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Updated to include a new section on diverse research methodologies and data gathering tools.

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Community-Based Participatory Research

Abstract and Keywords

Community-based participatory research (CBPR) embraces a partnership approach to research that equitably involves community members, organizational representatives, and researchers in all aspects of the research process. CBPR begins with a research topic of importance to the community and has the aim of combining knowledge with action and achieving social change. It is community based in the sense that community members become part of the research team and researchers become engaged in the activities of the community. Community–researcher partnerships allow for a blending of values and expertise, promoting co-learning and capacity building among all partners, and integrating and achieving a balance between research and action for the mutual benefit of all partners. Various terms have been used to describe this research, including participatory research, action research, participatory action research, empowerment research, collaborative research, anti-oppressive research, and feminist research.

Keywords: community-based participatory research, community building, diversity, knowledge and participation, participatory research


Community-based participatory research (CBPR) has its roots in social and political movements of the 1940s, which saw a revitalization in the 1960s and 1970s. From 1940 forward, Kurt Lewin has long been the name attached to the “genesis” of action research in the United States. Lewin challenged the artificial borders separating theory, research, and action, insisting “no action without research; no research without action” (as cited in Adelman, 1997, p. 90). At the core of Lewin’s project was an assertion that participant knowledge as foundational to validity and democratic and participatory research as foundational to social change. In the 1960s and 1970s, theorists from South and North America, Africa, and India brought to the fore an explicit analysis of the relation of intellectual colonialism of western science to the third world development and developed a participatory methodology for involving disenfranchised people as researchers in pursuit of answers to the questions of their daily struggle and survival (Fals-Borda, 1979; Fernandes & Tandon, 1981; Freire, 1970, 1974; Hall, 1979). Participatory research is a means of putting research capabilities in the hands of deprived and marginalized people so that they can identify themselves as knowing actors, defining their reality, naming their history, and transforming their lives (Brown, 1985; Gaventa, 1988; Horton, 1981; Lather, 1986; Maguire, 1987; Park, Brydon-Miller, Hall, & Jackson, 1993). The community-based participatory research builds on this history. With its focus on knowledge, action, and empowerment, community-based participatory research provides contemporary social work a change-oriented, democratic model of knowledge development, a knowledge that comes from people and community.

Connecting to the Social Work Tradition

The concerns and claims of community-based participatory research (CBPR) bear a striking resemblance to the historical values and mandates that shaped social work in the United States. In the early days of social work, research on the lives of poor immigrants was closely linked to community organization and social reform, and was usually stimulated by the settlement dwellers’ one-to-one contact with their neighbors (Addams, 1910/1961). Studies of the plight of orphan children on the streets of New York, of tenement dwellers, and of infants dying in foundling homes contained integrally woven components of assisting and advocating for clients, and for developing new services (Abbott, 1936; Breckinridge, 1931; Lathrop, 1905). The Hull House approach joined researchers, practitioners, community organizers, and residents in dialogue, engaging them together in personal and political action and informing social theory. Narrative in style and rich with examples, these published studies brought to public attention the strengths and needs of people in disadvantaged circumstances, and frequently influenced social policy at the national level (Tyson, 1995).

Many decades later, the prevailing structure of professionalization and specialization in social work has separated research from practice, policy reform, and social change, thereby limiting efforts of social work to address social problems comprehensively (Karger, 1983).

Recently, researchers have called for a more comprehensive and participatory approach to research and practice not only in social work but also in other fields such as public health, international development, community organizing, environmental justice, community psychology, education, medicine, and aboriginal and indigenous communities (Brown & Strega, 2005; Fisher & Robinson, 2010; Harper, Jamil, & Wilson, 2007; Horn, McCracken, Dino, & Brayboy, 2008; MacKinnon, 2011; Reason & Bradbury, 2001; Wang & Burris, 1997; Weis & Fine, 2004).

The fundamental characteristics of CBPR emphasize the participation, influence, and control of community members in the process of creating knowledge and change. In any CBPR project, doing research is not a goal in itself but only a means to achieve the interrelated goals for all participants: (a) fostering relationships and collaboration among diverse individuals, organizations, and groups; (b) creating settings for critical reflections that enable people from different backgrounds to see themselves in one another; (c) learning knowledge and skills relevant to the tasks at hand; and (d) engaging in effective action that wins victories and builds self-sufficiency (Sohng, 1996; Stoeker, 1999). These principles represent a critical distinction from the term community-based research, that emphasizes conducting research in a community as a place or setting, in which community members have only limited involvement, if any, in what is primarily a researcher-driven enterprise. By comparison, CBPR involves conducting research that recognizes the community as a social and cultural entity with shared interests and concerns (Israel, 2000; Minkler & Wallerstein, 2003). The inclusion of the term participatory here more clearly aligns CBPR with its roots in participatory research movements.

Key Principles of Community-Based Participatory Research

Community-based participatory research is a process rather than a specific methodology. Common themes are that the CBPR approach

  1. 1. Recognizes community as a unit of collective and individual identity. Membership in a family, friendship network, ethnic group, and geographic neighborhood, for example, are socially constructed dimensions of identity. Community is characterized by a sense of identification and emotional connection to other members, common symbols systems, shared values and norms, mutual influence, common interests, and commitment to meeting shared needs (Fellin, 1995; Israel, 2000). CBPR attempts to identify and to work with existing communities, and to strengthen the sense of community through collective engagement.

