February 28, 2003
I spent almost all of today at a good Democracy Collaborative conference on "engaged," or "collaborative," or "community-based" research (i.e., research in which academics and members of a community work together, at least to frame a common research agenda and sometimes to conduct the whole project.) There was a lot of talk about potential research involving University of Maryland faculty in our own community, Prince George's County, although many of the speakers came from elsewhere. (One of the best was Gary Cunningham, who runs the Hennepin County African American Men Project in and around Minneapolis, MN.) I was generally impressed and inspired, although a couple of worries stick with me.
First, this was the kind of conference in which everyone quickly feels comfortable with one another and starts to talk as "we." For example: "We need to convince young people to work in the World Bank, so that they can bring our perspective inside that place." But no one ever exactly says what defines "us." I suspect this is partly because everyone in the room is on the left, and that's their most fundamental identity. That's why they all feel confortable with one another. But the agenda and purpose of the meeting are officially non-partisan and non-ideological: we're supposed to be talking about research in partnership with communities. The fact that everyone is on the left is an unacknowledged but crucial fact.
Second, one graduate student gave a presentation on an extremely disadvantaged group that she had studied. No one asked the kind of questions that would routinely arise after a presentation at a regular academic event. For example, individuals had volunteered to participate in her focus groups, and no one asked whether these volunteers were representative of the whole population being studied. Also, many of the individuals claimed to have given up drugs, but no one asked whether this claim was tested or credible. I wondered why these questions didn't come up. (I didn't ask them, either). Here are three guesses:
- She made a good presentation about a terribly oppressed group, and everyone was moved and sympathetic and didn't want to appear skeptical in any respect. or
- People who do action-research are not primed to think about such matters as the representativeness of their samples. or
- This was a middle-aged, female, African American graduate student and no one wanted to ask the tough questions that they would naturally pose of a young, white student who was starting on the standard academic career path.
If the last hypothesis is true, than I worry about what one of my least favorite presidents calls "the soft bigotry of low expectations." In other words, I hope we are not afraid to ask tough questions of middle-aged, black, female graduate students because we think that they will be unable to answer effectively.