CBPR has gained recognition as a viable approach to research. Increasingly, funding agencies are requesting that researchers engage communities as research partners in grant proposals. But CBPR is not for everyone or every community or every research question. When exploring the possibility of engaging in a CBPR partnership, it is advised that all parties consider asking themselves the questions below to guide a discussion about the feasibility of working together. It is important to address these potentially difficult conversations as a way to assess whether or not a CBPR partnership model is even appropriate.
Before starting down the road to CBPR, ask yourself the following questions:
I. Is opportunism and self-interest driving the agenda?
Certainly, enlightened self-interest may underlie a person’s or organization’s desire to engage in a CBPR partnership. But CBPR should not be undertaken simply out of opportunism and self-interest without the accompanying values and skills necessary to make it an ethically viable and beneficial partnership.
Opportunism and self-interest on the part of researchers can drive the interest in CBPR. Examples of this might include:
- Need for grant funding to support one’s academic position
- Need to recruit individuals from underserved populations as research subjects
- Need to demonstrate a community partnership to meet funding agency requirements
Opportunism and self-interest on the part of community members can drive the interest in CBPR. Examples of this might include:
- Need for credibility that may come with an academic affiliation
- Need for a job
- Need for grant funding to support or sustain community programs
II. Do you and your team have the necessary skills?
CBPR requires a different set of values, skills and time frame than most research endeavors. Conducting research with underserved communities brings to the fore issues of power, race, class, communication and respect. Specific skills that facilitate building relationships between researchers and communities include:
Cultural Competence – a set of knowledge, skills, and attitudes that allow individuals, organizations and systems to work effectively with diverse racial, ethnic, religious, and social groups.
Communication – the ability to provide and receive ongoing feedback with community partners throughout the life of the research project, in ways that are meaningful and accessible
Listening – can receive feedback and insights from both community partners and researchers about research methods and approaches. On the researcher’s end, being a skillful listener requires recognition that you do not have all the answers and that there may be other ways to conduct the research that may be more amenable to the community; as a community member, one should recognize and respect the researchers’ expertise in different methods and their outcomes
Sharing power and control over decisions – many researchers arrive in a community with a set protocol and are unwilling to make changes or share decision-making about methods and approaches with non-researchers. If individuals on your research team do not possess these skills, or are not comfortable with developing these skills, then pursuing a CBPR project is not for you. Similarly, community members cannot expect to have “veto power” on the research project’s methods and design simply because they “know the community best.” Working through consensus or majority decision-making processes are critical for successful partnerships, and these methods are not suitable to all personalities or stakeholders.
III. Are you as a researcher uncomfortable with changing your methods and/or approach to working with participants?
CBPR involves a set of core principles that include a commitment: to the co-learning process and involving the community in every step of the process. While on the surface, this may sound agreeable to a researcher interested in CBPR, we encourage researchers to reconsider this approach if:
You might find it challenging to participate in a co-learning and reciprocal research relationship, especially if it means using different research approaches and methods that you are less familiar with
You are more comfortable with a linear approach to research (i.e., not iterative or cyclical)
You find yourself questioning the validity and reliability of CBPR study designs
You are uncertain or skeptical about the scientific objectivity of CBPR research findings
Your academic institution does not hold credence in CBPR, so work in this field may significantly reduce your opportunities for tenure and/or promotion
- You have concerns about achieving measurable results and changes in health outcomes within the longer timeframe often required in CBPR study designs, i.e., it takes too long to show results
IV. Are you a community member who simply wants an intervention or community service but who has no interest in research questions?
If, as a community member, your primary interest is only on services and local interventions, then participating in a research project may not be for you. Community service projects have different timelines and overall goals and objectives, compared to a research intervention. If you are unable to agree to the research goals and objectives, then participating in a CBPR partnership would likely be frustrating.
V. Do the ethical considerations related to burden and benefits to the community outweigh potential research benefits?
Before beginning a CBPR project, carefully consider the potential benefits and harms of both the process and the outcome to the community of interest. Specific elements to consider include:
Time - do you as a researcher or community partner have adequate time to invest in developing a CBPR partnership? It takes time to develop relationships, build trust, create modes of operation, and identify community assets. A rushed or half-committed approach to building the partnership is likely to fail – therefore, knowing in advance that you do not have time to invest in the process raises ethical considerations of raising expectations.
Burden on the community – many communities in close proximity of universities are accustomed to being the subject of research studies. The participatory methods involved in CBPR require significant time and energy on the part of community members. Repeated CBPR studies in a single community can create a fatigue factor if tangible results are few and far between.
Research objectives and anticipated results will/may provide minimal benefit to the community – a study that produces interesting results for science but limited results for those participating in the study can be problematic if community expectations have been raised through the CBPR process for more direct, tangible results. Clear communication about realistic, potential research outcomes can off-set this potential harm, but it is also critical to assess and re-assess community expectations throughout the research process, in order to prevent any possible negative effects.
VI. What if you don’t “buy into” the values and principles of CBPR?
Not every researcher will agree with many of the values and principles that form the foundation of CBPR. If these values and principles don’t fit you, then don’t force the square peg into the round hole. So before going forward re-consider the following:
Do you have a clear community of identity to work with? Have the people you’ve called a “community” really see themselves this way?
Do you believe that attending to social inequities should be part of a research agenda? You may worry that this objective clouds the research process and could reduce objectivity and the integrity of the research design.
Do you question the need to address health – and therefore your research – from an ecological perspective? Taking an ecological perspective requires examining determinants of health from more than one ecological level (e.g., individual, interpersonal, community, organization or policy). By definition then this would require a more complex research design requiring objectives at more than one ecological level.
Do you perceive community participation as exploitative rather than empowering? There is no doubt that there is the potential for this to happen and past experience shows examples of communities being “used” with little change achieved in their health, social, or economic status at the end of a research project. It can also be a burden to the researcher to assure that the process is not becoming exploitative.
Are you committed to a participatory process, to community participation in the entire research process, and to delivering meaningful value and benefits to the community?