The Community Event Research Method

The Community Event Research Method

Sarai Lastra (Universidad del Turabo, Puerto Rico)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60960-057-0.ch028
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During the process of designing a community information system for my dissertation study using ethnographic and grounded theory methods in a Latino diasporic community from Paseo Boricua in Chicago, Illinois, between 1999 and 2001, I experienced the efficacy of community events as tools for educating me about the essence that was organizing a community’s way of life. The process of achieving the dissertation goal generated a new method based on the traditions of community informatics (CI) and participatory design (PD). This chapter presents the method—the Community Event Research Method (CERM)—and explores issues in developing and applying it. CERM reasons that community events are knowledge objects which embody social processes, cultural meanings and information needs of a community and that a selected set of community events, which are related in some larger cultural context (in one way or another), can serve as a valuable unit of analysis for systematically uncovering strong and weak voices in a community. The method not only focuses on understanding the community ethos, but also presents alternatives for recasting knowledge into design.
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“Whatever we observe is impregnated by assumptions” (Silverman 2001, p.2).

The tradition of community informatics shows an emerging field of research and practice that is at a point where social informatics was in the late 20th century with respect to mapping out its borders. Community informatics (CI) is a technology-based discipline devoted to understanding “social factors influencing ICT utilization”(O’Neil 2001, p.3) in local communities. CI “pays attention to physical communities and the design and implementation of technologies and applications, which enhance and promote their objectives” (Gurstein 2000, p.2).

An inspection of the CI literature illustrates the difficulties of the research and practice in CI because of a need to integrate various methods, research goals, community programs, potentially conflicting assumptions, multiple voices, theories and practices. The shortcomings in the evolution of community informatics’ doxa relate to a gap in the establishment of a common ground of principles, methods and theoretical frameworks needed to bring coherence and establish disciplinary boundaries for CI (Bishop, personal communication, 2001; Gurstein 2003, 2007; Pitkin 2001). For instance, concerning a critical aspect such as “effective use of ICTs,” Gurstein notes, that the term “has been widely employed [with] little or no systematic analysis” (2003, p.8).

Although CI is slowly meeting its challenges of closing its theoretical and methodological gap, as Pitkin recommends, “head on” (2001, p.10), the nature of the CI discipline calls for its researchers and practitioners to be forever engaged with a “diffusion of methods, ideas and approaches from field to field.”1 This need for multidisciplinarity in CI’s doxa raises a number of critical issues and research problems related to the maturation of a common rhetoric for an emergent discipline. For one, the complexity of understanding community ICT projects requires CI researchers to go beyond just describing success stories (or failures) to analyzing the principles underlying the various ICT developmental case studies. Yet, going beyond just describing stories will require CI to work on providing a common ground of principles, methods, constructs and theories.

To the extent that CI closes its theoretical and methodological gap, more sense making CI research that contributes to a steady evolution of the discipline and that brings insights into the relationship between ICTs and community development projects should appear in the future.

Along these lines, this study looks at the research problem of developing a method based on community events helpful to community informatics for uncovering the “local knowledge” (Geertz 1983) of a marginalized diasporic community, and beyond that, for exploring ways of recasting this local knowledge into designing more socially inclusive community ICTs.

The development of this method focuses on mapping the action of the research activity as what happens when various methods, theories, practices and goals integrate and adjust into a unit of analysis of community events, producing an interpretation which is useful for designing more socially inclusive community ICTs.

In general, the concept of “community” is defined in this study as a dynamic and constitutive group that can develop tenacious coalitions that work towards a particular end while dealing with internal tensions, inconsistencies and contradictions that may hinder the development of a particular goal. Specifically, the research problem situates the development of the method in the Latino community of Paseo Boricua, Chicago, Illinois, during the years 1999 through 2003 (Lastra 2006).

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