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Blog: Doing research differently: imagining better communities in local and global contexts by Paul Ward

Posted on July 18 2017 in News & Updates

In June 2017, three Māori scholars visited Yorkshire to participate in an event in Rotherham organised by Imagine: Connecting Communities Through Research. This commentary is written after reflection by Paul Ward, professor of modern British history at the University of Huddersfield and one of the convenors of the event, and Milton Brown, community-based researcher and social entrepreneur with humanitarian values.

‘Doing research differently’, involved community-based researchers talking about their experiences of working with universities to generate knowledge that would enable them to imagine better futures and make them happen. The Māori perspective, and additional input from Susan Hyatt from Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, brought an international perspective to what has been called the co-production of knowledge – university and community researchers working together.

The first three speakers were Milton Brown, Shabina Aslam and Zanib Rasool. Milton, who is also CEO of Kirklees Local TV, spoke about navigating black British experiences since the 1960s and the way in which his research had benefited from co-producing research with universities. Shabina, who is researching the dispersal of black and Asian children in schools in the 1960s and 1970s, explained her background in community theatres and arts programmes. Zanib, Development and Partnership Manager with Rotherham United Community Sports Trust, explored her experiences of working as a Pakistani-origin Muslim woman in Rotherham, and how this generated knowledge based on experience and situation.

While all three speakers worked with universities (and were now undertaking PhDs) they also pointed to tensions – some basic, such as the need to extensively reference the work of other academics, to more serious structural inequalities in terms of race and ethnicity.

The Māori scholars explained how, in some cases in New Zealand, the boundaries between community and university had been collapsed. Ani Mikaere, who is an Academic Director at Te Wānanga-o-Raukawa, tasked with facilitating scholarship that restores and extends indigenous knowledge traditions. She talked about Te Wānanga-o-Raukawa, which is a tertiary education institution run by Māori and asked what happens when the community controls the academy? Nepia Mahuika (Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Waikato) explained how his tribe considered there to be a ‘basket of knowledge’ and that researchers from outside the Māori community needed to think about whether they were taking from the ‘basket’ or contributing to it. As he said, ‘Community research for us, then, consistently seeks to sustain our community, revitalise and return our people back to their culture and language.’ This was crucial, as Ani emphasised, because of the near destruction of the Māori people by colonisers. Nepia called for a systematic decolonisation of the academy, to ensure that it did not continue to inflict damage.

A clear and forceful message emerged about the need to think about values underpinning research. Rangimarie Mahuika (PhD student at the University of Waikato) talked about ‘the sacred role of researchers’ being ‘to listen, to learn and to facilitate.’ As Vine Deloria, Native American author and historian, has said to western scholars: ‘We talk, you listen.’
It is easy to be cynical about co-production and to highlight its problems, yet Mariam Shah and Zanib Rasool reminded the audience that co-production is a democratic form of knowledge creation and a more ethical way of working with communities, and feels less like doing things to the community than traditional academic research. They spoke of the invisibility of community knowledge in most commentaries on British society and they explored how their community research had been validated by working with the University of Sheffield. Sue Hyatt explored the invisibility of parts of Indianapolis in the United States, including areas occupied by people of colour and working people, arguing that they contributed to community heritage and that academics needed to make them visible.

Milton and I discussed the day afterwards and thought about what we thought significant and what we learned from the day.

The first thing we thought about was locality. Thinking about the role of research for community development can feel parochial, as we focus on streets, neighbourhoods, towns and cities in our locality. At ‘Doing Research Differently’, we wanted to explore the globally connected nature of local issues. By inviting speakers from New Zealand and the United States, we were able to hear about imagining better communities in different places but see the resonances with issues in the north of England. The event worked because speakers from Rotherham, Bradford and Huddersfield framed the day by showing that community-based research mattered and that knowledge was created in community settings. Nepia, Rangimarie, Ani and Sue confirmed the global connections.

We also learned that values matter in research – we need to know what we are doing research for and how we can apply the research to enable community organisations and institutions to develop themselves. Speakers from Rotherham in the UK and Māori scholars from New Zealand explored ethical ways of researching, emphasising that the researcher’s role is to listen and to learn and to facilitate, not to take control and make presumptions. Ani Mikaere explained how Te Wānanga-o-Raukawa had a set of guiding principles called Kaupapa and that all activities had to fit with them.
Milton reflected upon the values of Nguzo Saba – the seven principles of African heritage and how unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith, provided a similar coherent set of values that scholars might work with to ensure that their research was ethical. Ani Mikaere had reminded the audience that Linda Tuhiwai Smith considered that ‘“Research” is probably one of the dirtiest words in the indigenous world’s vocabulary.’ We wondered how far the individualistic concept of research dominant in UK and Western higher education would be able to decolonise itself to ensure that research could be for the communities rather than just about them. The opportunity afforded by academics and community researchers working together provides one safeguard to ensure research integrity. We considered that the discussion of ethics at the start of projects within a set of shared values seems more important than ever. The work of the Centre for Social Justice and Community Action at Durham University, which produced a report for the AHRC’s Connected Communities programme, called Community-based Participatory Research: Ethical Challenges provides an important starting point, and a holistic view of values matters to ensure that researchers work with integrity and good purpose.

Despite these being difficult questions, the day engendered a real sense of engagement about possibilities for the future and people left the event genuinely excited about imagining better futures.

Read our Event Report.