Towards Viewing Communities as Intellectual Spaces

By Dr. Laura Ruth Johnson

I have been conducting research in communities and within community-based organizations for almost two decades. Prior to attending graduate school, I worked as the director of a community-based family literacy program and was actively involved in grassroots community organizing. When I returned to this community as a researcher, I approached my study from the perspective of a community member and activist but also was greatly informed by more traditional research conventions, wherein the researcher is solely responsible for designing and conducting the study and writing up and disseminating findings.

Over the years, I have moved from these sorts of research studies—which occur merely within communities and are about communities—to projects which take place in authentic collaboration with community partners and are designed to enact meaningful transformations in community conditions and resources. The impetus for this shift was a desire to use research findings to concretely address pressing community problems and issues. I was also inspired by the concept of communities as intellectual spaces, developed by an interdisciplinary group of researchers, educators, leaders, and activists, which recognizes community members as savvy theoretical interlocutors for engaging in critical inquiry and theorizing about a host of complex issues (CIS: Preliminary Program, 2005; Johnson & Rodriguez-Muniz, 2017).

This sort of approach starkly contrasts with community-based models that narrowly view communities as sites for simply extracting or gathering data, and even differs from more collaborative models which might involve partnering with community-based organizations to implement a study, but the ultimate authority and expertise still largely resides in the realm of the academy.

The type of collaborative community-based research I advocate for requires that researchers decenter their authority and cede a considerable amount of their power, recognizing the limitations of their knowledge and expertise in relation to community experiences and issues. Furthermore, it means reimagining the role of universities in relation to communities, so as to redress decades of unequal relations and exploitative practices.

Whereas many community-based models aspire for equitable and symmetrical partnerships, I would argue that we should aim for asymmetrical relationships weighted towards community knowledge and concerns.

So what does this sort of collaborative work look like? The model aims to avoid prescription and allow for flexibility. But, at its core, processes, and approaches associated with the project should be collaborative, critical, and transformative (Johnson, 2017). And collaboration and reciprocity should occur at all stages of the project, from design to dissemination.

Although engaging in collaborative community-based research is extremely rewarding and allows for research findings that are often more meaningful and relevant, these research projects are not without challenges. Such research can be extremely time-consuming, as it involves building and navigating complex and productive relationships with community partners, leaders, and residents. Furthermore, it can be unsettling for academics and educational institutions to cede their power and expertise within a research study; in addition, these types of projects are often not recognized as “research” by tenure and personnel committees. However, in these current times, such collaborative research efforts that involve universities and academic listening to and learning from communities are more necessary than ever.

If you are interested in learning more about this model of research and learning about specific projects and approaches please attend my upcoming online program on November 9 from 12-1 pm. Register here.


“Community as intellectual space: Preliminary program [Symposium].” (2005, June 17-19). Chicago, IL. Retrieved November 3, 2015, from

Johnson, L.R. (2017). Community-based qualitative research: Approaches for education and the social sciences. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.

Johnson, L.R., & Rodriguez-Muniz, M. (2017, November). Community as intellectual space: Reflections from research on Puerto Rican Chicago. Paper presented at Annual Meeting of American Studies Association, Chicago, IL.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email