Friday, June 28, 2013

The Challenges and Rewards of Collaborative Community-Based Research for Social Change: Interview with Corey Shdaimah and Sanford Schram

[Episode 82] Today’s episode of the Social Work Podcast is about how to balance the demands of doing good research with the passion that practitioners and advocates have for addressing the social problems that face their communities. My guests are Corey Shdaimah and Sanford Schram, authors of Change Research: A Case Study on Collaborative Methods for Social Workers and Advocates published in 2011 by Columbia University Press.

In today’s Social Work Podcast, Corey and Sandy distinguish between Participatory Action Research (PAR) and Community-Based Participatory Research (CBPR) and talk why they use PAR rather than CBPR in their work with communities. They give examples of how challenging it is to actually do PAR. They talked about the need to bridge the gap between research and practice and how that was one of their motivations for writing their text, Change Research. Throughout our conversation Sandy and Corey bring up lots of ideas that are perfect discussion points for research classes, both at the masters and doctoral level.

Download MP3 [45:36]



Corey Shdaimah, LL.M., PhD, is Associate Professor at the University of Maryland, School of Social Work with degrees in law and social work. Dr. Shdaimah’s research and writing focuses on how people respond and adapt to policies and programs that they perceive as ineffective or unjust. She has investigated these responses in housing-related child welfare decisions, court responses to truancy, and, most recently, alternative criminal justice responses to prostitution. Dr. Shdaimah relies on primarily qualitative methods, which elicit the important insights that people have about improving the systems in which they work and interact. She has published numerous articles in journals and edited volumes and is the author of Negotiating Justice: Progressive Lawyering, Low-Income Clients, and the Quest for Social Change (New York University Press) and, with Sanford Schram and Roland Stahl, Change Research: A Case Study of Collaborative Methods for Social Workers and Advocates (Columbia University Press).

Sanford Schram has taught social theory and policy at the Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research since 1997. Schram serves on the editorial board of the Social Service Review, as well as the boards for a number of other scholarly journals. He is the author or co-author of seven books and co-editor of another five. Schram’s first book Words of Welfare: The Poverty of Social Science and the Social Science of Poverty (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995) won the Michael Harrington Award from the American Political Science Association in 1996. His most recent book, Disciplining the Poor: Neoliberal Paternalism and the Persistent Power of Race (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), is co-authored with Joe Soss and Richard C. Fording and was also selected for the Michael Harrington Award for 2012, making Schram the first person to author two books that have won that prestigious prize. Disciplining the Poor has also been selected for the 2012 Oliver Cromwell Cox award from the American Sociological Association for the best book in the prior two years for combating racism. Schram is the 2012 recipient of the Charles McCoy Career Achievement Award from the American Political Science Association.




Today's episode of the Social Work Podcast is on research. Don’t turn it off. Give me a chance to pitch it to you. Why did you get into social work in the first place? Uh huh, um, yes, Ok, so I just heard from 100,000 of you and you all basically gave me the same answer: the pay check. I’m sorry. My producer just tapped me on the shoulder and said that we had some cross-feed with the Motley Fool podcast.  Because you wanted to make a difference in the world – that’s why you got into social work. At some point in your life you said, “there is a problem out there and I want to be part of the solution.” Still with me? Excellent. Ok. Research. Wait, don’t go anywhere. Research is how we document that we are actually making a difference. You can’t just say “this works, trust me.” Remember the DARE program? Police officers came into schools, gave out black t-shirts with red letters, and claimed to keep kids off of drugs? So, after spending nearly ½ billion tax-payer dollars to provide this program, researchers evaluated the program and learned that the kids who went through the DARE program were NO LESS LIKELY to use drugs than kids who did not go through the program. So, if you were a school social worker passionate about keeping kids off of drugs and you advocated for your school to pay for DARE instead of providing other services, you would have been sold a bill of goods. In part because of debacles like DARE, funders are requiring community groups to demonstrate that what they are doing works. Research. So, if you got into social work because you wanted to make a difference then at some point you have to make peace with the fact that research is the way to document that you’re making a difference. So why are so many students and practitioners totally turned off by the idea of research? And why do so many researcher seem to be totally dispassionate about social problems? My guests suggest that one of the places where the disconnect occurs is in the classroom: Students come in passionate about problems, but what they learn about is methods. For example, you’re passionate about improving the quality of life of people with schizophrenia. But, instead of building on that passion, your research class focuses on how you are operationalizing “quality of life,” how you are establishing who has schizophrenia, what measures you are using, the setting, type and duration of intervention, exclusion criteria, and potential sources for funding. The research prof will want to know if you need to compare changes in between two groups of people (ANOVA), or are you predicting the likelihood that someone will be successful in a certain program (Regression)? If you find that your brain is turning off as I’m talking about research, then this episode is for you. If you find yourself getting excited – then this episode is also for you. If you are an advocate or practitioner who has found the experience of working with researchers to be completely confusing and or frustrating, this episode is for you. Basically this episode is for everyone.

