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The
Community
Psychologist

Volume 48 Number 4
Fall 2015

Special Feature

Progress Report:  Competencies for Community Research and Action

Written by Brian D. Christens, Christian M. Connell, Victoria Faust, Mason G. Haber, and the Council of Education Programs

The field of Community Psychology has long recognized the need for a unique orientation to research –one that promotes interdisciplinary, multi-level, ecological and community-based participatory approaches to scholarly work. Within this orientation, scholars have drawn on a wide variety of methods and theoretical perspectives (cf. Levine, Perkins, & Perkins, 2005; Rappaport and Seidman; 2000). Currently, however, there is no commonly referenced framework of community-based research competencies to guide community psychology students and training programs in navigating this rich research tradition. At an institutional level, a clear set of research skills and perspectives promoted by Community Psychology and Community Research and Action programs can enhance the development, retention, and preservation of SCRA affiliated academic programs situated among more traditional psychology departments and in other academic settings.  Similarly, such clarity can enhance efforts to improve the consistency and quality of community research training on a widespread basis by way of efficiently conveying their expected benefits.

Examples abound in other disciplines of competency development and much has been published recently on their benefits to their respective disciplines (Altschuld & Engle, 2015). Generally speaking, competencies help students understand the specific benefits of their training and can help educators understand how to communicate these benefits to students. Further, competencies can provide a means for programs to assess their strengths and weaknesses when planning expansions or improvements to their curricula (e.g., where they support development of expertise as opposed to merely experience or exposure; Dziadkowiec & Jimenez, 2009), identifying possible gaps to address, or alternatively, more clearly delineating areas best left to other training settings (e.g., master’s, doctoral, or post-doctoral level) or other disciplines. Leaders in a field can also use competencies to more clearly describe the unique contributions of training and how to build upon these in advancing their disciplines. Educators in community psychology will recognize the relevance and currency of means for describing benefits of community psychology research training to students or prospective employers whose understanding of community psychology may be limited (Neigher, Ratcliffe, Wolff, Elias & Hakim, 2011) as well as describing gaps in existing community research methods or research methods training (Tolan, Keys, Chertok, & Jason, 1990).

An important question to address at the outset of consideration of research competencies is whether objectives of such competencies might already be captured by the recently formulated practice competencies (Dalton & Wolfe, 2012). Most in our field are not “pure” practitioners or researchers, but integrate or bridge the two. Thus, it is not surprising that the practice competencies include those for “Participatory Community Research”. It is clear from our initial discussions, however, that research training competencies are worthy of focus in their own right, rather than being a subcategory of practice competencies, where they are necessarily limited to a small number of broad statements (e.g., “use qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods appropriate to the context and purposes of the community research”). Further, detailing research competencies was a secondary consideration in practice competencies’ development; in fact, the development of practice competencies was originally envisioned as a counterweight to the predominance of research in community psychology pedagogy, which some felt came at the expense of practice (Dalton & Julian, 2009). Although perhaps not adequate for purposes of advancing research on their own, the practice competencies’ successful development demonstrates the potential for a complementary, similarly detailed (though certainly overlapping) set of research competencies.  Therefore, the goal of this process is to yield a set of research competencies that complements the practice competencies and defines the unique and varied approach to research that the field of community psychology brings to bear on community and social issues. It is important to point out that this is not a move toward accreditation of programs. Rather, research competencies are intended to serve in all of the ways detailed above as informational support for program and scholar/practitioner development.

Process to Date

Identification of the need and potential for developing research competencies emerged from discussions in 2014 Council of Education Programs (CEP) meetings on how to strategically support academic programs in the field.  Discussions included a review of data collected through the CEP survey of graduate programs in community psychology and related disciplines, conducted in collaboration with the SCRA Practice Council and summarized in a related article in TCP (Connell et al., 2013).  Program representatives were asked to assess the extent to which graduate community psychology programs help students to gain “exposure”, “experience”, or “expertise” in each of the practice competency areas, describing perceived strengths and weaknesses of graduate training in community psychology generally as well as in community master’s and doctoral programs (Dziadkowiec & Jimenez, 2009). Findings from the 2013 survey revealed significant variation among programs with respect to which Practice Competency areas received the greatest emphasis in coursework and related training activities.  Although several programs mentioned a strong focus on Competency 17, Participatory Community Research, survey responses did not provide sufficient detail to identify what commonalities or differences existed among theoretical frameworks and methodological approaches. 

