Community-Based Action Research

Community-based action research (C-BAR) is a relatively new addition to counseling and counseling psychology research. The research and interventions, or actions, occur at the community level, rather than with individuals, families, or small groups. Community is defined as a group linked by common interests, such as young women in a teen pregnancy program, migrant workers, or people living with AIDS.

C-BAR is distinguished from much other research in counseling in that the research is developed and conducted as a collaborative partnership between the counselor-researcher and community members. Sharing project responsibility in this way empowers the community to define its own problems and develop its own solutions. In this collaborative process, the researcher is deeply involved as a coexpert, bringing organizational and research skills to the project. Community members are the other coexperts, contributing their unique experiences, truths, and analyses of why the problem exists and how it may be solved. C-BAR projects are not value-free endeavors; they are often explicitly conceptualized as efforts to promote social justice and equality by empowering those with muted or silenced voices to speak and act on their own behalf.

C-BAR, the Family Tree

Philosophical Roots

The emergence of C-BAR in counseling parallels the increasing influence of constructivist, feminist, multicultural, social justice, and qualitative research perspectives. Community-based action researchers believe that truth is relative. They believe that perceptions of reality are shaped by social, political, and economic factors that impact individuals and communities and that these factors determine who gets the power and authority to speak, label, and define reality.

C-BAR is part of a family of action and participatory research, including participatory action research, community participatory action research, critical action research, feminist participatory research, classroom action research, and industrial action research. Adherents of action research debate among themselves about terminology, principles, ideology, goals, and change theories. Some of the disagreements can be traced to historical as well as philosophical differences.

Historical Roots

There are a number of founders or contributors to the action and participatory research family. The majority of action researchers today stem from the following traditions: (a) social psychologist Kurt Lewin, who coined the term action research in the 1940s; (b) the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations in the United Kingdom, which was primarily involved in organization development; and (c) the social movements of the 1970s in the developing world, championed by individuals such as exiled Brazilian philosopher Paulo Freire, author of the banned Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970).

Action researchers today have been classified in a number of ways, including along a continuum with Lewin and his followers at one end and Freire and his adherents on the other. Following the Lewin tradition, researchers engage primarily in problem-solving action research, such as in industrial psychology, and do not necessarily include the community as extensive collaborators in the research process. They also seldom conduct research with commitment to broader social change. At the other extreme of the continuum, in the Freire tradition, is research more typical of the movements of the 1970s and popular education, rooted in social justice and consciously linked to broader social change. These researchers see the community as the vanguard of social change and social justice, and they see themselves, the researchers, as catalysts and supporters of the change process.


In spite of their differences in ideology and goals, most C-BAR researchers share certain values and principles. C-BAR involves collaboration between researchers and the community. C-BAR is a participatory, colearning process and is usually an empowering process for the community. C-BAR attempts to achieve a balance among theory, research, and action. A key commonality is an intent to change something that the participants view as worthy of change.

Methodological Approach

Methods in C-BAR and other types of participatory action research have an extensive history in various social science and social practice fields. C-BAR methods evolved from such disciplines as anthropology, sociology, psychology, education, public health, nursing, and social work. Today, C-BAR principles are often greatly influenced by feminist and multicultural ideologies. Putting these theories into practice implies that central to C-BAR methods today are issues of gender, race, class, and culture.

In practice, C-BAR uses a method of systematic inquiry that follows a series of loops that involve planning following by acting and observing followed by reflecting. This process is self-reflective in that each new loop is based on results from the preceding cycle. The number of self-reflective loops is determined by the project. The flexible and fluid design of these projects is well suited to qualitative research methods.

Beginning a C-BAR project first involves establishing a relationship with a community. Sometimes the counselor-researcher is hired as a consultant, but usually these partnerships develop from an association between the counselor-researcher and a social agency or group. For example, a counselor-researcher who has an affiliation with a domestic violence clinic, a special needs group, or a legal aid program may eventually form a C-BAR partnership. Once this relationship is forged, the problem is defined and clarified by the community; goals and methods are selected and then implemented, and the problem-solving intervention is evaluated. The end of this sequence, evaluation, simultaneously begins the next cycle, replanning.

Conceptually, this process is simplified by an action research spiral:

Figure 1


In this spiral, C-BAR researchers take on many roles, including those of observer, reporter, colearner, and collaborator in which they facilitate community empowerment. The self-reflective element is critically important, because it allows for more effective interventions at each new cycle.

To empower community voice, the project results must be disseminated. This may represent a departure from traditional research. Rather than publishing only in professional journals, the C-BAR researcher will also make results known to policymakers, the media, popular or specialty magazines, and to whoever else can best use the information.

Counseling and Counseling Psychology

Because it is a newcomer to counseling and counseling psychology, C-BAR’s use has been limited. Generally, counselors and counseling psychologists have viewed their proper role as that of being therapists or scientists, believing community-based projects and advocacy were better suited for social workers. However, some scholars maintain that a social justice agenda is simply a return to counseling’s roots, beginning with Frank Parsons.

There is a growing momentum supporting C-BAR in counseling and counseling psychology. In the past decade, professional counseling journals have dedicated entire issues to exploring counselors’ emerging role as advocates for social justice. In academia, a growing number of counselors and counseling psychologists are calling for social justice agendas within training programs and practice settings. Some even suggest that APA guidelines for multicultural competence mandate an ethical responsibility to practice C-BAR. Asserting that multicultural competence must entail social justice, progressive training programs are moving to expand the traditional roles of counselors and counseling psychologists. This philosophical shift may necessitate role reconciliation to bridge the gulf between the-counselor-as-healer-scientist and the-counselor-as-social-change-agent ideologies.

C-BAR projects are carried out in a variety of settings. In a Chicago-based teen smoking prevention effort, teenagers contributed information that led to legislative changes and a police crackdown on selling tobacco to minors. In another project aimed at teens, the agency itself was the primary community and collaborated with researchers to develop sex education and pregnancy prevention interventions for at-risk youth. In yet another endeavor, researchers collaborated with clergy and parishioners to facilitate the congregations’ ability to absorb an influx of immigrant members. These examples illustrate the basic principles underlying C-BAR projects. The collaborative partnerships and sharing of power were evidenced by each community’s input in defining their problems and implementing solutions. Community empowerment was achieved through enhanced education, opportunity, or ability to act on their behalf.

The emerging utilization of C-BAR in counseling and counseling psychology promises both challenges and opportunities. C-BAR proponents may be initially viewed negatively by others in counseling and counseling psychology due to their philosophical and methodological shifts encouraging community involvement and empowerment. Concerns range from objections to C-BAR’s social and political overtures to questions about its academic validity and scientific rigor. C-BAR researchers may also encounter difficulties with human subject protection committees; however, these obstacles may be overcome by educating those responsible for ethical review about C-BAR. A specific opportunity for C-BAR is that some funding sources want to support projects that are based on collaboration with the community. C-BAR offers counselors and counseling psychologists expanded professional opportunities to use their skills to promote problem solving and personal empowerment at the community level.


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