Today’s episode is about how to balance the demands of doing good research with the passion that practitioners and advocates have for addressing the social problems that face their communities. My guests are Corey Shdaimah and Sanford Schram. Dr. Shdaimah’s research and writing focuses on how people respond and adapt to policies and programs that they perceive as ineffective or unjust. She uses primarily qualitative research methods to investigate these responses in housing-related child welfare decisions, court responses to truancy, and, most recently, alternative criminal justice responses to prostitution. Dr. Schram’s research and writing focuses on social theory and policy. He has written or edited 12 books. He is the only scholar to have won the Michael Harrington Award from the American Political Science Association twice, first for his 1995 book Words of Welfare: The Poverty of Social Science and the Social Science of Poverty, published by University of Minnesota Press and his most recent book, Disciplining the Poor: Neoliberal Paternalism and the Persistent Power of Race, published by University of Chicago Press, 2011. Dr. Schram is the 2012 recipient of the Charles McCoy Career Achievement Award from the American Political Science Association. Drs Shdaimah and Schram, along with Roland Stahl, co-authored the 2011 text that is the focus of today’s interview: Change Research: A Case Study on Collaborative Methods for Social Workers and Advocates published by Columbia University Press.

In today’s Social Work Podcast, Corey and Sandy distinguish between Participatory Action Research (PAR) and Community-Based Participatory Research (CBPR) and talk why they use PAR rather than CBPR in their work with communities. They give examples of how challenging it is to actually do PAR. They talked about the need to bridge the gap between research and practice and how that was one of their motivations for writing their text, Change Research. Throughout our conversation Sandy and Corey bring up lots of ideas that are perfect discussion points for research classes, both at the masters and doctoral level. They use lots of big words and throw around lots of big ideas, AND you can still tell that they are passionate about making the world a better place.

For those of you interested in learning more about doing the kind of community-based change research that we talk about in today’s episode, I posted a list of resources on that Corey very generously provided. You can connect with other social workers at the Social Work Podcast Facebook page,, or follow the Twitter feed @socworkpodcast. You can listen to the Social Work Podcast from, by downloading the episodes through iTunes or any number of other apps, or you can stream the 10 most recent episodes right from your mobile device using the Stitcher Radio mobile app ( One quick note about the interview: I recorded it at Sandy’s beautiful house in Philadelphia in November of 2011 right after the book was published. At the time of the interview Corey was a not-yet-tenured assistant professor at the University of Maryland at Baltimore. She has since been awarded tenured and promoted to associate professor. Congratulations Corey.

And now, without further ado, on to episode 82 of the Social Work Podcast. The Challenges and Rewards of Collaborative Community-Based Social Work Research: Interview with Corey Shdaimah and Sanford Schram.


Corey, Sandy, thank you so much for being here today and talking on the Social Work Podcast about your book, Change Research. The first question that I have is, so in your book you distinguish between community-based participatory research and participatory action research, can you tell us what the difference is?

Corey: Community-based participatory research is relatively new, it comes out of the public health research. When I say relatively new probably, the past 15 years, and starting to take and definitely very, very popular right now. And I’d say in its most idealistic models, it does take the input of people who were affected by problems seriously in terms of research and how we should do research in order to engage them in solutions. However, if you look and for the book we actually did a review of journal articles, for example, published on community-based research.

It’s very hard to avoid the feeling that community-based research is not necessarily community driven. That it is largely researchers who involve the community in order to understand how to get them to be more compliant, how to get them to be more with the program. It’s largely focused on problems that are very, very important problems, I don’t want to diminish the importance. In the book we talk this as well, we are addressing, let’s say, obesity or cancer or things that affect people, but very much focus on individualized medicalize understandings of problems, the source of the problems, and understanding of how to solve them, right.

So how do we get low income minority women to go get mammogram, screen themselves for breast cancer, to eat better, those kind of things. And I see very little evidence of people doing community-based participatory research, where they involve the community in all aspects. So for example, if we are trying to think about asthma prevention, we go into a community-and say to them, what do you think about that? Maybe they’ll say, I wish the factories were located somewhere else. But really what most of it is, are we trying to get them to have people stop smoking in homes or how to do preventative treatments but not really address systemic issues.

So I think that to me says we haven’t really asked people what do they want to see in their communities. We are looking at fairly narrow parameters that researchers are setting, so when they invite the community in, there are decisions that have already been made. Again, there are exceptions to this rule, and I think that some of the broadest community participatory decisions or ideal programs really set broader parameters for participation but most of the projects that we are seeing are individualized and do not involve community except really to the extent of how can we get them to get onboard with the program that we’ve set.

