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Tips for Community-Based Participatory Research

By: Patricia Moore Shaffer, PhD

Principal & CEO

Embarking on a community-based participatory research project involves more than just data collection and analysis. It demands a deep dive into the heart of the community, understanding its pulse, and, most importantly, facilitating meaningful participation of community members. The success of such projects often hinges on the engagement and collaboration of local residents, whose insights, knowledge, and experiences are invaluable. Reflecting on a recent site visit to St. Paul Island, Alaska, here are some tips for facilitating community participation in a research project.


Understanding the Community Culture

Understanding the community's culture is the first step in facilitating meaningful participation. Before initiating any research project, it's crucial to immerse oneself in the community's history, values, and social dynamics. This understanding not only fosters respect but also allows researchers to tailor their approaches in ways that resonate with local residents. Engaging with community leaders and elders can provide invaluable insights into the community's heart and soul, paving the way for smoother project initiation and implementation.


Building Trust through Transparency and Communication

Trust is the cornerstone of effective community participation. Building trust starts with transparency about the research project's goals, processes, and potential benefits to the community. Establishing regular, open channels of communication is vital. This could take the form of community meetings, newsletters, or informal gatherings where updates are shared and feedback is sought. Making the research team accessible and approachable within the community can help break down barriers, making it easier for community members to express concerns, ask questions, and offer insights.


Involving the Community in the Research Process

Involving the community in the research process not only enhances the quality and relevance of the research but also fosters a sense of ownership among community members. This can be achieved by involving community members in decision-making processes, employing local residents in research activities, and facilitating community-led initiatives that complement the research objectives.


Providing Tangible Benefits and Feedback

Communities are more likely to engage in research projects when they see tangible benefits. These benefits don't always have to be financial; they can also be in the form of capacity building, improvements to local infrastructure, or contributions to local conservation efforts. Equally important is providing feedback to the community about the research findings and the project's impact. This can help sustain interest and engagement throughout the project duration and beyond.


Respecting Local Norms and Ensuring Ethical Practices

Adhering to ethical research practices is non-negotiable. This includes obtaining informed consent, ensuring confidentiality, and respecting local norms and values. It also means valuing research participants’ time by paying them the equivalent to a living wage. Sensitivity to cultural practices and traditions is particularly important in communities like St. Paul Island, where traditional ways of life are honored. Ethical practices also mean that researchers should be prepared to adapt their methodologies to ensure that they are culturally appropriate and respectful.


Leveraging Local Education and Outreach Programs

Education and outreach programs can be powerful tools for engaging communities in research projects. By partnering with local schools, community centers, and organizations, researchers can raise awareness about their projects, stimulate interest in research, and inspire local youth. Workshops, seminars, and interactive sessions can be tailored to different age groups, providing educational benefits to the community while fostering a collaborative environment for the research project.



Facilitating community participation in research projects requires a multifaceted approach. It involves understanding the community culture, building trust, involving the community in the research process, providing tangible benefits, respecting local norms, and leveraging education and outreach programs. Through these efforts, researchers can not only enrich their projects with valuable local insights but also contribute positively to the communities they engage with.


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