April 11, 1998

Stephen E. Barton

Comments on "Are Academics Irrelevant?", with some comparisons to "Universities in Crisis":

It is never a fair comment to say that an author should have written a different paper, but I was hoping Randy Stoecker would provide us with a somewhat different paper with a broader focus on the role of participatory research in building social movements for greater equality. Is non-participatory research ever a valid activity? Is it possible to do participatory research whose purpose is not immediate community organizing but improving social theories? Can the two be combined? The nice side of the Dolgon paper is that he is working as part of a community organizing effort, applying social theories of race, class, and power in his discussions with other members of the group, and then reflecting on that effort, so that perhaps the theories can be improved. By limiting the subject of the paper to questions internal to participatory research when there is nothing much on the COMM-ORG web site about other kinds of research it is hard to know what context to place the paper in.

If "community self-determination" is an essential part of the definition of participatory research, then I think some research should help people grapple with the social construction of community. What are the ethical dilemmas inherent in taking direction from a "community" whose beliefs are necessarily shaped by many prejudices and internalized oppression as well as the desire for empowerment and greater justice? When does the researcher, or the organizer, openly disagree with the community being organized? Again, a nice part of the Dolgon paper, even though it is not about "research" as normally understood, is the incorporation of argument and developing understanding. So often applied research means demonstrating that redlining exists, rather than grappling with anything that is challenging to the "community" itself.

Part of the original idea of socialist parties and the socialist international was some level of systematic learning from many different experiences. It seems to me that the current focus on participatory research reflects the fact that so many left intellectuals are in the University, have no broad party organizations to relate to (that form may now be obsolete) and have not successfully worked out an alternative using looser networks and methods of learning from each other. What is particularly important about COMM-ORG, of course, is that it is one such effort.