Power in knowledge, and numbers: Reflections on community-led action research

Starting in 2017, SCDC and the Poverty Alliance worked with ten community organisations to co-design a resource framework which could be used to support communities across Scotland to conduct their own inquiries into the issues affecting them.  

Kate McHendry, Development Manager at SCDC, has reflected on her work using community-led action research and the findings of this new report.

You can download the full report here

Reflecting on community-led action research 

Having been involved in community led action research for several years in SCDC and seeing the power of it to transform people and communities, I was really excited when we teamed up with our colleagues at The Poverty Alliance to dig down deeper into what was needed to support communities in undertaking action research and having a greater say over issues that affect their lives. 

The policy landscape, in theory, supports community empowerment, but what is practically happening on the ground to support communities to take advantage of these new opportunities?

We felt community led action research had a critical role to play here and, through insightful and energetic conversations with our partner community organisations, principles started to emerge that are vital to any action research resource. Two stood out for me:

1. Self-determined

People talking in a group

"Communities, and their representative organisations, must set the agenda. The field must be open for communities to choose to investigate the topics, issues and matters which they define as important and worthy of action."

For me, this is key. 

I have worked in initiatives where the community took the lead in the action research process, but the subject matter was determined by the funder. And, although it may have had a very wide scope, it was still ultimately limiting. It left community organisations in the predicament of "well, I'd much rather look at ‘x' but I can only get funded for ‘y' so I'll go for it and see if I can learn a wee bit about ‘x' whilst I'm doing it". Things can so easily get bent out of shape, learning diminished and community issues not being addressed when this happens. 

Whereas, in other programmes I've worked on, where communities determine the topic of their research, which is grounded in their lived experiences in their communities, there was a high level of commitment and energy to carry through the research, test actions for change and ultimately improve people's lives

2. Accepted as valid 

Many of the organisations we spoke with were experienced in running successful action research projects yet were still coming up against the wall of "How can we really influence? How can we get the decision makers to listen to us?"

Of course, this goes beyond the issue of community-led action research itself and extends into wider questions of hierarchies, power and ultimately whose evidence counts, when, where and why? In short, the systemic and structural factors which can either impede or facilitate community empowerment.

People in discussion

Rather than community organisations taking structural issues on board as their problem alone, they felt that we had to collectively turn the tables to highlight that it is the current systems that make it difficult for community voices to be heard. We need to "help shift the mindset of the receivers of this information and evidence" (GalGael)

As such, the community organisations felt that a key part of any action research resource should be the creation of a space for communities and decision makers to share and deliberate research findings with the aim of informing local action and national priorities. We need to ensure that community led action research has some weight behind it.

This is just a small snippet of our conversations. Please take some time to read the report, and join us in advocating for community led action research - power in knowledge, and numbers!

kate.mchendry@scdc.org.uk