The participatory action research really comes out of a model from the ’70s. And it actually has an ethical and a moral base. I’m not engaging the community in order to think about how to be more effective. I am engaging the community or people that are affected by a problem because I am morally obligated to do so. I am going to come up with recommendations that are going to impact people’s lives. And it’s really not ethically responsible for me to do that without talking to them. And I think that that moral basis makes a very big difference in how we approach people.

People know when they are being approached instrumentally as a means to a goal rather than I have a firm belief that you should have a say in what affects you. And I think that that moral basis is much more in line with social work values. So we can do participatory-based research but really we should be doing it only if it comes from that moral base.

The other thing that I like about participatory action research is we have those pieces of participation, and that’s full participation because I am morally obligated to involve you at whatever stages you want to be involved, setting the questions, determining what kind of research to do, thinking about how to interpret, thinking about how to use the research. And that’s where the action piece, I am doing research, again like we’ve said not for its own sake but I know from the beginning that I want something to come from it. I want there to be action that comes out of it. And generally that action is where advocates really have their – the competence and skills where researchers don’t.

So it also points more to a collaboration that recognizes the different skill sets and the different expertise that researchers and advocates bring to the table. And it puts them I think more on par. And I think that that’s the other thing that I find appealing and different about PAR when we are thinking about research with advocates or when we are thinking about research with communities. And I see them as fundamental differences, it’s not just the language thing, it’s not just, “Oh, this is the ’70s, and now we are up, and it’s after 2000 and we need to think differently.” But I really think we need to think about what is the reason why we are doing this, and that discussion matters.

Jonathan: So you are really advocating for participatory action research, PAR, as the approach. If you are truly engaging with the community, with what the community wants at the problem level, at the how do we go about this and what are we looking to get out of this rather than the CBPR, which you are describing as how can we get buy-in from a community to better achieve our goals as academics, as researchers, as policymakers, that sort of thing.

Sanford: I think that’s true, I think again it goes back to whether or not we are interested in knowledge for its own sake and we are preoccupied with method driven research versus knowledge that’s going to serve the community and we are interested in problem driven research, that’s going to inform community’s efforts to address the problems they are struggling with. Ultimately it’s about control.
So a lot of people in the research community are saying, ‘Look, if you’re going to do real participatory action research, you are going to lose credibility, your research is not going to have its own integrity, you are going to lose control. And the result is you’re not going to be able to determine whether the research was done properly, whether or not the interpretations are objective, whether or not you are really being scientific, so on and so forth.’

What I think they are missing there is that by giving up control in a participatory action project, where your partners from the community are the ones that are in control. They are setting the agenda. This is our problem, this is what we are struggling with. This is how we see research fitting in, we like the research conducted in a credible fashion, but to serve our efforts to address that problem. When you give them control, what you’re actually gaining is a lot of local knowledge that is intimately familiar with the problems they are struggling with. And you as a researcher are learning that much more.

And you are in a position now to participate in a project that is much more informed about what the problem is, and how it ought to be addressed and how it ought to be researched. So I think there is power to be gained in giving up control and being in alliance with the community, that’s going to not just help serve the community, but make your research better.

Jonathan: So how did that play out in the project you are involved in?

Sanford: I think, having said what I just said, I mean in all honesty and I hope people read the book and enjoy the story we tell because it’s not easy. In other words anything that’s worth doing and doing well is difficult, and community based-research, participatory action research, if you are going to do it really well, and really be in alliance with people, there are challenges. It’s just like doing any other kind of research, there is a good way to do it, there is a bad way to do it.

And we were really committed to working with our community partners to have a genuinely participatory action research project that could inform their efforts in trying to make a difference on these housing issues in Philadelphia. And there were times when we said we can’t do that or there are times when we say, “Well, you’re asking me to do things that as a researcher is not really a good idea to do.” And there were tensions and there were struggles.

And as Corey said, we all had different roles, the community advocates had their roles, the researchers had their roles, and at times as everyone was preoccupied we are trying to fulfill their role as well as they could. We come into conflict and we would have to struggle with that, and we tell that story and how we work that out. And ultimately what it’s about is relationships and trust and respect, and these are things that we often don’t talk about when we talk about research but they are essential.

Corey: And I can actually give an example that we talk about in the book on this. So one thing was actually our advocate partners knew a lot more about this area than we did. None of us were housing researchers, and we talked about in some way how that give them leverage and it made us more attractive to them. We were good researchers, we knew what we are doing in terms of our craft and we had worked in similar areas. So we would visit people’s homes, we would do the data analysis on the kind of homes that people were living in, and the kind of problems they are facing.

