Research, Scholarship, and Human Rights: Connecting to Community

Annie Miller

University of Colorado Denver

School of Public Affairs

Communities, citizens, and people drive our passions and efforts in collectively working to advance human rights. As we endeavor to advance the scholarship and grow research agendas seeking to help people, we must remain committed to putting people first. While causal mechanism testing and advances in big data, machine learning, regression techniques and network science enhance our understanding of politics, public safety, society, governance, and policy, we must attend to the notion that our grassroots and community partners deserve a voice in our scholarly agendas. Our fellow global citizens should have access to self-determination and pathways to co-creating knowledge about the topics that most deeply influence their day- to – day existence. Several techniques — participatory action research, narrative policy theory, and decolonization of research – can guide human rights scholars into collaborative research efforts providing voice to lived experiences while co-producing knowledge beyond developed, patriarchal, and marginalizing methods. 

In many ways this is on ongoing conversation about hegemony, power, and power over; contemporary research practices often use languages and techniques designed within systems to perpetuate marginalization and control. As Tuhiwai Smith (2012) asserts, there is a need to “disrupt relationships between researchers (mostly non-indigenous) and researched (indigenous), between a colonizing institution of knowledge and colonized peoples whose own knowledge was subjugated, between academic theories and academic values, between institutions and communities, and between and within indigenous communities themselves (p. x).” Postcolonial and Indigenous research offers centering in ontologies and epistemologies that focus on relationships and connections among people and planet. One key tenet of indigenous methodologies might be named relationality. Relationality, according to Chilisa (2020), “pushes to the center of every research encounter the importance of building relationships with the communities, all stakeholders, and partners honoring the relationship that people have with the land, the living, and the nonliving (p. 10).” The emphasis on relationality in research is essential and perhaps somewhat controversial to those trained in the western schools of positivism and rational choice theory. If our enterprise is in knowledge creation, sharing that knowledge as freely as possible, and in service to advancing human rights, we must spend time understanding and contextualizing the ways in which western colonialism shapes what we often perceive as value-neutral methodologies.

Community-based and participatory action research are a technique that can stand alone or be conducted alongside other forms of analysis. These techniques center and often privilege local knowledge. The general guiding principles of participatory action research include recognition of and attention to power dynamics across communities, embedding practitioners, stakeholders, and those with local lived experience to participate in all aspects of the research design and conduct, and establishing norms of reciprocity and ongoing engagement. These techniques strengthen our conceptions of validity and normalize our roles as educators who support knowledge production for all. These forms of research may challenge us to consider topics, concepts and theories beyond our own disciplinary ways of thinking and being in higher education. The relational nature of Indigenous and postcolonial research should push us across these boundaries if we are to explore and support action for advancing human rights. 

Narrative policy framework and its cousin advocacy coalition framework are techniques, and perhaps epistemologies, that can be adopted to deeply explore the relational. These two frameworks, embedded in the policy process and policy analysis literatures, may apply more broadly in various disciplinary settings as the aim of each is to more fully understand the connection among actors seeking political or policy change. The narrative policy framework is expressly applied to understand the process of meaning making within policy subsystems – uncovering meaning making through discourse among and with local communities enhances our work as human rights scholars. 

This is a call to and for relationality in human rights research. It is a call for more emphasis and training in Indigenous research methods. It is a call for centering the human-ness in human rights research. Most fundamentally this is a call to consider and evaluate how your own research trainings might be shielding you from fully adopting ways of knowing that enhance both trust and truth across the globe. 

Smith, L. T. (2012, Second Ed.). Decolonizing methodologies: Research and indigenous peoples. Zed Books Ltd..

Chilisa, B. (2020). Indigenous research methodologies. Sage Publications.

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