Academic institutions educate future social workers and researchers to address contemporary challenges. However, research, education and action are often conducted separately and consecutively, making knowledge creation and dissemination a top-down process, detached from practice and struggling to keep pace with evolving social problems. Mounting social challenges and increasing inequalities have sparked renewed interest in participatory action research (PAR). The purpose of this study was to assess the potential of a model combining PAR with social work education, and community activism. The PAR study was conducted at University of Maryland School of Social Work in collaboration with Baltimore housing advocates in the framework of an advanced MSW research course. Research questions were designed to identify challenges and opportunities in combining research, action, and education (1) How were partnerships created? (2) What were the benefits and costs to different stakeholders? (3) What were the major concerns raised by this model?
This study utilizes instrumental case study methodology applied when investigating contemporary phenomenon in their natural environment. Data were gathered using interviews, observations, and written material from students. For the interviews we employed purposive sampling and snowball sampling to recruit twenty community activists and ten community workers. For observations we selected a variety of public venues and events where stakeholders came together for planning and actions. Student data were gathered using written material such as notes and presentations collected throughout the research period. Data were analyzed thematically. In coding we used an interpretive, phenomenological lens that privileged participants’ perspectives. Methods to enhance rigor including member checking, peer debriefing, and triangulation.
Finding suggest that collaboration among faculty, students and communities provide relevant research opportunities regarding pressing social justice issues, student education, community empowerment and advancement of social change. However, this collaboration poses complex challenges, especially when working with communities that have long been exploited and marginalized. Such partnerships require relationship building and open communication over the course of the research study. Several ethical dilemmas arose, including varying degrees of involvement of different stakeholders, adherence to IRB regulation while promoting active and egalitarian community participation, student exposure and safety. Logistical, technical, and funding challenges include the coordination of timing and execution of tasks, resources and schedules in underfunded research. Educating students in PAR is an opportunity for much-needed hands-on research and practice experience. However, it requires personalized, sensitive and flexible course instruction.
Conclusions and Implications
While a model that combines research, education and action demands careful planning and implementation, this case study suggests its potential benefits outweigh the challenges. The model may be effective, especially when addressing complex social problems that require creative solutions, critical thinking, and diverse viewpoints. To advance this model, universities must support researchers and students and promote community engagement. Students should be encouraged to join courses using innovative pedagogy to provide hands-on research experience and exposure to social work practice. Communities that can benefit from this model should be introduced to the potential of such partnerships to advance social change.