Unequal Research Partnerships

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Anti-oppressive research requires engaging all the voices around the table. But not all voices are equal, due to power imbalances throughout the research process. Nor is everyone equally equipped to join the conversation.

It’s relatively easy to analyze this problem. But it’s really hard to change the power imbalance.

Let’s start with the analysis. Here are three reasons why university-based researchers have more power than community partners.

1. Research knowledge is considered superior to practice knowledge

Most social work researchers I know would take issue with this statement. Instead, they would say: “They’re equally valid, but different forms of knowledge.”

Where have we heard this before?

Men and women are equal but different. That’s why women are better suited for domestic life and child rearing and men are better equipped to provide financially for their families.

Marriage and civil union are equal but different. Gays and lesbians will get all the same legal protections as married straight people. Only the name is different.

People of different cultures are equal but different. Everyone is equal in society, but different people have different cultural practices.

Yeah, right.

We should be suspicious of the “equal but different” argument, because if someone thinks they need to make this point, it’s probably because things are not equal.

Let’s face it – research knowledge is valued more than practice knowledge. Some of us may be trying to change this fact, but there is definitely a hierarchy of knowledge. We are still children of a positivist legacy, no matter how much we would like to deny it.

2. Practitioners lack specialized research knowledge

Research relies on specialist knowledge. With this specialized knowledge, researchers know how to develop a research project.

Practice also relies on specialist knowledge. With their expert knowledge, practitioners know how to help people with problems.

The issue is that we’re all working together to develop a research project. This means that the researchers’ specialized knowledge allows them to set the agenda, name the issues, and make the decisions. If others don’t have access to this same language, they cannot have a meaningful voice. They aren’t able to contribute equally.

I’ve belonged to large research teams with community partners and practitioners around the table. The discussions are all conducted in research language. I was raised in a bilingual home and I was taught that it’s very rude to talk in a foreign language in front of others. I cringe when this happens. And I always wonder how the practitioners feel. In their place, I would probably feel powerless, inferior and angry.

3. Researchers usually control the money

Research projects involving university researchers usually are funded with public research grants. It’s important for university researchers to be doing peer-reviewed research projects, otherwise they may not count as research in the university’s eyes. And the only people who can apply for the major research grants are university researchers with PhDs.

Sometimes attempts are made to “equalize” the relationship, by transferring some of the funds to the community partner. But the grant as a whole is controlled by the university and the researcher.

I think it’s obvious how unequal access to funding creates power imbalances.

By now, you may be thinking, “But we can’t do anything to change these situations.”

That’s the problem, isn’t it?

In future posts, we’ll discuss how to do anti-oppressive research under these conditions. I hope you will join the discussion, because I don’t have any better answers than you do. But by sharing our ideas, we may all become a little better at anti-oppressive research.

© Silvia Straka and A Just Society, 2008

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