Moving Beyond Community Politics

development Research community
Tuesday, 16 September, 2014 - 10:23

“Research fieldwork can be daunting as it is, but when the community is not on your side, it can be near impossible,” write Briginshaw and Dube

Creative Consulting & Development Works shares their 10 top tips for overcoming community politics when conducting research.

Research fieldwork can be daunting as it is, but when the community is not on your side, it can be near impossible.

It is essential as a researcher to strive to overcome this obstacle by acknowledging the importance of community buy-in. To have the community with you - and not against you - is vital and cannot be underestimated. Politics must be negotiated carefully to avoid community apathy and resistance.

Lindy Briginshaw, director of Creative Consulting & Development Works, a research, evaluation and communications consultancy, servicing nonprofits, governments and donors, explains that without community buy-in, meeting the objectives of your specific research can be derailed. “Do not anticipate obvious success in undertaking your community research. The strength of your work depends largely on partnership development between researcher and community, as well as cooperation, negotiation and commitment to the research project,” she says. 

Here the Research and Evaluation team from Creative Consulting & Development Works share 10 top tips for overcoming challenging community politics when conducting research and surveys in the field.

Share Responsibilities with Your Client from Day One:

Bring your client on-board as much as possible. Your client can assist with identifying community stakeholders of influence who can legitimise the research process. Such stakeholders include local government officials with political office, as well as community leaders.

Once the community leaders have been identified, you will need a point of entry into the targeted communities. In addition, you must be given adequate channels of access and know the protocols that need to be followed. This can be achieved through obtaining a letter from the relevant officials in positions of political power so that community politics can be avoided.

Conduct a Situational Assessment with your Client:

Get to know the community landscape and social dynamics at play and share your experience of this at briefing meetings. Doing so will provide valuable feedback of how your client’s intervention has been received up to the point of evaluation, which will expose a preliminary assessment of the knowledge, attitudes and perception of the intervention. In turn, you can then identify areas of sensitivity to avoid when approaching the community, as well as refine your methods through which access is obtained.

Be Up-to-Speed on Community Current Affairs:

Identify a ‘community champion’ - someone who is a leader or is working in the community, who you may regularly contact for information and guidance before reaching out to the community. Champions are often your first point of contact as a researcher, and usually have the community intelligence you need to assist you in your work. Open communication and a good relationship with your champion is key, and this will support your understanding of the community as well as your safety and security in the field.

Set Up Meetings with the Community Leaders:

Community leaders are elected representatives of their community and feel responsible for what happens in their sphere of influence. It is essential therefore to identify yourself and your purpose in the area, inform the community and leaders of your research objectives and who your client is.

Failing to acknowledge community leaders can pose a serious access concern if news of your presence reaches them through community gossip! While you should not be intimidated, it is important to negotiate this political curve carefully to avoid problems. Once this checkbox is ticked, you can expect less resistance.

Follow the Proper Channels of Community Awareness to Facilitate Buy-in:

Once you have developed and nurtured a relationship with community leaders, they can easily become an important asset for conducting your research in the community. They are instrumental in facilitating buy-in because of their position of influence.

The leaders will make the community aware of the intended research, and buy-in from the rest of the community is more likely to be achieved. The community will be aware of your presence and most importantly, that proper channels have been followed.

Step Back and Take an Objective Standpoint:

After the politics of access have been addressed, it is important to note that broader political issues should not be addressed by you. You should not represent any affiliation to a political party, view or ideology; rather, you should approach the community as an objective outsider who represents the research consultancy hired by your client. You should emphasise that your role is only for data collection and that you have no authority or judgment on views expressed by community members.

Treat Community Members with the Utmost Respect:

As standard industry practice, always obtain consent for participation from community members through the signing of a consent form before beginning your work. Community members should be treated with dignity and respect and should not be forced to participate in your research.

Be Aware of Political and Community Sensitivities:

Being aware of sensitive issues happening in the community and in the country at large is an enormous safety precaution. Knowing this can guide you on how to dress, approach people and how to talk or even conduct your research, which becomes even more important if your research explores sensitive socio-political issues. Having such contextual awareness can mitigate the risk of frustrating community participants and it allows you to be politically sensitive.

Know When You Can Push the Limits:

If you find that a survey participant expresses discomfort, it is important that you are sensitive to their emotions. Your task is not to cause turmoil or further damage a situation.

In some extreme situations you are advised to release a participant from the interview who does not want to proceed with sensitive issues that the survey may be tasked to explore. It is best practice to then refer the participant to a person or nonprofit support group who may support them.

Show Your Appreciation:

Once you have completed your research, it is important to give thanks and show appreciation for the community’s time and contribution to your work. 

You never know when research will need to be conducted in the same community again. Leaving people with a smile and a feeling that their input has contributed value to the overall research is a good method of closure and shows appreciation for the contributions of community members.

- Lindy Briginshaw is the director and Paul Dube a researcher at Creative Consulting & Development Works.



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