Who or what is ‘the community’ in community-based research?

11 May 2017

As part of MSFHR’s series on effective knowledge translation Dr. Olivier Ferlatte, a post-doctoral research fellow at the Men’s Health Research program at the UBC School of Nursing, poses the question: Who or what is ‘the community’ in community-based research?

For more KT conversations visit KT Encounters.

Who or what is ‘the community’ in community-based research?

I have been investigating the relationships between homophobia, violence and health outcomes among gay and bisexual men for nearly a decade. Like many health researchers, I have adopted a Community-Based Research (CBR) approach because I believe that the meaningful involvement of community produces better research that can redress social and research inequities.

In my own work, I have witnessed the numerous advantages of CBR: It produces better and more relevant knowledge, the translation of this knowledge and its uptake by communities is higher, and CBR tends to focus on community strengths – a much-needed remedy to decades of academic research that has medicalized and stigmatized gay men.

The benefits of CBR are well documented, so it is not surprising that funders are increasingly requesting researchers include communities in their projects. This has led CBR, which started as a marginal movement, to become mainstream. Many researchers are integrating the principles of CBR into their research programs, whether that be by convening an advisory group or committing to fully community-driven research.

Like many others proponent of this research approach, I am excited to see the growing interest in CBR. However I am becoming uneasy about how the term ‘community’ is used with much flexibility and liberty.

Who is ‘the community’ in CBR?

I have noticed three common obstacles to good CBR:

  • #ProjectSoWhite: The Oscars are not the only platform lacking diversity, many CBR projects do too. In my own area of research, gay health, I rarely see researchers seeking the voice of gay men who are also of colour, transgender, or living with a disability (to give a few examples). This problem is often due to ‘communities’ being treated as monolith and defined by essentialist assumptions about who ‘belongs’. This can result in the silencing of marginalized people within these communities rather than acknowledging the full diversity of experiences.
  • Service providers ≠ community: Service providers (such as executive directors or program managers of non-profits) are often asked to represent a community on research projects. But this raises powerful questions about whether service providers are suitable substitutes for community members, and if they can effectively represent the interests of the community as a whole. My experience in my field is that although service providers may identify as gay, they are more likely to be white, urban, older and cisgender. As such, they may not be equipped to advocate for the needs of gay men whose lives cut across multiple disadvantages.
  • Ghosting: Millennials use the term ‘ghosting’ to describe when a date completely ceases answering messages or phone calls. Something researchers can also be guilty of with community research participants – particularly once research funding is secured. Often times, promises are broken, the community is kept in the dark about research activities or simply asked to become the friendly face of the project. When community participation is reduced to a quarterly advisory group, is this CBR or tokenism?

Intersectionality to the rescue

In my own CBR projects, I find that using an intersectionality framework improves my research and helps avoid the pitfalls mentioned above. Like CBR, intersectionality is concerned with giving voice to community but does so by focusing on the voices of those traditionally invisible and by addressing issues of power. Multiple metaphors exists for intersectionality but one that I find effective is Lisa Bowleg’s: “Once you have blended the cake you can’t take the parts back to the main ingredients”. In the same way, you can’t separate gender from sexuality from race from class when describing an individual or a community.

(For those wishing to learn more about intersectionality I recommend this excellent primer: Intersectionality 101.)

Here is how I use intersectionality to improve my CBR practice:

  • Reflexivity: Intersectionality attends to diversity and power through reflexivity, self-examination of one’s own agenda, assumptions and personal values. Through reflexivity, researchers can help identify how their own privileges and identities influence who is studied, who is included and who participates. For example, I often have to reflect on my own position within the gay community; as a white, middle-class, cisgender, able-bodied gay man, how do I make sure that I am addressing the needs of gay men who are positioned differently than me?
  • Acknowledging diversity: Intersectionality challenges how communities have been traditionally been defined in CBR. I find it useful to reflect on who is included in the ‘community’ I am studying, who is the most affected by the issue I wish to address, and who has been traditionally underrepresented. Of course, one needs to be deeply aware that a single project cannot solve all issues for everyone – being aware of the limitations of a project is critically important. But also it is important to take steps to ensure that the CBR process does not erase, ignore and reinforce inequities.
  • Disrupt power: Intersectionality is concerned with addressing power and it can guide researchers to reflect on the power dynamics that occur in the context of a CBR project. Some segments of a community can be underrepresented because of power imbalances and/or because researchers are unwilling to give up the reins of a project. But in CBR, researchers have the responsibility to make space for community members to take control of the research agenda, and in order to do so, they may need to support skill development and share resources (and that means money too!). These power dynamics also require an intersectional lens. For example, a gay man of colour told me that white community members in CBR projects tended to participate as paid employees of organizations, but because gay men of colour are less likely to be employed by such organizations, they have to volunteer their time and expertise. We need to be aware of, and willing to address, these quality and power differentials to ensure CBR projects reflect the diverse experiences within each community.


Although we need to be wary of tokenism in CBR I am encouraged to see this research approach being increasingly taken up by health researchers. Aside from the benefits for research itself, CBR is a powerful tool that can build the skills of a community and transform researchers. I have myself gained valuable knowledge and skills working with community members and my CBR experience has certainly strengthened my commitment to social justice.

Opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research.

Dr. Olivier Ferlatte
Post-doctoral research fellow, School of Nursing at the University of British Columbia

Dr. Olivier Ferlatte is a post-doctoral research fellow with the Men’s Health Research program at the UBC School of Nursing. He has over 15 years of experience working in gay men’s health promotion and research. His research focuses on the relationships between marginalization, violence, social inequity, and health outcomes among gay and bisexual men. Dr. Ferlatte is the lead researcher for Still Here, a photovoice project looking at suicide in LGBT adults.

Follow @theStillHereProject on Instagram