Community Engagement Research Methods

Community Engagement Research Methods: an orientation

by John Dempsey Parker,

The Context for Engaging Community:

Communities have authority around their shared histories, interests, and goals. Communities also have responsibilities to take care of their own and improve their quality of life.   In addition, they have capacities to thrive, be vibrant, and resilient, and to identify, organize, and mobilize their assets. Community solidarity is functional in terms of group decision-making, sharing, reciprocity, survival, accountability, self-preservation, self-determination, and self-reliance. In general, social power can be defined generically according to a combination of four basic capabilities:

  • Mobility: the ability to be where one is “at home” and to move where one wishes
  • Access: the ability to procure what one needs for health and well-being
  • Self-determination and self-reliance: the ability to make the decisions that most affect one’s life
  • Influence: the ability to be heard, seen, and respected[1]

Ideally, through deliberation and organization, communities can empower voices and leadership to take action.

Community Engagement Goals (proposed):

  • Nurture meaningful connection and conversation in order to strengthen relationships
  • Uplift narratives of love, connection, equity, and solidarity
  • Target unjust policies and disrupt narratives of hate, greed, exploitation, materialism, violence, and delusion
  • Strengthen relationships and strategies for strengthening thriving cultures that build community

Engagement Values (recommended):

  • Gratitude
  • Solidarity
  • Hospitality
  • Cooperation
  • Creativity
  • Collaboration
  • Stewardship
  • Thriving

Engagement Principles (recommended):

  • Strive to have an open mind, heart, and spirit
  • Everyone is a teacher and learner
  • Everyone contains within them the seeds to make change
  • Everyone is sacred, divine, and holy, just as they are
  • Reach people where they are
  • Collaborate – work together – in solidarity – really be with each other
  • Focus on what contributes to empowerment, resilience, and thriving
  • Everything changes

Engagement Research Skills:

  • Be intentional and authentic. Be transparent about your mission and role(s).
  • Be present, aware, awake, and observe.
  • Build and strengthen rapport and relationships.
  • Be cognizant of power, race, class, etc. issues and influences. Strive for being culturally competent and appropriate.
  • Actively and empathetic listen and participate.
  • Plan and Design the Engagement: What are your initial interests, questions, goals, and plans?  Where do you start? How do you move forward and keep moving forward?
  • Find Things Out:  Uncovering facts within their contexts.  Asking good questions and discerning the answers.  Needs and assets analysis.  Conduct archival and background literature research, and interviewing (unstructured, semi-structured, and structured interviews, surveys, questionnaires and focus groups).
  • Analyze and Learn Things: Data, policy, story, and narrative analysis and interpretation.  Assess, critique, and reflect, aiming for understanding and clarity. Adapt and continue the engagement.
  • Communicate:  Share and connect with others about the experience and lessons learned.  Write-up the interviews, observations, and lessons learned. Create something – summaries, presentations, reports, trainings, advocacy sessions, designing policies, and offering recommendations.
  • Develop an open dialogue, maintain good relationships, and be accountable to your relationships

Recommended Resources

  • Abundant Community:
  • The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods by John McKnight and Peter Block
  • Ambassadors of Reconciliation, Vols. 1 and 2 by Ched Myers and Elaine Enns
  • Asset-Based Community Development Institute:
  • Beloved Community Center, Greensboro, North Carolina:
  • Centre for Imaginative Ethnography:
  • Community: The Structure of Belonging by Peter Block
  • Community Tool Box:
  • Doing Ethnography Today by Luke Eric Lassiter and Elizabeth Campbell
  • Ethnography as a Pastoral Practice by Mark Clark Moschella
  • Everyday Theology: How to Read Cultural Texts and Interpret Trends by Kevin Vanhoozer (ed)
  • Highlander Center, Tennessee:
  • Louisiana Voices:
  • NC Rural Center:
  • NCSU Institute for Emerging Issues:
  • Neighborhood Story Project, New Orleans:
  • Preaching as Local Theology and Folk Art by Leonora Tisdale
  • UNC Southern Oral History Program:
  • Watershed Discipleship: Re-inhabiting Bioregional Faith and Practice by Ched Myers
  • Watershed Discipleship Alliance:

Acknowledgements: I’d like to acknowledge a number of individuals who have been or are resources and support in my research, thinking, and living around this work: David K. Evans (Wake Forest University Anthropology Dept.), Janis Foster (Community Foundation of Greater Memphis), Maria King (WNCCUMC), Nelson and Joyce Johnson (Beloved Community Center), Ched Myers (Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries), Helen Anne Regis (Louisiana State University), Mikki Sager (Conservation Fund), Jeff Thigpen (Register of Deeds, Guilford County, NC), Robb Webb (Duke Endowment), and Brandon Wrencher (WNCCUMC). I also appreciate the helpful conversations with the following folks: Rachel Bruenlin (University of New Orleans and Neighborhood Story Project), Amy Cox Hall (independent anthropologist), Barbara Garrity-Blake (independent anthropologist, Raising the Story and Coastal Voices), Rae Jean Proeschold-Bell (Duke Clergy Health Initiative) and Shana Walton (Nicholls State University).

[1] Adapted from Myers, Ched and Elaine Enns. 2009. Ambassadors of Reconciliation, Vol. 2, page 30.