And we were coming up – we kept coming back to the same question. We have a high level of homeownership in Philadelphia, but people are living in homes that are in extreme state of disrepair. And it’s very expensive for people to live in homes in disrepair. So you’ve got leaky windows, so your heating costs are really high, and they eat a huge percent of their income, so we kept thinking to ourselves, this is leading us to the conclusion that why should we be advocating for supportive homeownership.

And we came to our research partners with this, so their first reaction is, this isn’t really the story we want to tell. Right now we are advocating for home repair so. But through that conversation, we didn’t give up that part of the story, that part of the story is there, and we insisted on telling that part of the story. That’s part of what I talk about when I say being open to unexpected findings, including findings that might not be what you had hoped for if you had a goal as an advocate.

On the other hand, in our conversations with them, and there were challenges to us about that. We came to understand homeownership at a whole different level. Homeownership, we realized, we would have stopped there, but then the talk with them, it made us realize that homeownership is actually very, very important despite the disrepair, and it is so in several ways. So homeownership is important because when you look at the alternative, right, it’s not so great. It’s not like we had good rental housing, it’s not like we have enough rental housing.

So a lot of times the alternative to living in a home that’s very expensive to maintain and is falling apart around your ears is that you need to be actually be out on the streets. So looking at, they pushed us to look at the alternatives and lead us to say, yeah, actually right, we should be looking at programs that are geared at low-income homeowners. The other thing is that their understanding of community and they are putting in touch, us in touch, for example, for some of the qualitative interviews that we did with homeowners made us understand that regardless of whether homeownership is helpful economically, people feel that it’s important for them.

And that’s not something that would’ve come through if it was only research driven by a bunch of researchers. That comes through from their intimate knowledge of community, as so if a person tells me that she cares about living in a home because she feels, it makes her feel like it’s part of community, even if it’s driven by suicidal understandings that we could critique as being critical and analytic researchers.
If it still means something to those people in the community, then it’s important for us to consider. And that’s not something that I think we would have considered if we were coming from the outside, and we stopped our conversation by saying this is what we found and not talking to our WCRP advocate counterparts. And I think that that does tie into our social work values. We are not doing this for our own sake or to get the money that they pass for the resource or to keep our jobs. We are doing this because we care about the community, that the community is facing problems. And for me to determine for them where they should be is anathema to social work in my eyes.

Jonathan: Which brings up another question for me which, so who did you write this book for?

Sanford: I think it’s really interesting to get back into the book and think about it because of as it evolved it became clear to us that we were writing on multiple levels to a variety of audiences. And Corey insisted that we change the subtitle to have advocates in there. And after a while I started to appreciate that we were writing for advocates who very often are very skeptical about research and the role it can play, very often because they see researchers is preoccupied with trying to get the truth objectively, independently, irrespective of how it might matter to what they are trying to achieve.

So that became an important audience. We were also interested in talking to our research colleagues about how professional social work researchers have different ways of going about doing research and that it doesn’t have to be disconnected, so there is a pushback on that side as well. But we also I think felt that we were talking to social work practitioners who very often feel that research doesn’t really speak to them, say like what is the evidence-based practice, does it really relate to what I’m trying to do, how do I apply this research? And we have a discussion that runs through the book about that as well.

But I think in the end we really felt we were also talking to students, students not just at the doctoral level that are going to be interested in learning to do research and contribute to social work knowledge but also master students who are required to take research courses where the text are often recipe cookbook method driven rules and how to actually conduct research, where they often don’t see the connection to the idea of like helping people, caring about people, trying to make things better in the world.

Corey: The book was also an attempt to make things more transparent, and for everybody. Initially I was thinking, we were in some ways trying to expose the research process for advocates who are thinking about, we don’t really understand what goes on here. We are not really sure why we need this but we’ve been told that we need this, because we needed to keep our funding or we needed to convince policymakers but we don’t really understand how it happens. And we don’t really understand why it’s important, and it’s not really important, it’s just something that we need to do because we are required to do it.

And that means that a lot of advocates are now having to engage with research without having the leverage and the understanding to actually impact what questions get asked, how the research gets used, how we understand our findings. And I think by making that process more human, by telling our own story is more engaging. It also gives them leverage when they are working with researchers to figure out what questions to ask, how to hold researchers accountable, demystifying the research process. So I think that that was also the demystification and humanizing the research process.

So a lot of times you look at a research textbook, and it says this is what you should do as if learning how to do that sprung fully-formed from the authors. But everyone who is engaged in research goes through a process of learning how to do it, figuring out what it means. The other thing is that the book really, we can think it’s about research or for research classes, but I also think it would be useful, for example, in policy classes or community organizing classes, thinking about if I’m going to be involved in an organizing effort, how would I use research in order to enhance those efforts, how do I understand research that other people are throwing at me, how do I think about how to package this or how to explain this to a policy audience.

