Evolving Relationships: Universities, Researchers and Communities:: Special Issue: Journal of Community Informatics: University — Community Relationships

Posted on January 12, 2012

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This issue of The Journal of Community Informatics (JoCI) deals with research relationships between universities and university based ICT researchers  and communities. These matters are, of course of central significance to Community Informatics since much of CI is, in one form or another, linked into this type of relationship.

These papers, however interesting and valuable they are in giving us insight and direction into how these relationships can be undertaken in ways which are respectful, productive and mutually advantageous; perhaps raise as many questions as they resolve. And here I point to these questions not to be critical of the individual papers or the issue overall, but rather to indicate how complex and challenging this area can be for those concerned and how this complexity has broader significance for the overall nature of CI both in the academic world and as a practice in the field.

The first question to ask is how have university community relations evolved in the context of the broad evolution of universities and particularly the current widely observed trend toward corporatization of universities, university research and even university teaching. The rise of “user pays” approaches to universities as in other spheres  (in most of the OECD countries among others) has meant that the financing of universities increasingly relies on tuition, overhead from research funds, corporate (and other, including alumni) donations, and endowments where available, for funding.  This has lead to very significant increases in the cost of tuition (and the related student loan crises particularly in the US) as well as a more “business-like” (corporate) approach to university management.

In the context of the relationship with communities one effect of this evolution is to bring increasing attention to the need for broader political support for universities including among key local and regional stakeholders which in turn has in some instances led universities to enhance their relationships with local communities (in the spirit of “Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)” if nothing else). From a CI perspective this probably presents opportunities for extending existing relationships and establishing new ones under the overall rubric (in the largely US terminology) of “service learning”. The challenge here of course, is to have these relationships be anything other than another form of paternalism — spreading the intellectual largesse of the university into the hinterland whether the hinterland has an interest or not.

Using university based resources to support community empowerment through ICTs should in principle fit within this framework but one expects that university administrations with a focus on CSR may find projects or programs tackling issues of direct concern to communities rather riskier in a variety of directions than they may wish to tackle. They would prefer I would expect to rather focus on how to link communities into broader corporate or government agendas as for example, through training or job readiness programs, support for centralized service delivery programs and so on.  Of course, these agendas may be quite consistent with self-developed community agendas but the option for pursuing other objectives may not be made available.

Another effect of the changing funding environment is to have universities and higher education overall focus on job readiness, skills and “entrepreneurship” training to the degree possible.  Here as well, one would think that there may be additional opportunities for university based teaching and research to enable students with an interest in working with communities and ICTs as a longer term career but in practice CI and the “community” sector in general is seen as being on the wrong side of an “employment divide” where attention is paid and resources provided to train for employment in the private sector while much less attention is paid to those with an interest in and willingness to work in the public and not for profit sectors where much of CI employment would be found. Thus, as I’ve noted a number of times in the past, while no self-respecting university in the world would not have a program in Management Information Systems (MIS) designed to support the development and use of systems to enable and empower primarily corporate management in the pursuit of their goals, one looks in vain for equivalent programs in Community Information Systems whose objectives would be the development and use of Information Systems in support of enabling and empowering communities to pursue community derived goals.

While a hierarchy of relationships between university researchers and communities isn’t directly referred to in the papers in this special issue perhaps it would be useful to point to what one might look like:

Research on Communities–this is the traditional relationship between researchers/academics and communities where communities are seen and treated as passive objects in or on which the research process is undertaken

Research for Communities–this is a common terminology particularly in a bureaucratic or “developmental” context which refers to research that is done by outsiders but which (nominally or otherwise) is presented as under the control of or in the interests of the local community

Research with Communities–this is the circumstance, covering most of the cases described in this special issue, where communities are engaged with as research “partners” with the researcher.  A close examination of the papers in this issue will provide a good understanding and introduction to many of the issues and dilemmas which arise in the course of attempting such relationships.

