Rules of Engagement: Shifting the Perspective of Research


Anthropology’s history, and science’s for that matter, is rife with stories of researchers traipsing into small communities, collecting data on these people, then leaving and never telling the community what become of said data or what the results were of the research. Now, after centuries of doing this, researchers are trying engage — even have establish relationships — with communities. Sometimes communities want none of it. Sometimes communities want to engage with researchers and the researchers want none of it.

Why this shift from the proverbial one-night stand type research toward engagement?


You are:

  1. a tax payer
  2. a community member
  3. a researcher trying to help or gain insight to a community.

Researchers around the world seek funding from government agencies. These government agencies get their funds from taxpayers, like you. And because you are you, you want to know how your tax dollars are being spent. It isn’t good enough for the government to tell you that your taxes were spent on ‘research’. No. You want to know what kind of research, and what that research found out. You want to know how the research is impacting YOU.

This has been a big shift in the way and how research has been done.

Up until a few years ago, researchers would apply to get a lump sum of your tax dollars and could then spend it according to a very loose budget. Final report? What’s that? Researchers didn’t have to hire students. If they did, they could be paid as slave labour. Researchers could also shift their methodology or topic after obtaining funding and no one would be the wiser. And not too long ago, tax payers’ dollars could be used to fund, what we now consider, unethical research on humans and animals.

While all of this is a simplistic summation, it makes the point that nowadays things are a wee bit stricter. Auditing and compliance enforcement ensure funding is spent according to an approved budget. Research ethics boards review all publicly-funded research to ensure it meets appropriate standards.

Amongst all this transparency, the tax payer also wants some bang for the buck. “What’s this research got to do with me?” you ask.

But, along with this, minority and marginalized groups and small communities who have historically been the targets of researchers are yelling a big ‘WTF!’ and either refusing to work with new researchers or not allowing them access, period. They are sick of the one-night stand type of research. They want a relationship. They want buy-in. They want to have a say in not only what research is being done on them (they have some questions too, ya know), but also how research is done. And, dammit, they want to know the results.

From Unicef

Researchers tried to live without communities. There are stories where the all-knowing scientists or evidence-informed policymakers tried to implement treatments, drugs, or new techniques without consulting or gathering community-specific information. These treatments, drugs, or new techniques were refused by the communities. Why? Usually because they were viewed as, or actually were, harmful to the community (ie, cultural mores were opposed, unknown co-morbid factors caused health issues). Meanwhile, researchers and policymakers were stumped as to why these stupid communities weren’t doing what was obviously in their best interests.

This brings us back to the shift in perspective.

Between you (the tax payer), you (the community member), and you (the researcher), the way research has been done needed to change. The way research was done needed to be transparent from start to finish and beyond.

Communities want researchers to come and answer some of their burning questions.

Tax payers need to know that research being conducted with their dollars is ethical, sound, and is doing something for them.

Researchers need to know more about who will be using their research to ensure that it not only will help, but that the intended recipient will use it.

We are now in the age of research impact. Welcome to the time when research must demonstrate its value and its use to Joe Public and his sister. If Joe and his sister can’t use it, sorry, no-go. The researcher isn’t likely to be publicly-funded.

The outcome of this new age? Very little ‘pure science’ or ‘research for the sake of research’. It also requires something that some academics are finding a bit tough: researchers must come down from their Ivory Tower and commune with the masses. Oh yeah. That’s gotta hurt.

More on this to come….


Just a Wee Bit of Further reading (but definitely not exclusive to):

Structured Decision Making: A Practical Guide to Environmental Management Choices – Gregory et al

Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council: Community Engagement – Government of Canada

Biological Anthropology and Ethics: From Repatriation to Genetics – Turner (ed)

The Eleventh Thesis: Applied Anthropology as Praxis (Human Organization. Summer 1992; Vol. 51, No 2, Pg 155 – 163) – W. Warry (There doesn’t appear to be an Open Access version. Sorry.)

Canada’s shameful history of nutrition research on residential school children: The need for strong medical ethics in Aboriginal health research (Paediatr Child Health. 2014 Feb; 19(2): 64) – McDonald, Stanwick, Lynk


One response to “Rules of Engagement: Shifting the Perspective of Research

  1. Pingback: Rules of Engagement: Continuing the Shift | The Reluctant Archaeologist·

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