Community-Based Research: An Approach, not a Methodology

On November 7, the Office for Undergraduate Research and the Carolina Center for Public Service offered a workshop on Community-Based Research (CBR). Dr. Beth Moracco from the Gillings School of Global Public Health talked to over 50 students about what CBR is and what it isn’t, why it’s an extremely important and relevant approach to research, and the challenges involved in doing CBR. She was also clear that there are research projects and situations where CBR would not be appropriate or effective. CBR is not about getting feedback on something you’ve already decided to do or findings you’ve already developed.  It is about “conducting research with people, not on people.”Moracco agenda

Dr. Moracco learned some of the basic principles embedded in CBR, like mutual respect and listening to community members, during her time as a Peace Corps volunteer. Other principles of CBR include engaging multiple stakeholders in all phases of the research, shared decision-making, commitment to long-term relationships and more. CBR believes in “bidirectional” learning–both the researchers and the community have knowledge and should learn from each other; however, it’s also necessary to acknowledge power and privilege differentials. CBR is rooted in an ethos of social justice; it makes explicit its goal to engage in inquiry and discovery that results in social change for the good.

Conducting CBR is not without its challenges. It is time-consuming to build relationships and trust with communities. There can be conflicts between the researchers’ agendas and the needs and desires of the community members — and community members themselves may differ on what takes priority or has the most salience for their lives.

Dr. Moracco traced the history of the development of participatory research and CBR and noted that increasingly funders expect CBR approaches to research questions; CBR can also help build capacity and develop the sustainability that funding agencies demand. Although the gold standard of CBR is to involve the community from the very beginning of the project, it is also possible to employ CBR in specific aspects or components of a project. Dr. Moracco said that you can use CBR “anywhere or everywhere in the research process.” She shared many examples from her own research experiences, both locally and globally, as well as telling us about CBR projects undertaken by students in the School of Public Health. According to Dr. Moracco, there is a substantial body of evidence demonstrating that interventions and policies developed using CBR are more effective.

Thanks to everyone who attended the workshop and to our colleague Dr. Beth Moracco for taking the time to share her knowledge and expertise.