Ceri Davies’s PhD research explored how knowledge is used, shared and legitimated in different examples of community-university research and how these examples were framed with respect to social justice, asking questions both around what makes for good participation as well as around whose knowledge is privileged in these initiatives. Engaged scholarship speaks about a range of practices and methods that respond to calls for the university to be committed and connected to social issues. These draw on a growing number of research methodologies that support designing and researching with communities. The theory and practice of participatory action research (PAR) already offers rich insight into collaborative partnerships. Ceris work tries to move things further still to an examination of how the knowledge of non-academic partners can be considered and included within the research (epistemology). Her findings point to the conditions that help this to happen. All recommendations share a common need to address power differentials, build trust and demonstrate commitment.
She looked at 10 case studies of community-university partnerships in the UK and Canada and interviewed both academics and community partners. The partnerships all explored natural resource issues, empowerment or social justice, and spanned topics including black and minority ethnic youth employment, social prescribing, homelessness, healthcare and indigenous language revitalisation.
She found that how you do things in engaged research really matters. Power structures can prefer certain people and their ways of understanding or knowing. She argues that paying attention to this and trying to find ways to address the dominant structures that hold power in place is critical if you really want your work to make a difference and be socially just.
She recommends that university-community partnerships need to be realistic about what type of research project they are involved in and who really holds power in the process of knowledge production, so as to set realistic expectations for all involved. Linked to this she recommends that institutions explore their own structures. This could mean looking at the administration of money and whether there are processes for paying community partners or security processes that will enable partners access to the buildings.
Another recommendation is that institutions examine their relationships, including how community partners perceive the university and the university’s accountability to the community partners. This requires making the effort to understand the partner’s connections to and understandings of the issue concerned as well as thought around imbuing the relationship with qualities that we might associate with friendship, including compassion and reciprocity. She believes that these qualities must be central to engagement activities. An example of this in practice could be demonstrating a willingness to play a different role, which might entail doing whatever job is helpful, rather than restricting the partnership to activities associated with ‘academia’.