Researching health inequalities with Community Researchers: practical, methodological and ethical challenges of an ‘inclusive’ research approach
- Publisher: Springer Nature
Research Involvement and Engagement,
Participation | Health inequalities | Research Article | Identity | Ethics | Community Researchers | Methodology
Plain English summary Public health research sometimes uses members of communities as researchers. These are called Community Researchers. The advantage of using Community Researchers is that it enables people who live in communities to participate in research by designing the research, gathering data and being involved in analysis. This ‘participatory’ approach also has the potential to reach communities that might otherwise not be included in research. There are few studies that report the experiences of Community Researchers who take part in such research. This study helps fill this gap by exploring the issues and challenges faced by Community Researchers involved in a study of health and poverty in ethnically mixed areas of east London, UK. Through the accounts of 12 researchers, the study reveals that being a community ‘insider’ had advantages: many felt they had been able to gain the trust of respondents and access people for the research that would have otherwise been missed. The role of Community Researcher was, however, difficult to manage with some researchers feeling burdened by their role and the increased knowledge they had about the lives of those in their community. In addition to the personal challenges for the Community Researchers, the findings raise various ethical and methodological issues that need consideration in participatory research. Abstract Background Inclusive research approaches are increasingly employed by public health researchers. Recent methodological development includes the engagement of Community Researchers (CRs), who use their knowledge and networks to facilitate research with the community with which they identify. Few studies have explored the experiences of CRs in the research process, an important element of any comprehensive assessment of the pros and cons of such research endeavours. We report here on the experiences of CRs engaged in a study of health inequalities and poverty in ethnically diverse and disadvantaged areas of London, UK. Methods We draw on the experiences of 12 CRs. Two sets of data were generated, analysed and integrated: debriefing/active reflection exercises throughout the 18-month research process and individual qualitative interviews with CRs, conducted at the end of the project (n = 9). Data were organised using NVivo10 and coded line-by-line using a framework developed iteratively. Synthesis and interpretation were achieved through a series of reflective team exercises involving input from 4 of the CRs. Final consolidation of key themes was conducted by SS and ES. Results Being an ‘insider’ to the communities brought distinct advantages to the research process but also generated complexities. CRs highlighted how ‘something would be lost’ without their involvement but still faced challenges in gathering and analysing data. Some CRs found it difficult to practice reflexivity, and problems of ethnic stereotyping were revealed. Conflict between roles as community members and investigators was at times problematic. The approach promoted some aspects of personal empowerment, but CRs were frustrated by the limited impact of the research at the local level. Conclusions Working with CRs offers distinct practical, ethical and methodological advantages to public health researchers, but these are limited by a range of challenges related to ‘closeness’, orthodox research structures and practices and the complexities of dynamic identities. For research of this type to meet its full potential and avoid harm, there is a need for careful support to CRs and long-term engagement between funders, research institutions and communities.