Over the past decade socially engaged researchers and activists in South Africa have deliberately conceptualized and conducted research in and through communities where the challenges of poverty, oppressive conditions and social exclusion are pervasive. In doing so, they have explicitly set out to stimulate discussion about these conditions and their underlying causes, to mobilize responses to these and to raise public consciousness about the issues confronting such communities. This has also led to the emergence of stronger links between socially committed researchers based in academic institutions and community activists. It has stimulated the development and uses of research in communities, having direct effects on the accountability of public representatives about the use of public resources and by implication on how academic scholarship is viewed.
There has been a realization that often social research “objectifies” communities and reduces complex theoretical and practical issues to data gathering and produces outcomes which are patronizing and even offensive to such communities. This is largely because, especially in regard to communities which are bedeviled by egregious poverty and its social effects, research regards such communities as being in “deficit”, devoid of history, knowledge, thinking and struggle. Often this means the intervention of researchers and consultants with little or no orientation to the deeper social characteristics of such communities, the diversity of its composition, its history, language, culture, traditions and experience of resistance, and even less to its reservoir of knowledge and experience and social consciousness.
This paper will examine these arguments in the light of research conducted during the education leg of the Poverty and Inequality hearings held in 1998 and its legacy as well as the more recent and ongoing synergy of a university based research entity (the Education Rights Project-ERP) and mass based community organizations in South Africa. The paper will emphasize the importance of transcending the limitations inherent in superficial survey data and the case for richer and complex qualitative data which moreover recognizes the categories of gender, social class, “race” and identity necessary for meaningful social analysis.
This paper argues that approaches to social enquiry based on solidly grounded information and knowledge can also have value for engaging with the policy and decision-making agencies of the state and with public representatives. It will also explain why research conducted by the ERP and social movements has value for the mobilization of strategies and for planning and organizing of local education and other campaigns to both inform local action and democratize issues relevant to educational struggles in communities while demystifying research and yet enriching the academy.
University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa
Department of Leadership, Foundations and Policy, Curry School of Education, University of Virginia, USA
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