Does collaborating with communities on research make it lower quality or less legitimate science? Does focusing on science in community work undermine the relevance of research to communities and reduce their agency? Is there a conflict between these concerns or can they be overcome?

Here at CAT Lab, we have regular Big Tent meetings where we discuss our research and the art of navigating the institutions where research makes a difference. This week, we’re discussing the challenge of harmonizing participatory research with science – and doing so in a way that other scholars will find legible.

To start (5 minutes), read the following press release about a study by Paluck, Shepherd, and Aronow. Then read the first two paragraphs of the related research paper, which was written for a social psychology and social science audience:

After reading about the Roots project, let’s discuss the basics of the study and what stood out to you about the project (5 minutes).

Next, break into pairs, discuss, and report back:

  • What about this project made it science?
  • In what way did this project involve communities and participants in the development and implementation of the research?

Next, in pairs, discuss (and report back): what did the researchers gain and lose by working with all students in the schools and not just students they considered marginalized/vulnerable or students they considered sources of problems?

  • for science
  • for imagining an effective intervention
  • for convincing policymakers to support the Roots project in the future

As a scientific study aimed at producing generalizable knowledge, this paper has inspired schools across the country and around the world to to test similar youth-led initiatives. As a group, discuss:

  • Many academics think of high school students as learners rather than creative contributors to science. How does this study incorporate the expertise of students?
  • Many attempts at universal solutions to a problem fail when they are tried outside of the context where they started. In their study design, how do the researchers manage the tension between the search for universal discoveries about psychology and the importance of local, contextual expertise?

Finally, identify a project that you’re working on right now. With your partner, brainstorm one of the two following questions (10 minutes – 5 minutes each):

  • If your project starts with a community question, how do/might you explain and justify it to the sub-field of scientists you care about?
  • If your project is focused on a science question, what is one part of the project that could include the people in your study in meaningful ways?

Image source:(Photo by of Elizabeth Levy Paluck, Princeton University)