To initiate formal efforts to help achieve the important objectives of competency development for community research training, the CEP is engaging SCRA members in a participatory planning process to identify and codify important competencies for researchers in Community Psychology and related areas. CEP members began generating potential research competencies based on personal research experience, academic program information, and relevant texts such as such as Rappaport and Seidman’s (2000) Handbook of Community Psychology and Jason and Glenwick’s (2012) Methodological Approaches to Community-based Research.  Members quickly identified a need for engaging a wider audience of scholars, practitioners, and students from SCRA in the generation of research competencies.  Given the recent development of the SCRA Practice Competencies in 2012 (see Dalton & Wolfe, 2012), CEP members invited a member of the Practice Council involved in the development of the Practice Competencies to review and discuss the initial development process during a monthly CEP call. 

Informed by this discussion, the CEP initiated a similar process.  In the spring of 2015, a CEP workgroup charged with generating content for an initial list of competencies decided on an approach of gathering preliminary data from a diverse group of SCRA Fellows through a semi-structured interview approach.  In their career, these Fellows straddled academic and non-academic positions and had a wealth of experience and insight on competencies beneficial to the practice of research in different contexts.  Each of them had also mentored others during their career preparation and early career training.  In developing the interview protocol, the workgroup realized that although ‘competencies’ were a useful shorthand for the phenomena of interest, the tools needed to conduct action-oriented community research were, perhaps, more appropriately labeled as research skills and perspectives.  As such, the group developed an interview protocol to capture data on methodological and analytic skills, theoretical perspectives, and the overall process of designing and conducting impactful research.  Taking a cue from the practice competencies, the protocol also asked Fellows to identify whether new community psychologists should gain exposure, experience or expertise with the skills and perspectives that they identified.  The task group completed 13 interviews.  All interviews were thematically coded and categorized by two workgroup members to identify (1) methodological and analytic skills, (2) theoretical perspectives and (3) elements of the overall process of designing and conducting impactful research.  Codes were compared and discussed, with little variation arising between them.

The workgroup brought the interview findings back to the CEP, who together generated a draft of the research skills and perspectives based on group discussions, document reviews and interview data.  The CEP presented this draft of research skills and perspectives in a roundtable discussion at the SCRA 2015 Biennial.

Emerging Competencies

The emerging list of research competencies includes (1) skills for research design, data collection and analysis, (2) perspectives, including theories and conceptual frameworks, and (3) meta-competencies that involve combinations of skills or perspectives or that cut-across more discrete domains of the research process. The skills and perspectives are grouped into categories based on whether interviewees recommended that community psychologists simply have, at a minimum (1) some exposure to the concept, (2) some experience with it, or (3) expertise in it. Of course, no community psychologist has expertise in all of these areas, so the list of competencies is aspirational and should be useful to community researchers throughout their careers. Some interviewees elaborated on this, clarifying that master’s students might have experience with only a few perspectives or methods, while doctoral students should seek to build expertise in a variety of these areas. Methodological breadth was emphasized by many of our interviewees, however, and most suggested that the idea of being narrowly self-defined according to particular methods is not only limiting for community psychologists, but may be inappropriate for researchers in our discipline. Accordingly, the ability to think critically about multiple research perspectives, paradigms, and methodologies was emphasized.

The summary below depicts a preliminary organization of key aspects of these domains and indication regarding the views of interview participants on weight of experience with a given skills or perspective required for competent community-based research. This list is intended only as a summary of key issues raised during this process rather than as a proposed framework for these competency areas.  As detailed later, the CEP envisions ongoing effort to refine this list and elicit further comments from the field and from graduate programs to identify additional aspects or domains of competent community-based research and to learn more about how these competencies are reflected in current training models for community psychology and related disciplines.

