groups » Community Engagement. » Community Engagement Under the Microscope - Reflections and New Questions
In June 2011 the WellcomeTrust organised a workshop entitled ‘Community Engagement: Under the Microscope’ in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
The aim of the workshop was to explore the context of community engagement in public health research, anthropology, social science and bioethics.
But this was not your usual ‘academic’ workshop. They were very few formal presentations; instead the emphasis was on sharing stories and personal experiences, expressing thoughts and views through poetry and prose and enacting community engagement through theatre games. My contribution to the workshop was a short film, a compilation of interviews with researchers in Oxford and Cambridge, on how UK researchers perceive and their motivations behind the practice of community or public engagement. Three more groups based in Thailand, Kenya and Nepal, also produced videos on community engagement. You can see all these videos as well as a short film summarising reflections on the workshop here: www.vimeo.com/channels/wellcometrust (please, copy and paste the link into your browser to access it) It would be interesting to hear what you think of these videos and the issues/concepts they bring forward.
Despite the ‘loose’ academic character of the workshop -or because of it- a plethora of interesting questions were brought forward. Issues around the scope and value of community engagement –how can it be measured/evaluated?- was discussed, its aim –e.g. utility or ethics?- was debated, and its character –e.g. is it a political action?- was argued. I found this last point, of whether community engagement is a political action particularly interesting. ‘Political’ can be understood in a broad sense meaning anything that takes place within a societal structure. ‘Political’ can have a more narrow sense meaning the advocacy of particular value systems. Is this what community engagement, especially in the context of public health, is or should be about?
I do a lot of monitoring and evaluation and there is no proven way of properly evaluating CE. In a way, evaluating CE is similar to the difficulties that arise when evaluating a human rights-based approach. The lack of a proper definition of CE adds to the difficulty. As a result, to answer Farhad's question above - it would be very difficult to compare models of CE. Unless you can somehow figure out how to do a controlled experiment in two communities that are almost identical. But even then, let's say you carry out CE really well and the result is that the community says 'no' to your research project. They decide that it just isn't quite relevant to them. Has your CE been successful in this instance or not? Would this be viewed as a model of CE that is a 'complete failure'? I think the question posed by the original poster is of immense importance - what is the AIM of CE? Utility or ethics? Or perhaps even human rights (I can see similarities between CE and a 'rights-based approach' to research)? We need to answer that question first. In my mind, the answer is 'utility'. I believe that carrying out CE will give me better research results - more accurate results. I don't think it makes a difference to the ethics of my research, as my research has to be approved by an ethics committee before I start doing anything anyway, so the ethics are already taken care of.
Thank you for posting this - the videos were very informative and interesting. CE seems to be the new 'buzzword', everyone is talking about it, but everyone has different definitions and understandings of what CE is really about. I am intrigued to hear you refer to it as a 'political action' - I have not considered CE in that way before. I guess it does sort of further a particular value system: respect for the community, which I believe is seen as more important in Africa and in Asia than in the Western world.
These values clash when Western researchers come and do research in the East/South. However, I feel that CE is now so accepted, that all researchers believe they should engage with the community. What matters now is figuring out how to measure it, and deciding upon the best way to do CE. Is there one model that is better than others? Is there a model of CE that is a complete failure? These are the questions I'm interested in.
Thakns for putting this up on GHBE. I really enjoyed looking at the participatory videos. It was great to see all these different experiences and views about the ethics of research and the role of community engagement in ethical research. I thought the one based in Thailand - on the community engagement work on the Thai-burma border was particularly interesting. Clearly this is a really important place to be doing research but it's a real challenge to identify and think through the ethical issues arising in research in this kind of context and to find ways of genuinely involving communities in deciding what is and isn't acceptable. From the video it sounds like the work being done there is really important as a model for other researchers carrying out research with migrant or refugee populations.