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Weaving Together the Strands of Engaged Research and Community Resilience

Wendy Madsen and Madonna Chesham

Abstract: Over the past few years, an increasing awareness of our vulnerabilities related to a surge of natural disasters has resulted in increased political and research attention on resilience, both personal and community. Academics, as members of communities, can contribute in a practical way to building community resilience through the process of engaged research methodologies. There is a natural synergy between the transformational and action-focused activities of engaged research and the social, economic and environmental capitals of community resilience. Woven together, engaged research can increase community resilience through collective problem solving, action, capacity building and sharing resources. In this chapter, Madsen and Chesham outline a framework that highlights how this can be accomplished.

Madsen, Wendy, Lynette Costigan, and Sarah McNicol, eds. Community Resilience, Universities and Engaged Research for Today’s World. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. doi: 10.1057/9781137481054.0006.


‘Engaged research’ and ‘community resilience’ each represent their own ambiguities and each in its own way has mobilised considerable political and academic attention in recent years. One may well question, then, the wisdom of bringing together two contested but popular terms as a way of focusing the research efforts of a group of diverse academics. While trying to avoid drilling down to the meaning of the last syllable in each of these concepts, we do need to provide an overview of what we mean by engaged research and community resilience and how we have used the messiness of each of these concepts to bring about that focus. This chapter provides that overview and in doing so, explains the framework that has been used by the researchers involved in the case studies outlined in the remainder of this book. This framework has started conversations amongst academics about what constitutes community resilience and has stimulated discussion about what engaged research entails, opening up other ways of seeing research activities. These conversations have not been completed, nor are they likely to be any time soon, as they represent some of the challenges associated with research and practice within academic institutions in the 21st century; institutions that are increasingly being drawn into the communities that support them.

It is no coincidence that universities have been likened to ivory towers: aloof and isolated from the hubris of humanity where research is about the generation of theory that is divorced from practice (McNiff, 2013; Strier, 2011). However, such imagery is no longer appropriate, or even desirable, if universities are going to fulfil their civic potential of being a part of the solutions to the problems facing communities (Gonzalez- Perez, MacLabhrainn, & McIlrath, 2007). Universities have three fundamental functions: to produce graduates who are capable of contributing to communities through their professional and personal activities; to undertake research that is ethical in its processes and purposes; and to represent and serve those who fund these activities, which in most cases in Australia and elsewhere, is the general public through the taxation system. As the 21st century progresses, there will be increasing pressure placed on universities to ensure all three of these functions are contributing in a meaningful way to resolving the issues of society associated with climate change, food security, capitalism and democracy among others. Many universities have embraced service learning as part of their engaged learning and teaching activities (Cress, Collier, & Reitenauer,

2013), but it is taking longer for institutions to do the same with their research activities (Harkavy & Hartley, 2012).

The issue of universities becoming centres of civic engagement is not something new. The promotion of ‘liberal arts’ in the 19th century related to developing graduates from universities who were well-rounded citizens as well as being skilled in their chosen professions (Gonzalez- Perez et al., 2007). Ira Harkavy and Matthew Hartley (2012, p. 19) point toward John Dewey’s arguments from the early 20th century related to ‘working to solve complex, real-world problems’ as the way to advancing knowledge and learning within individuals and institutions. Researchers and educationalists such as Kurt Lewin (1930s and 1940s), Paulo Freire (1960s and 1970s) and Orlando Fals-Borda (1980s and 1990s) have challenged the artificial distance between those real-world problems and the academy. Indeed, Jean McNiff (2013) suggests the increasing prevalence and acceptance of social sciences within the academy over the past three to four decades has helped dismantle the bastions of valueless objectivity and knowledge for knowledge sake. Universities are not separate entities from their communities. They operate within the social and political contexts of their times and their communities. As this chapter will argue, the more universities understand their knowledge generation as part of these social and political contexts, particularly through engaged research activities, the more both universities and communities will benefit.


In February 2013, while Bundaberg and its surrounding districts were in the throes of recovering from a major flood event, a group of 12-15 academics from CQUniversity Bundaberg campus came together to consider how they could contribute to the recovery efforts and help build community resilience within this community. Some of the academics had not undertaken much research before, others were very experienced researchers. We ran two inductive workshops to develop a shared understanding of community resilience and engaged research. These workshops were based on the World Cafe process of small group conversations that are repeated until there is a sense of consensus; one workshop focused on community resilience and the other on engaged research. From these workshops, we devised a framework that summarised the points we considered important regarding each of these concepts and which highlighted where the concepts overlapped. It was in this shared space that we realised much of our efforts could be focused. The framework is outlined in Figure 1.1.

This framework was used by those researchers working with community groups on projects, as outlined in the case studies, to help bring a clearer focus to using these projects to contribute to building community resilience.

While the workshops provided a starting place for how engaged research could contribute to community resilience, we decided to compile a literature review to develop a richer understanding of each concept. One of the authors had been researching in the area of community resilience for some time and was able to draw on a wide range of literature collected as part of other projects. As such, much of the focus was on gathering literature related to engaged research. A library search was undertaken of the available databases and a small number of peer reviewed journal articles were found. However, it became evident that while engaged research is a term that is used by some, a multitude of terms encapsulate the concept of engaged research: community-based participatory research; participatory action research; collaborative research; and community-university partnership research. Each of

Framework outlining how engaged research can increase community resilience

figure 1.1 Framework outlining how engaged research can increase community resilience

these terms is associated with a considerable literature base. As a result, the literature review that forms the remainder of this chapter is in the form of a narrative and provides a broad sweep of the literature in order to highlight the interconnectivity between engaged research and community resilience (Baumeister & Leary, 1997). Each concept will be considered separately before bringing the threads together and exploring how engaged research can be used to bring researchers and community members together to collectively solve real-world problems, share resources, learn from each other and build capacity within our region.

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