Community Research Skills – Research Design

Expertise:

  • Quasi-experimental designs for capturing naturally occurring phenomena in context 
  • Mixed-methods designs combining quantitative and qualitative components (e.g., embedded
  • designs; concurrent/ sequential designs) 
  • Participatory research designs (e.g., participatory action research; community-based
  • participatory research 
  • Survey and interview protocol designs

Experience:

  • Evaluation (e.g., needs assessment; cost-benefit analysis; outcome mapping) 
  • Clinical and prevention trial designs (e.g., field experiments, RCTs) 
  • Sampling and data collection 
  • Team science (i.e., multi-disciplinary and multi-method collaborations)

Exposure:

  • Meta-analysis 
  • Prevention science 
  • Policy analysis

Community Research Skills – Data Collection and Analytic Methods

Expertise:

  • Quality data collection and management 
  • Basic qualitative methods (e.g., interviewing, coding data) 
  • Descriptive quantitative analyses (e.g., visual displays of data) 
  • Multivariate inferential methods (e.g., regression, ANOVA) 
  • Nested/ hierarchical data structures (hlm; mlm)

Experience:

  • Longitudinal analysis (e.g., growth models, time-series) 
  • Structural equation modeling 
  • Reflective methods (e.g., member-checking, participatory analysis) 
  • Variety of qualitative approaches (e.g., grounded theory, narrative analysis) 
  • Measurement (e.g., psychometrics) 
  • Focus groups
  • Missing data and data reduction techniques

Exposure:

  • Ethnographic approaches and methods 
  • Power analysis 
  • Agent-based and system dynamics modeling 
  • Network analysis 
  • Spatial analyses (e.g., GIS) 
  • Profile analysis (e.g., cluster analysis) 
  • Econometrics 
  • Epidemiologic methods
  • Multi-level SEM 
  • Analysis of social media data

Community Research Perspectives and Theoretical Approaches

Expertise:

  • Ecological theories (behavior settings, social regularities, systems thinking, social ecological models) 
  • Human wellbeing/ flourishing (strengths; resilience; sense of community; human diversity) 
  • Empowerment and power 
  • Theories of intervention and change 
  • Critical theory (e.g., feminist and critical race theory; decolonization)

Experience:

  • Democratic/ political theory (e.g., civic engagement; social capital) 
  • Organizational development 
  • Ethics (beyond human subjects) 
  • Other branches of psychology (e.g., social; developmental)

Exposure:

  • Economics 
  • Community development theories 
  • Policies and policy change 
  • Social determinants of health and health disparities 
  • Broader social science theories (particularly as they relate to domains under study)

Community Research Meta-competencies

  • Environmental reconnaissance – ability to understand settings and contexts in multi-layered ways and identify key points of leverage for community research and action
  • Framing and asking good questions – thinking critically and analytically about the relationship between evidence and theory
  • Connecting research and practice – ability to build and deepen partnerships with practitioners through cyclical processes of research and action
  • Dissemination and translation – ability to communicate concepts and findings to a variety of audiences, including community partners, academics from other disciplines, and policy makers

 

In addition to the above, the roundtable on research competencies that CEP held at the 2015 SCRA Biennial elicited a rich discussion that further helped to flesh out thinking about the nature of these research competencies. Two issues were raised that we agree should be considered in regard to the draft list of competencies presented above. The first is the issue of cultural competence, or cultural competencies. Attendees in our session recognized the importance of the ability to understand and work within and across different cultures when conducting community-based research. Several of the competencies and meta-competencies above have aspects of cultural competency associated with them (e.g., critical theoretical perspectives and ‘environmental reconnaissance’); however, we recognize the need to explicitly incorporate cultural and multi-cultural competencies, perhaps framing as a distinct meta-competency that cuts across other research-related skills and perspectives. Second, we heard from participants who emphasized the importance of a ‘philosophy of science’ perspective and epistemological concerns. This is also captured in some of the competencies above, but likewise may merit further consideration as a possible stand-alone competency addressing competing claims for what counts as valid or valuable knowledge. 