Research by Communities–this is often the desired goal for those concerned with community-based research, that is where the community itself undertakes the research (or at least significant elements of it)  with the researcher providing assistance and support as and where this may be required by the community.

In this overall context and in light of some of the issues emerging from the current escalating economic crises and the “occupy” movement, I believe it might useful to add a 5th category to this hierarchy. This layer would be “Research by Communities towards self-empowerment”.

Much if not most “community-based research” is research done in response to an external requirement or stimulus–a community organization doing a donor-funded evaluation of a local program, a community doing a local needs assessment or resource inventory, and so on.  These types of research are of course valuable and useful in themselves including for building community capacity–skills and confidence.  They do however, for the most part, lack the broad means for placing the results of the research or perhaps more importantly designing the research itself in a framework which would allow the community to understand the broader social, economic, political, historical and/or cultural context(s) in which the community (and the particular research initiative) finds itself. A resource inventory that doesn’t look at how the local community accesses (or is restricted in its access to) larger social and economic resources including for education and health care for example, or a program evaluation that doesn’t look at historical factors in providing the context for program success or failure (or perhaps most important overall program conceptualization and design) is providing a severely restricted base for self-understanding on the part of the community.

It is only through a critical examination of the broader context in which the community finds itself (and including such things as externally funded projects and programs) that the community can achieve the degree of self-understanding sufficient for it to undertake effective action both in the context of specific initiatives and in larger environments. Only in this larger sense would it become possible to design and evaluate strategies for self-development which, by recognizing the range of forces and interests within which the community is enclosed, would allow for some possibility of successful implementation at the community level and the broad achievement of the goals for implementation and collaborative action. It is through providing support in this latter relationship that the researcher/academic becomes not simply a source of “technical” support to the community but through the contribution of their analytical skills that the most dynamic and powerful relationships can be developed.

To my mind, it is this latter form of relationship which could and should be the ideal for Community Informatics researchers particularly at this time of overwhelming financial crisis in so many parts of the developed world and particularly since the burden of responding to and working one’s way out of these crises are being foisted onto the backs of largely blameless grassroots communities.  Helping communities to understand these contexts and to explore alternative technology (and otherwise) enabled strategies to respond would seem at this juncture in history to be the highest possible calling for researchers of all kinds and including those working within the framework of Community Informatics.

The Journal of Community Informatics

Special Issue: Research in Action: Linking Communities and Universities

The Table of Contents

Editorial
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Evolving Relationships: Universities, Researchers and Communities
Michael Gurstein

Research in Action for Community Informatics: A matter for conversation

Matthew Allen,    Marcus Foth

Articles
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Rhetoric and the Digital Humanities: Imagining The Michigan State University Israelite Samaritan Collection as the Foundation for a Thriving Social Network

Jim Ridolfo,    William Hart-Davidson,    Michael McLeod

Visions, Participation and Engagement in New Community Information Infrastructures

John M Carroll,    Michael A. Horning,    Blaine Hoffman,    Craig H Ganoe,    Harold
R. Robinson,    Mary Beth Rosson

Research informing practice: Toward effective engagement in community ICT in New Zealand

Barbara Craig,    Jocelyn E. Williams

Community-based learning: A model for higher education and community partnerships

Peter Day

DigiPopEd: Popular Education and Digital Culture

Dan O’Reilly-Rowe

Conducting ICT Research in Community Networks: Reflections from a Long Term Study of the European Social Forum
Saqib Saeed,    Markus Rohde,    Volker Wulf

Towards Participatory Action Design Research: Adapting Action Research and Design Science Research Methods for Urban Informatics

Mark Bilandzic,    John Venable

Participant-Making: bridging the gulf between community knowledge and academic research

Ann Light,    Paul Egglestone,    Tom Wakeford,    Jon Rogers

Notes from the field
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Networking for Communications Challenged Communities: Report from a European project targeting conditions of poor or lacking ICT coverage
Maria Kristina Udén