Link to CSU home page

Information about this Journal

Call for Papers

Submission Guidelines

Events & Opportunities

List of Editorial Board members

List of Contributors

Link to ITL home page

Link to Exchanges home page

Community-Based Research and Higher Education: Principles and Practices

By Kerry J. Strand, Nicholas Cutforth, Randy Stoecker, Sam Marullo, and Patrick Donohue
304 pages
ISBN: 0-7879-6205-8
$33.00 (hardcover)

Reviewed by

Dorothy D. Wills

Department of Geography and Anthropology
California State Polytechnic University Pomona


This latest volume in Jossey-Bass's excellent Higher and Adult Education Series addresses the theoretical, organizational, methodological, and educational issues surrounding community-based research. It touches on the related activities of service learning, community outreach (linkages, partnerships, funding), and traditional social science research. Strand is a familiar figure in the field of service learning. Marullo and Stoecker, sociologists, have numerous publications to their credit. Donohue is the author of a manuscript on alternatives to the traditional classroom. The discursive and interpretive sweep of the work is extensive, including such theorists as Giroux and visionaries as Freire. Nonetheless, the practical advice and specific case studies are its greatest contribution.

The book begins with the suggestion of a cultural critique. Does anyone really care if we produce good global citizens? Apply scholarly knowledge to the solution of social problems? Create partnerships between universities and communities? The primary position taken by the authors is that, yes, someone does, and it is both the educators and the citizens. Community-based research is placed in the context of these questions; the authors are committed to the concept of education as taking an assertive leadership role in social progress, defined as solving social problems. This is essentially an activist view of scholarship, in which the advancement of knowledge is seen as intertwined with the interests of justice, social change, and community welfare. The book, in fact, is an incisive response to the position that the academy should not be in the business of saving the world, such as that articulated recently by Stanley Fish.1 However, the authors are also careful to remind scholars that their mastery of their fields does not put them in a position of superior authority or knowledge over their community collaborators.

There is a detailed history of community-based research (CBR), which identifies its beginnings in the model of "popular education." The authors do not make the association with late 19th/early 20th-century "applied" social science, which was essentially anthropology, sociology, and economics placed at the service of colonial administrations in their overseas territories (now the less-developed countries). In fact, there is little mention of the international applications of community-based research. Presumably this would have gone beyond the scope of the book. However, it is difficult to overlook the many "applied research" efforts that have taken place in the context of international economic development policy and practice. Some of these, not to mention the imperialist applied social science, have given community-based research a bad name in some quarters. The underlying assumption has been that no information derived from the community by outsiders or "experts" is ever used for the benefit of the community, particularly in a situation characterized by sociopolitical domination of a (Western) elite.

The book goes far in allaying whatever remaining concerns there may be regarding the beneficiaries of community-based research, at least in its modern form. In their review of the history of CBR, the authors cite the popular education model, the action research model, and participatory research. Popular education grew in the early part of the twentieth century through the involvement of local people in the study of their own neighborhoods so as to improve social services. Freire is also considered to have developed his ideas through a popular education model.2 Action research was originally associated with workplace exercises to enhance workers' understanding of management theory. The participatory research model arose in the 1970s in the context of international development, where it was recognized that top-down, science-driven community interventions did not produce the desired results. For communities to change, social scientists or development agents must adopt a collaborative approach that respects local experience and culture.

There is a basic explicit discussion of positivist epistemology (the empiricist paradigm holding that only objectively observable phenomena constitute fact) and the "cult of expertise" (the idea that all decision making should be left to professionals, scientists, or authorities). Both of these issues, if unacknowledged, threaten the acceptance and possible legitimacy of any penetration of communities by non-members. The collaborative, egalitarian posture of successful CBR recognizes multiple sources of knowledge and validates various types of participants, who are united in at least one common goal: social action or change for justice. There may, of course, be additional goals on everyone's parts.

Many disciplines, from traditional fields of sociology and anthropology to the newer ones of feminist theory and critical studies, can and do participate in CBR. One of the greatest contributions of the book is the many case studies provided, which illustrate the approaches of these multiple disciplines, the different problems or methodologies involved, the many possible scales and structures of the programs, and the various possible connections with a) teaching and students, b) community partners, c) university offices, and d) funding organizations. Each chapter contains several case studies presented as examples of particular principles the authors are detailing. For instance, community theater is used by the Youth Action Research Group, Washington, D.C., to communicate results of CBR, as discussed in the chapter on research practices. The YARG's work comes up again in a later section on CBR as a teaching strategy for civic education. Briefly, the group is studying the displacement effects of economic development on an immigrant neighborhood in Washington, D.C. The core participants are high school students who work with university students to carry out the community-based research (interviewing, land records analysis, focus groups with tenants of low-income housing) with facilitation from faculty and organizational staff. One important achievement was the formation of a tenants' association that acquired property from the corporate owner (pp. 117, 133).

Four types of CBR are analyzed in Chapter 8: the solo practitioner model, the simple structure model, the complex structure model, and the metropolitan consortium model.Though it is never claimed that all of higher education directly contributes to social change, it seems to be possible to view much of it as having potential as CBR. Many faculty have probably been employing the solo practitioner model, perhaps incompetently, when doing contractual work with industry, conducting local projects, arranging student internships, and involving community friends in campus activity. Most institutions have a research office fitting the description of either the simple or complex model, whether consciously or no. Many of our institutions thus have sufficient experience and support to increase their engagement in CBR. The lucid discussion in the book of why we might want to increase such engagement points to the humanitarian, scholarly, and institutional goals that can be achieved.

The book takes a didactic approach to the various issues involved in their subject. It is almost a guidebook or text. It provides detailed instruction on finding and starting partnerships, the role of the CBR center, methodological principles and practices, how to use CBR as a teaching strategy, how to incorporate service learning, and organizing the institution for CBR. The latter discussion is rather daunting in an era of shrinking budgets. Some institutions have laid in extensive bureaucratic infrastructure for the support of CBR, service learning, and related activities, which may or may not be part of their research offices. Many administrators and staff are required by such a design. Faculty-community teams might appreciate the resources and know-how contained in an elaborate office, but they may also see it as a drain of resources that might better have been spent in the community itself. In times of plenty, a complex CBR structure would probably be desirable. As the authors point out themselves, communities often lack specialized institutions for establishing linkages with university partners. Thus, the community team members directly confront a highly organized bureaucracy, while the university team members have a more informal, even anarchic experience. This may make for communication difficulties.

The casual reader who is a scholar or teacher may at first ask, "Don't we already know how to do this?" Further reading, however, is guaranteed to convince that reader that there is uncharted territory in every community liaison and research project, but that a few of our colleagues are working out the cartography very thoroughly. Some of the legal issues are explored in a fascinating manner, such as the question of who owns the data from CBR. This ownership problem is of course related to the general issue of intellectual property, which affects all who teach, write, or conduct research while they are affiliated with an institution of higher education. The book is thus valuable even for those who have no intention of ever doing CBR.


1. Fish, Stanley, "Why we Built the Ivory Tower," New York Times May 21, 2004.

2. Freire, Paulo, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, New York: Continuum, 1970.

Posted September 2, 2004
Modified September 3, 2004.

All material appearing in this journal is subject to applicable copyright laws.
Publication in this journal in no way indicates the endorsement of the content by the California State University, the Institute for Teaching and Learning, or the Exchanges Editorial Board. ©2004 by Dorothy D. Wills.

·· exchanges ·· reviews ·· top of this page ·· | ITL home