Next Steps

Members of the CEP view this emerging list of research competencies as a preliminary step toward developing and publishing a set of guidelines for graduate training to promote more competent community-based research standards.  These recommendations are not intended as a prelude to program or individual certifications, any more than the current set of practice competencies represent such a standard.  Instead, much like the current practice competencies, they may provide a framework for thinking about graduate and post-graduate training and identifing a unique set of skills and perspectives within the field to promote more vigorous (and rigorous) community research.  Such a framework that can promote thoughtful research design is imperative at a time when increasingly complex approaches to addressing social issues now intersect with diverse, sophisticated methodological and analytic options for investigation.

At this stage, the CEP is looking forward to gathering input from a broader range of perspectives, to further flesh out the nature and scope of community-based research competencies. Specific strategies to elicit this input include further qualitative data collection from audiences not represented in the initial sample, including early- career community researchers and graduate students, as well as a survey of SCRA members that parallels the interview of SCRA Fellows. In addition, the CEP will incorporate a set of items for our periodic Survey of Graduate Programs in Community Psychology and Related Disciplines slated for the 2015-2016 academic calendar that address research competencies.  This periodic survey will provide an initial glimpse at coverage of preliminary community research skills, perspectives, and competencies across masters and doctoral level training programs in the US and abroad. 

At the conclusion of this next phase of information gathering and refinement, targeted at mid-2016, the CEP will publish a refined version of the recommendations for community-based research competencies for further review and elicit more broad-based comments on ways they can be used to foster greater support for research training in graduate and post-graduate study for Community Psychology and related fields.  The intent is to create a “living” set of research competencies that can be revisited, monitored, and assessed to ensure that our field keeps an eye toward necessary skills and expertise to conduct rigorous and impactful research, while also incorporating advances in research and analytic design and capacity, as appropriate.  It is the hope of the CEP that these competencies will help to guide and support academic programs within the field, serve as a resource to prospective graduate and post-graduate students and trainees, and also inform the greater public about the particular skills and expertise in community research among community psychologists and our related interdisciplinary programs.

 Prior to that time, the CEP welcomes input or comments on the process and/or content of these competencies, as well as involvement with the CEP in the next steps of their development. Please direct emails to the authors of this article and we will follow-up to incorporate feedback as appropriate.

References

Altschuld, J. W., & Engle, M. (2015). The inexorable historical press of the developing evaluation profession. New Directions for Evaluation, 145, 5-19.

Connell, C.M., Lewis, R.K., Cook, J., Meissen, G., Wolf, T., Johnson-Hakim, S., … Taylor, S. Special report – Graduate training in community psychology practice competencies: Responses to the 2012 survey of graduate programs in community psychology.  The Community Psychologist, 46, 5-8, 2013.

Dalton, J. & Julian, D. (Eds.) (2009). Special section: Infusing community practice into graduate training: Broadening the conversation. The Community Psychologist, 42, 9-23.

Dalton, J., & Wolfe, S. (2012). Competencies for community psychology practice: Society for Community Research and Action draft, August 15, 2012.  The Community Psychologist, 45,4, 7-14.

Dziadkowiec, O., & Jimenez, T. (2009) Educating community psychologists for community practice: A survey of graduate training programs. The Community Psychologist, 42, 10-17.

Jason, L. A., & Glenwick, D. S. (2012). Methodological approaches to Community-based research. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.

Levine, M., Perkins, D. D., & Perkins, D. V. (2005). Principles of community psychology: Perspectives and applications. New York: Oxford University Press.

Neigher, W.D.,  Ratcliffe, A.W., Wolff, T., Elias, M. & Hakim, S.M. (2011). A value proposition for community psychology. Global Journal of Community Psychology Research and Practice, 2(3).

Rappaport, J., & Seidman, E. (2000). Handbook of community psychology. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum.

Tolan, P., Keys, C., Chertok, F., & Jason, L. A. (1990). Researching community psychology: Issues of theory and methods. Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association.

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