Jonathan: So as you guys were just talking about, there is this idea in most research textbooks that research is objective and it follows a recipe. And it seems to be impersonal, but in your text you really argue that passion and a dedication to social justice is essential to doing good research. And you suggest that social work’s traditional approach really takes the advocacy and social justice out of research. And you argued that social work research doesn’t have to be that way and shouldn’t be that way. So how can someone be passionate about a topic without being too biased? And how can someone who is passionate about a cause be a good researcher?

Corey: I think there is actually two questions in there. So maybe I’ll take the first one first. Again I’m going to draw on our research, on our code of ethics. So in social work we have a value system that’s in place. Some of those values are about non-disempowering practice, about trying to work with people who might be marginalized, whether they are marginalized from a policy arena or societally, and for trying to work towards justice and equity and fairness. And you can’t take any of the activities that were required to do as social workers or social work educators, and separate them from the value-based. The value-based applies to all our activities.

And those activities include research. That is something that you were supposed to be doing, it’s not separate from, it’s not a different activity, so those values are supposed to infuse research at the basis of research. So I don't really see that as social workers we can be ethical social workers if we separate the values. It’s not, we don’t do research for its own sake, we do research within the framework and for the purposes of furthering our ethical commitments to our clients, and our clients are broadly defined. If you look at the definition of clients it includes individuals and families and communities and society.

So we need to think about the impact of our research on all of our clients and we also need to think about who we do work with. So if we are doing research, so it’s the outcome of the research but it’s also the process of the research. Are we doing research in a way that is respectful? Are we doing research in a way that is empowering, or at least not disempowering? Are we doing research in a way that is just and equitable?

So I think that needs to be really where we start from always in all of our activities. I don’t know if you want to speak to that before we kind of tackle the next part, which is, can you in fact do good research, but I don't know if you don’t want to speak to the ethical piece.

Sanford: I think they are related, so I think to some extent our book is promoting research and the role it can play in social work practice, in social work advocacy, in social change efforts. On the other hand in many ways the book is also a critique of mainstream conventional ways of how to conduct research as social workers, as professionals, as scholars, researchers and so on and so forth. So its change researches upon. You have to change how you do research if you’re going to do research that promotes change. So it cuts in both directions.

And I think that’s because we recognize that values as Corey was saying informed the entire research process from the topics you select to the efforts you put forward on how to design a project to the methods of data collection to, of course, how you interpret that and draw conclusions and how you suggest that relates to practice or efforts to work in the community. So I think it’s really clear and we totally fundamentally reject the fact value dichotomy and we want researchers to be more sensitive to how values are infused throughout the entire research process.

And I think when people start to do that, they become more self-conscious, more reflexive about the role of values, their own values in research, maybe by doing what we did, which is reflect upon our own involvement in the research process, in the advocacy effort and how our own values, our own interests, our own concerns were very much constantly being challenged by others, and we had to think about that.
I think it’s going to lead to a more robust objectivity, a more reflexive objectivity, that’s aware of the illimitable role that values play in all research regardless of how we want to talk about.

Corey: And I think there is a way in which – I mean I want to be clear also about our – the thing about the social work code of ethics, we are supposed to do research. It just, it’s not that you say, ‘Oh, we have values and that we’ll only do research if they are … ’ It’s not that, it’s that we, so to reiterate that Sandy is saying we need to embrace research but we need to think about what kind of research and how it’s done and why.

And when I think about your question, can you do research in a way that’s biased? I mean in some ways what we are saying, there is always a bias. Research is created by human beings with human beings for human beings, so the idea that there can be no bias. So really for me it’s more about being transparent about what your bias is, if you have one. It’s about thinking systematically. And I’d say one of the other hallmarks is thinking about being open to unexpected findings.

And those are things that might – and Roland and I have actually written about this in some of our other pieces that we are part of the basis for the book. What happens is there is some line, researchers and advocates are not fungible. There is some line where you say, we work together but we had different roles. And where would that role start to blur in a way that researchers can no longer be valuable to advocacy efforts because they’ve lost both the legitimacy and the skills and the crafts that make them valuable.

And I think those might be some of the outside parameters. The minute we are not open to unexpected findings, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t grapple with them and what do we do with them, but the idea that we can change it for whatever is happening. No, so that would be one hallmark of what keeps a researcher even when they are involved in advocacy efforts. Again, being systematic and transparent, being clear about what steps you are taking, and being willing to be open to debate your findings, to be in dialogue both with an academic community and with the community of practitioners and with the policy community. And being able to reason through saying, ‘Okay, this is why I am saying what I’m saying,’ and being open to taking in new information.

