Key ingredients for effective community research

Steve Fisher

We have had a positive experience recently in working with two community groups to design and conduct research on topics they consider important. Both research projects were managed by Ninti One and we contributed to the work as their partner. I came away from each project thinking that the reasons why the projects went well deserved to be thought through and written down, which is the purpose of this article.

By community-based research, I am referring to any process that works with local people to conduct research. There are examples featured on the projects and publications pages of this website. In one of the projects that inspired this article, the objective of the group was to learn what the rest of the community thought about a cultural education program their organisation had been running and also an initiative to improve local employment opportunities. The community is located in the Northern Territory. In a second project, we trained a group of young people to conduct research on priorities for youth in a town in Western Australia. The aim was for them to make the case through research for government investments in certain services and facilities to meet the needs of young people. 

For both projects, we worked through a standard research process which had the following steps:

  1. Objectives – Working out the purpose of the research and what it was intended to achieve
  2. Design – Identifying the information we needed to collect, choosing the research method (such as surveys or focus groups) and working out the sample (who and how many people we will talk to)
  3. Data collection – Usually through small research teams.
  4. Data analysis – Working out what the information we have collected is telling us.
  5. Presentation – Preparing diagrams and charts that interpret and present the findings of the research.

In both places, the results achieved and the feedback from the communities were very positive. So, what were the key ingredients that led to effective community research in these example? The illustration below is a summary.

I will explain these four points. Some people might work best as lone researchers, but community-based research really calls for a team approach. We have usually worked with a minimum of six local people and up to around twenty. People feel more confident when doing something new as part of a team. It can be fun, especially when people share their sense of humour.  

When starting the work, we have noticed that allowing up to a day for sitting down with people in a comfortable place and doing some preparation works really well.  Some slides may be useful to show, especially where examples of research from other communities can be show and explained. But flipchart paper, whiteboards and marker pens are equally important. Writing down the five steps above, explaining how they work and then asking people for their suggestions makes for a process of participatory preparation that often brings the best out of the team given that they know the community well. For example, it may be important to ask:

  • What exactly do we want to achieve from the research?
  • How can we explain what the research is about, to people who are willing to participate?
  • Who should we talk to?
  • What methods should we use?
  • What is the best way to ask questions? What words and phrases will people find easiest to understand?
  • How should we record the responses of people?

It might seem obvious to include this point, but so many people in communities are invited to meetings for which the purpose is not clear to them. We need to make sure this problem is avoided when planning community-based research. Otherwise, the level of energy and interest of the team might understandably decline. It is worth writing a clear purpose on paper to stick on the wall and then referring regularly to it as the one everyone agreed in the first bullet point above.

The final key ingredient in effective community-based research is the methods. We commonly use and recommend surveys as being the most manageable method for local people new to research. Surveys can be administered fairly quickly across a couple of days, especially if there are small teams made up of two or three people moving around the community to talk to people. The results build over time and people can start to analyse and interpret the data as more information is collected.

Other methods are valuable too, including semi-structured interviews, focus groups and case studies. These methods take more practice and skill to manage but are important to a mixed methods approach that brings together qualitative and quantitative data.