the assumption that everyone can contribute to generating knowledge and that knowledge is produced differently and leads to different conclusions by people living different lives.

The “community researcher” concept appears to be an adaptation of the “internal researcher” metaphor within the context of the Anglo-American grammar of diversity, which differently from continental Europe, historically views society as primarily divided into religious, ethnic, and racial communities. Unlike the “internal researcher,” the term “community researcher” generally applies only to ordinary members of the researched communities rather than scholars. However, both expressions are based on the assumption that advantages arise from being part of the researched communities (with external benefits already being established by the dominant scientist/positivist tradition that interprets externality as a guarantee of objectivity). But what are these benefits?

I understand these benefits are rooted in two cognitive processes. The first is reflected in the “experiential advantage” (or capital) that internal researchers have over external researchers due to their shared positionality with research participants. For instance, we can assume that during fieldwork activities and data analysis, internal researchers can perceive something external researchers cannot due to their shared experience and position with research participants. From an ethical standpoint, the “experiential advantage” of internal researchers can be converted into a “trust advantage” (or “trust capital”). This suggests that research participants may see internal researchers as individuals to trust, representing their interests and guaranteeing their voices will be heard. It also assures participants that the information they share is not part of a process that extracts and mystifies their individual or collective experiences.

The second aspect is found in the para-ethnographic consciousness community researchers have about their social world, which makes them “experts by experience” and allows them to play an equal role in shaping the theoretical research agenda alongside professional researchers. Both processes constitute the foundation of an existing “epistemic advantage” (or capital), which enables community researchers to illuminate blind spots overlooked by external researchers through their embodied knowledge. This means they can sense and recognise as data those emotions, reactions, and unexpressed or unfulfilled aspects that external researchers might overlook or misinterpret.

The unintended consequences of working with community researchers

Using the categories of internal vs external or professional vs community to name different groups of researchers and planning collaborative research practices based on these competence and hierarchy-informed classifications can have unintended or even opposing effects than those planned.

First, although their “bridging skills” can be effective in close-knit communities, their involvement in fieldwork inevitably draws attention to the complexity of intra-community power dynamics, which can further complicate (rather than resolve) the “positionality problem”. This is simply because the world is not divided into homogeneous communities, and the boundaries between them can be evident in specific contexts and blurred in others, as well as being subject to change. In other words, working with “community researchers” reveals that positionality is not solely a concern for external or professional researchers but also community researchers, and it is fundamental to address this issue.

Second, establishing community researcher positions within research projects may not only fail to address structural inequalities in higher education but also contribute to their reproduction: while community researchers are usually hired on temporary, hourly wage contracts and occupy the lowest level of the pay hierarchy, due to their “trust advantage”, they are also expected to handle the most emotionally and personally complex aspects of the fieldwork, such as recruiting participants, convincing them of the benefits of participating in the study, negotiating their expectations, and ensuring they feel comfortable while protecting their own reputation within the community.

Third, if the rest of the staff not only does not share the same experiences or identities as the research subjects but also does not participate in the most intense aspects of the fieldwork, the involvement of “community researchers” may become a more sophisticated form of extractive research, where community researchers become the presentable face of data collection.

Way forwards

Given this context, the question is how to move past this impasse. Here, I would like to highlight two ideas for further discussion and investigation.

First, when recruiting community researchers, it is important to carefully consider their positionality not only within the research group and in relation ro other researchers, but also in relation to other participants. This conversation should begin during the training phase of the project and remain open throughout its duration.

Second, it is crucial to thoughtfully design collaborative working practices, methodologies, and guidelines to address the persistence of asymmetries within the participatory team. If it was not possible to do so during the design phase of the project, this concern must guide the research during its implementation phase.

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