And I think those were some of the hallmarks of what would keep researchers honest as researchers and it would keep them valuable than to advocacy efforts. Because the advocates don’t want to lose our value as researchers because then we are just more advocates, and we as researchers also have our own professional norms and our own integrity about our research. So I don’t think that the idea of having values is mutually exclusive, and I don’t think the idea of bias precludes you from being a good researcher as long as you are open with yourself and with others about what those biases might be.

I think there is a real temptation to think, oh, the minute you’re working on something relevant as opposed to something very distant, and ivory tower, that it’s somehow tainted. But there is a growing - and we do write about this in some of the initial chapters in the book - there is a growing trend across discipline, if we are talking about public sociology or of, if we are talking about phronetic social science, a desire to be involved. Why are we doing research? If you look back at the roots of social science, it really was to think about relevant social problems and how we can change those.

So somehow the idea that if we are so distance from that, and if we stopped caring that that makes us better researchers, I am not sure that that really holds water or if it really is what we are calling traditional social science. And that’s the other piece I think that that when you had asked the question about traditional social work research. If you really look at our roots in social work research, so the traditional or the pre-social work tradition, if you look at people like Jane Adams, they were not doing distance research. They were not doing research because they didn’t care. And it didn’t mean that they weren’t doing good research.

So if we look at our roots in social work, our roots is in research that makes a difference, where there is an important value on research, what it can do for people, but doing it in a way that does not work against the values are the very things that we are instead in promoting or shoring up. So I think in social work there are two traditions. There is the real traditional tradition, our roots, and we do write about that, and then there is the new tradition, which is more driven in part by funding and in part by ideas of positivistic social science.

But I think if we really look at our roots and really look at why it is, what makes social work research maybe different from other forms of research or good leader in the movement to think about doing relevant research that makes the difference to communities and that takes in a polyphony of voices. We are good example in social work, and that’s something that we should be bringing forward and sharing and talking about rather than trying to run after and do good research in someone else’s eyes or what we think will get us more funding.

Jonathan: So, Corey, I thought it was really interesting, you were really emphasizing this point that when social worker researchers stop being value-based, is it really social work research that we are doing? What constitutes valuable research in academia does not necessarily overlap with what constitutes valuable research in the community. And furthermore community agencies deal with timeframes and evaluation needs that are very different than those of typical academic research, so how can researchers work with advocates in a way that’s respectful to their goals while retaining their scholarly integrity?

Corey: Again, I think that there are factors in academia that push certain ways and then factor in the outside world that push other ways. The most important thing I think when researchers are working with academics is to lay out what are the factors that are influencing their choices.

Jonathan: So when researchers are working with academics or …?

Corey: Sorry, when researchers are working with community groups. So the community group has a timeframe and they have, for example, the research has a purpose. If you think about our book, there was a particular campaign that they were trying to – they were trying to get money in the city council, city council to vote money in a home repair budget, so there is a certain timeframe for that, there is a certain context for that. So being upfront about what that context is and what the parameters are is helpful in negotiating, can this be a mutually beneficial project? And not ignoring that. Because if the projects are not mutually beneficial, they’re probably not going to work.

Jonathan: So what would be beneficial to a researcher that wouldn’t be beneficial to the advocates?

Corey: So, for example, and this might differ from researcher to researcher, so take me because the book is very personal – a personalize account. So I’m on a tenure-track position at a university that prizes research. So that means if I want to keep my job for a length of time, what I need to do is I need to be publishing in peer-reviewed journals, I need to have a certain output, I need to do a certain type of research, and it needs to be published in a certain arena.

That is a process that usually takes a little bit more time. The products that I might produce that would be accepted in a scholarly publication might be pitched in a way that would not be helpful in a policy arena. It might be a little bit opaque, it might be too long, it might use language that is off-putting, nobody will care about my methods. So that’s something I need to be upfront about.

On the other hand, we have – advocates who have specific goals and needs that they have. Sandy and I we do and Roland, we write about this in the book, we are both very lucky that we are at institutions that provide some supports. So while I do have those factors that might push against me working less with advocacy groups. I mean, that’s the other part of it that this kind of research is very time-consuming. And if I’m supposed to produce 12 articles in six years, I might not have the time to sit with the advocates and try to understand what they are trying to do and then trying to explain my research process to them. So that’s another factor that pushes against academics working with community groups or with advocates. Can I, for example, produce two different kinds of reports or a report that would be valuable in a policy arena but that is important to be based on my research but can I also maybe write an article from this that will be useful to people outside of the city of Philadelphia who are thinking out home repair.

Sanford: I think your real challenge is, I mean, this project was kind of interesting because first one way of looking at it, just the way it was authorized and funded and the way we got to kick it off, we go to the Institutional Review Board to get approval to do research with the community so that they can improve the housing budget, the home repair budget, get the affordable housing trust fund created in Philadelphia, so we get that approved. And then after a while I said to Corey and Roland, I said you guys would have to go back to the IRB and get a second project approved, a project to study the project.

