People don’t exist as isolated entities, and social programs, movements, or data analytic methods that assume they do are not aligned with reality—and may be doomed to fail. We all know that providing therapy or tutoring to a child may be less effective than hoped if the child’s parents, peers, school, and neighborhood are not also operating in a way that’s conducive to the child’s growth and well-being. Yet too often, we pass social policies or create interventions that are targeted only at the individual level. In a culture that overemphasizes the individual, community research draws on truths that are frequently ignored.
Community Psychology is probably one of the more complex fields in the social sciences because it embraces multiple levels of influence rather than simple individual differences. We are not always aware of the potent effects of an individual’s context, and there is evidence that the environment can have profound effects even on things that have been considered genetically derived. Before Community Psychology really began to form cohesive ideas around contextual impacts, sociologists were attempting to develop theories and methods that capture social contexts. Their Sociology-of-Knowledge theories are illustrative and have been used to understand people’s perceptions of reality, social change, and the role of social institutions. Present-day community researchers are not only interested in understanding the different levels of influence, but also in understanding the interplay between these levels, and working with community members to use this knowledge to build stronger communities.
Our methods of analysis reflect a focus on a systems point of view — on complex transactional systems in particular. For example, dynamic social network analyses are now being used to model how social relationships affect long-term sobriety in Oxford Houses, which are a national network of self-help operated sober living residential settings. In DePaul’s 25 year collaborative relationship with Oxford House, many of the topics studied were initially raised by members of the self-help organization, such as the social dynamics within houses and the best predictor for long-term recovery. Previous studies performed in partnership with this community based organization have incorporated a wide range of quantitative, qualitative, and mixed methods.
The integration of community members in the research and design process has led to deep understanding of the unique cultural context of the communities in which they’re implemented, which can be furthered by the use of qualitative or mixed methods. Participatory practices and methodological pluralism are requirements for community researchers, as we understand that statistics and stories both provide valuable information. A more diverse toolbox makes us better equipped to address a wide range of issues in varied and changing contexts.
Social change comes in many forms, but all forms of change can benefit from an increasingly informed and engaged world. As the availability of data increases, so will opportunities to facilitate individual and collective action based on data. Community psychologists and other researchers have been serving this kind of role for decades, positioning ourselves not as experts with pre-determined solutions to social issues, but as facilitators with a certain set of tools that can help people understand and improve their communities. When people are able to work together to develop solutions to community problems, or see where larger societal barriers make that change difficult, they can act accordingly. This kind of change, catalyzed and sustained by the people most affected and taking into account the complex realities of our social systems, is most likely to lead to long lasting success.
Featured image credit: “Data Visualization of Street Trees” by Intel Free Press, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.