Evolving Relationships: Universities, Researchers and Communities

Michael Gurstein, Ph.D.

This issue of 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 led 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 (university) 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. However, 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 has been 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 (again from the university's perspective):

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 but under the control of 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.

Unfortunately, research of this type -- where the "research" questions are externally driven -- does not generally provide the opportunity for being able to step back and examine the broader social, economic, political historical or cultural context within which the community 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 (or for providing evidence is support of the 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.

One function of such research would be to identify the range of forces and interests within which the community is enclosed, allowing for successful action/implementation at the community level. 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 may through the contribution of their analytical skills assist in the process of achieving community self-understanding. Only then will the design and evaluation of strategies for self-development and empowerment be possible. Of course, it should be understood that often it is those in universities/researchers who have the most difficulty in understanding the circumstances of communities (and the means/requirements for empowerment) as they are coming from privileged positions where they are benefiting from the same "context" that disempowers the communities.[*]

To my mind, it is this latter form of relationship which could and should be the ideal for Community Informatics researchers. This is particularly the case at this time of overwhelming financial crisis in so many parts of the developed world and especially 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. As well they can act as a "bridge" or interpreter between the dominant "bureaucratic" (and research) discourse and the language and understanding at the community level and provide a means for communities to access resources from universities and elsewhere which they might not otherwise be able to access.

O'Donnell in private communication pointed out the role of community champions as central figures in community research (as in other areas). Her observation, with which I agree, is that communities often contain highly experienced individuals with deep and useful levels of understanding concerning the community context. It is generally these individuals with whom the researcher will most frequently and effectively interact. As O'Donnell notes "good research partnerships are about recognizing and building on the strengths of all the partners."

[*] I'm indebted to my colleague Susan O'Donnell of the University of New Brunswick for this observation and for other very pertinent observations many of which I've interwoven in this discussion.