  2. 2. Builds on strengths and resources within the community. CBPR seeks to identify and build on strengths, resources, and relationships that exist within communities of identity, and seeks to support or expand social structures and social processes that contribute to the ability of community members to work together to improve the lives of people.

  3. 3. Facilitates collaborative, reciprocal involvement of all partners in all phases of the research. These partnerships focus on issues and concerns identified by community members, and create processes that enable all parties to participate and share influence in the research and associated change efforts (Community–Campus Partnership for Health,

  4. 4. Integrates knowledge and action. The lack of critical information, documentation, and evidence about how community power works places people at a disadvantage in their efforts to change their circumstances. The generation of this type of knowledge is central to strengthening the community’s problem-solving capacity. However, the link between the knowledge creation and action must be explicit. That link is most strong when those who conduct the research take action themselves within their organizations or communities. The power to name the conditions of injustice, oppression, and domination must be accompanied by the power to act whereby research and action become fully integrated (Schon, 1995).

  5. 5. Promotes a co-learning and empowering process that attends to social inequalities. CBPR facilitates the reciprocal transfer of knowledge, skills, capacity, and power (Baldwin, 2001). This process involves giving explicit attention to the knowledge of community members, and an emphasis on sharing information, decision-making power, resources, and support among members of the partnership.

  6. 6. Links to local capacity and infrastructure building. There is always the danger that the openings for community participation will simply mirror the status quo, and serve to strengthen and reinforce more dominant voices. Filling such spaces “from below” requires local capacity—organizations that are empowered and aware, and who have the ability to use the participation to negotiate and sustain their involvement over time. Because sustainable change usually depends on the empowerment of people and organizations, the research activities should support the community infrastructure building and leadership.

Diverse Research Methodologies and Data Gathering Tools

For community-based participatory research, empirical data is important to ground the inquiry. The question inevitably arises as to which methodology best serve the CBPR. The fact that conventional social sciences have been used to legitimize the status of researchers does not necessarily mean that those tools have inherent properties that serve those ends. The CBPR approach is not defined by the research techniques that are used, but rather it advocates adapting those techniques for achieving CBPR principles. The CBPR can employ the whole gamut of research tools and analytic techniques such as

  • Quantitative method and statistical analysis.

  • Qualitative methods—ethnographic methods, participant observation, grounded theory, story-telling, narrative, discourse, content analysis, historical reconstruction (Robert & Lynn, 2009; Su, 2010).

  • Reflective methods—self-observation, frame reflection, knowing-in-action (Wilson & Abram, 2010).

  • Focus groups and other group methods (Patten et al., 2009; Zuckerman-Parker & Shank, 2008)

  • Documents, official reports, minutes, procedures, letters, multimedia reports, photovoice, videos, artwork, graphics, drawings, and films. These techniques are useful to involve people who can’t read or whose first language is not the language of the group doing the research (Bagnoli, 2009; Castleden et al., 2008; Chavez et al., 2004; Lykes, 2001; Newman et al., 2009; Wang & Burris, 1997).

It does not matter whether it is statistical material, anecdotes, observed behaviors of both controlled and uncontrolled situations, media content, interview responses, online resources, or anything else. Whatever provides insights is suitable. But this does not mean that all data used must be subject to conventional “reliability” or “validity” checks (Guba & Lincoln, 1989). While some methods lend themselves more readily to certain epistemological perspectives, no method of data collection is inherently positivist, phenomenological, or critical. Data are meaningful only in terms of their theoretical context, reliability and validity are functions of the context and the epistemological presuppositions that the researcher brings to the inquiry (Fay, 1996; Harvey, 1992). It is, therefore, up to each team to select the best mix of methods to suit their chosen research site or topic. Not every single method or technique to be used must be participatory, but the overall ethos of the research should promote diversity and, simultaneously, find the common grounds needed for improving the welfare of the community.


The term community-based participatory research encompasses several virtues and vices. As with all methods, its merits vary with the research situation and the practitioner. At its best, the process can be liberating, empowering, and educative, a collegial relationship that brings local communities into the policy debate, validating their knowledge. At its worst, it can degenerate into a process of co-option of local communities into an external agenda, or an exploitative series of empty rituals imposing fresh burdens on the community’s time, energy, and service primarily to legitimize the credentials of the implementing agency as “grassroots oriented” (Cooke & Kothari, 2001). While participation must be integral to the research process, it must be understood and practiced as a genuine process. What is most important is that researchers, as socially and environmentally responsible persons, make ethical choices in the use of their tools. The ultimate test for CBPR is whether the research benefits the community and promotes socially just, culturally diverse community building.

CBPR has evolved through the 1990s and into the 21st century as it has been applied to various fields such as community development and service learning projects. Recently practitioners have moved away from the word “research” because of its extractive connotations and abstract meaning to many community members. New names are being used, such as “participatory action learning,” and “participatory action development.”


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