So there, right there you see there is like, we are doing research in the community and that’s for the community in that sense, but then we also decided to have a second project, which became the book, which is sort of reflecting upon our own involvement. So I think it can be a win-win, I personally reject the idea that there really should be a disjuncture, there is a juncture between doing scholarly research that’s objective, scientific and so on, and doing community-based research, which is sort of often dismissed as by the seat of your pants and partisan and so on so forth.

So I reject the idea that they are knowledge for its own sake, knowledge doesn’t have a sake. Knowledge as people often say is to serve some end, and that end I would hope to be laudable that it improves the well-being of people in the community. So for me it’s never been this kind of thing we have to choose. I do think institutionally what’s interesting is there is this kind of very similitude, just as we were writing about the neoliberalization of housing policy and the process by which programs get evaluated and decided and how it’s very much performance driven, we have to document outcome, so on and so forth in ways that often I think is too bottom-line oriented and is dismissive of alternative approaches, like helping low income people stay in their homes.

There is a neoliberalization of higher education of social work where high-impact journal performance has to be demonstrated that you’ve published in X amount of articles in X amount of journals that are this level of visibility, irrespective of the real quality or to what extent it contributes to the community.

So for me I am not really that interested in method driven research, though I respect all my colleagues and all those methods that enable us to produce credible information that’s going to serve the community, so if you want to do clinical trials, and that’s going to help, great. If you are going to do surveys, that’s great. If you are going to do an analysis of secondary data that has been produced in highly quantitative ways, that’s great.

On the other hand I think it should be problem driven, and that’s why I am a proponent of mix methods, choose a problem that’s related to making the world a better place, a problem that people are struggling with, and then use as many different methods as you can in as competent and capable a fashion, professional. However you want to talk about it, scientific, to address that problem.

Problem-driven research from the bottom up that helps the community struggle and address the concerns it has is the real kind of knowledge that I think in the end I think Corey is right that we haven’t been entirely neoliberalized, that there is enough of our colleagues and enough of our institutional leaders appreciate good work that really serves the community. And if you just ignore all of the other pressures, I think you can get that done.

Corey: That’s one of the reason we don’t dictate a particular kind of research. Really the only kind of research that we say must be gone is thoughtful research that is filtered through the lens of social work values rather than any particular method. It’s really about the stance that we take when we are approaching research. And if we take a research stance, a change research stance, what we really would be doing, we would be thinking about the impact that our research has and who it has an impact on, and then involving people in the broadest way possible in every aspect in the research stage, including how it gets used.

Sanford: I think we are at pains in the book, and I want to underscore that here is that we are about trying to open things up, creating more possibilities that there should be methodological pluralism, that there is a time and place for a variety of different types of research, some of it is not intimately involved in the communities where it is time to step back and try to get some facts, independent. There is a place for that.
I think what we are trying to do is trying to write the balance that things have become a little bit too imbalanced where more and more pressure is to simply do the research independent of the community where we sort of like lost our way where we are preoccupied with the method, we are preoccupied with getting the evidence irrespective of whether it’s within a certain context or whether it really serves a certain community.
And we are simply trying to write the balance and say, there is a place for being connected to the community, and that that’s really important, and we are losing sight of that as the pressure grows for us to document performance whether it’s evidence-based practice or program evaluation or performance management systems or the neoliberalization of doing good generally, to document statistically demonstrate performance according to standards that are set by somebody else.

So I think we were trying to just say, let’s not forget where we come from, and what we’ve been involved in traditionally, and how important that is, and sort of bring that back in to not shut it down but open it up.

Jonathan: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us about Change Research. I hope that lots of folks read the book because the stories that you tell them there are just excellent illustrations to a lot of these concepts.

Corey: Thank you, Jonathan.

Sanford: Thank you, Jonathan, for having us.

Online transcription provided by


Shdaimah, C. S., Stahl, R. W., & Schram, S. (2011). Change research: a case study on collaborative methods for social workers and advocates. New York: Columbia University Press.
Collaborating with community members adds a critical dimension to social work research, providing practitioners with intimate knowledge of a community's goals and needs while equipping community advocates with vital skills for social change. Sharing the inspiring story of one such partnership, Corey Shdaimah, Roland Stahl, and Sanford F. Schram recount their efforts working with an affordable housing coalition in Philadelphia, helping activists research low-income home ownership and repair. Their collaboration helped create the Philadelphia Housing Trust Fund, which funnels millions of dollars to people in need. This volume describes the origins of their partnership and its growth, including developing tensions and their diffusion in ways that contributed to the research. The authors personalize methods of research and the possibilities for advocacy, ultimately connecting their encounters to more general, critical themes. Building on the field's commitment to social justice, they effectively demonstrate the potential of change research to facilitate widespread, long-term difference and improve community outcomes.

