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Jill Chopyak, Executive Director of the Loka Institute, details her organization's work on community action research.

Think of a typical “scientist” and what image comes to mind? How about a housewife wearing blue jeans who tests local water quality? Or a group of high school students conducting studies on the health effects of diesel exhaust fumes in their neighborhood? Across the globe, a quiet movement is gathering momentum—one which involves lay citizens in conducting research in response to community-defined needs. “Community-based research”—research that involves lay people working with professionally trained scientists in a community-driven process—has become a powerful tool for community activists and individual citizens. Through this approach, communities are given a voice in a process that has traditionally been left to professional researchers in universities and federal institutions. Community-based research provides the opportunity for individual citizens to collaborate with professional researchers in defining a problem, conducting the research, interpreting results, and using the results to effect constructive social and environmental change. Community outreach and education are built directly into the research process.


Pioneered several decades ago by practitioners who challenged conventional top-down approaches to development, community-based research expanded the traditional research process to make it relevant to real-life problems. In the early 1970s, researchers—primarily in Asia and Latin America—began to question the inability of most research to solve the myriad of problems individuals within these societies were facing. Working with oppressed communities, researchers began to collaborate with community members in designing and implementing research projects that had direct relevance to their struggles.

Since the 1980s, community-based research has become a well-known and widely practiced research methodology as well as a powerful tool for social change in countries around the world. In addition, community-based research practitioners have begun to collaborate through networks in order to improve their work and share resources. The most developed network is in the Netherlands, where the Dutch have pioneered a national network of “science shops.” Located at or near each of the nation’s 13 universities, the 38 science shops conduct research on questions posed by citizen groups, trade unions, and public interest organizations. Some science shops are general and others are specifically focused on disciplines such as chemistry, biology, and history. Paid staff members and student interns in each shop screen questions and refer challenging problems to university faculty members and students.

During the formative years of the shops, faculty generally performed the research; however, currently graduate and undergraduate students do much of the work, under faculty supervision. Students receive university credit, often turning their investigations into graduate research. Because students are doing research and writing papers, and the faculty are supervising and evaluating their work, both groups are doing what they would be doing as part of their regular workloads. The difference is that project results are not simply filed away and forgotten. Instead, they help people address important social, environmental, and public health problems that are of concern to their community.

As a result of their work at science shops, some professors have conducted follow-up research projects, published scholarly articles on new topics, developed innovative research methods, forged new interdisciplinary collaborations, and modified courses they teach. Because they are networked with one another, the various Dutch science shops are able to share information and make cross-referrals. Today they respond to about 2,000 annual research requests, and have inspired the creation of additional science shops in Austria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, England, Germany, Malaysia, Northern Ireland, and Romania.

Community-Based Research in the United States

The Dutch model inspired the Loka Institute—a nonprofit research, education, and advocacy organization located in Amherst, Massachusetts—to bring this concept to the United States and create the Community Research Network (CRN). Modeled partly on the Dutch network, the CRN supports participatory, community-based research efforts worldwide.

In July 1998, Loka conducted a study on the state of community-based research in the United States, and found over 50 community research centers around the country, dealing with a variety of issues—from environmental health to campaign finance. Since the study’s release, the number of known research centers in the country has grown to over 100. These research centers are bringing individual citizens from all walks of life into the research process.

For example, in New York City, seven of nine bus depots are located in disadvantaged and underserved communities of northern Manhattan. Harlem residents raised concern when a new depot was constructed across from a junior high school. Community-based West Harlem Environmental Action (WE ACT) formed a research partnership with researchers at Columbia University and health care providers at Harlem Hospital Center and Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center. As part of this effort, Harlem high school students collected and helped analyze data on diesel exhaust exposure and lung function among a sample of Harlem students. Their study suggests that most adolescents in Harlem are exposed to detectable levels of diesel exhaust, a known accelerator of chronic lung disorders such as asthma. Further studies have now been funded. The participating Harlem high school students coauthored an article published in the peer-reviewed American Journal of Public Health (July 1999).

With members of the Community Research Network, the Loka Institute is working to promote such collaboration between university researchers, graduate students, and community members. Our web-based, searchable CRN database has information about community-based research centers and researchers around the country. Each year we hold a national conference which provides the opportunity for face-to-face networking, collaboration, and problem-solving between both researchers and community activists. And our collaborative work with various organizations to develop guidelines for community-based research is providing a framework for training scientists and community members in how to effectively use this methodology.

Community-based research provides students and professional researchers with a tremendous opportunity to use their skills to solve real-world problems that communities are facing, and to learn—from community members—how their expertise can be used to effect change. Moreover, community-based research is a skill-building and empowerment tool for individual citizens, thus creating a nationwide community research system that makes empowerment through mutual learning universally accessible.

Jill Chopyak
Executive Director
The Loka Institute
P.O. Box 355
Amherst, MA 01004
Tel: 413-559-5860

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