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
County African American Men Project in and around Minneapolis, MN.)
I was generally impressed and inspired, although a couple of worries stick
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
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
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.