Resources for Doing Community-Based Research

  • Community-Campus Partnerships for Health ( provides the most comprehensive set of resources for learning about CBPR and not just for health-policy concerns. It includes definitions, tools and resources, and CBPR course syllabi. Most but not all summaries and links listed in this appendix come from this organization’s Web site.
  • Center for Urban Epidemiologic Studies ( was established by the New York Academy of Medicine in partnership with the New York City Department of Health and with the cooperation of multiple collaborating institutions. The center’s purpose is to study social determinants of health using a CBPR approach, with an emphasis on investigating the role of social support and social cohesion. The geographical communities of focus are East and Central Harlem, areas where a substantial proportion of the residents are poor people of color.
  • Center for Urban Research and Learning ( promotes cooperation between Loyola University researchers and community-based organizations, citywide organizations, social service agencies, health care providers, and government. The center recognizes the importance of working with communities and organizations in seeking new solutions to pressing urban problems.
  • Colorado Community-Based Research Network ( is a network of university and college faculty, staff, and students; nonprofit and community-based organizations; and foundations interested in conducting community-based research that benefits the metro-Denver area.
  • Community Linked Interdisciplinary Research ( has the mission of linking together community research needs in the public and private sectors with research expertise among University of Buffalo faculty to provide additional opportunities for undergraduates to participate in research that is of use to western New York industry, government, community groups, schools, and social service agencies.
  • Community Research and Learning Network ( links up university faculty and students in the Washington, D.C., metro area with community-based organizations. Its Web site provides opportunities for researchers and community-based organizations to list their interests in CBPR and to find ways to work together.
  • Davydd Greenwood’s publications Davydd J. Greenwood, a Goldwin Smith Professor of Anthropology at Cornell University and one of the leading theorists regarding CBPR (
  • Detroit Community: Academic Urban Research Center ( works to establish partnerships between the University of Michigan School of Public Health, the Detroit Health Department, and six community-based organizations so that they can work together to improve the quality of life of the communities on the eastern and southwestern sides of Detroit.
  • East St. Louis Action Research Project ( establishes and nurtures mutually enhancing partnerships between community-based organizations in distressed urban areas and students, staff, and faculty at the University of Illinois as well as on other campuses.
  • Institute for Community Research ( is an independent, nonprofit research organization in Hartford, Connecticut, dedicated to using research to promote equal access to health, education, and cultural resources in a diverse society. It collaborates with community and institutional partners in research and development to improve services, foster individual and community strengths, influence public policy, and contribute to social science theory and practice.
  • COMM-ORG: The On-Line Conference on Community Organizing ( Edited and moderated by Randy Stoecker, Professor of Sociology at the University of Wisconsin. This provides resources for organizers and scholars, including an active listerv, papers, syllabi, and organizing resources on a variety of specific topics.
  • James Jennings’ Advocacy Research (, created by Tufts University planning professor James Jennings, explicitly practices community-based advocacy research in ways that demonstrate how long-standing commitments to work with community groups can pay off for both the researcher and the groups.
  • Just Connections ( invigorates grassroots democracy among residents of distressed mountain communities by creating and using models for participatory research and service.
  • Office of Community-Based Research at the University of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada (, is part of the university’s strategic vision of increasing civic engagement. It works toward democratizing knowledge, supporting community-driven research initiatives, and supporting students and faculty who are doing or who wish to do community-based research.
  • Pam Oliver’s Advocacy Research (, set up by University of Wisconsin sociology professor Pam Oliver, does advocacy research on race and incarceration. It explicitly embraces an advocacy stance in ways that are refreshing and illuminating.
  • Southeast Community Research Center ( was established to promote, facilitate, and conduct participatory and community-based research throughout the southeastern United States.
  • Toronto Community Based Research Network ( brings together community practitioners, academics, funders, and community members from across the Greater Toronto Area who are or have been involved in CBPR projects.
  • University Community Collaborative of Philadelphia ( conducts research on community engagement, best practices in youth leadership development, and university community collaboration. Much of this research is done in concert with community partners. It has been presented at local workshops as well as at professional conferences and has appeared in professional journals including Journal of Urban Affairs, Political Economy of the Good Society Journal, and American Political Science Newsletter, among others.

APA (6th ed) citation for this podcast:

Singer, J. B. (Producer). (2013, June 28). The challenges and rewards of collaborative community-based research for social change: Interview with Corey Shdaimah and Sanford Schram [Episode 82]. Social Work Podcast [Audio Podcast]. Retrieved from

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