In the case study described earlier (see below), the basic principles that seem most salient to me are respect and democratic practice. As is so often the case, the researchers made a genuine attempt to live by these principles. They made a point of including a diverse group of participants, insisting that the miners and sex workers have an opportunity to take part in the process rather than assign “expert others” to speak on their behalf. They attempted to hold the meetings at a site that would signal to the participants that their participation was valued. And they consciously tried to accommodate the participants’ needs by providing financial support. So why didn’t it work?
I have found that using the language of “stakeholders” often masks profound differences in power and privilege in research settings. And by overlooking the issue of power it’s easy to assume that once we identify all those affected by an issue the magic of democratic practice and participation will somehow make things right. Rather than pretend that getting everyone around a table somehow erases the influence of power, action researchers need to engage these questions in a more critical and challenging manner. Pretending not to have power doesn’t make it go away. But pulling rank is worse. How can we acknowledge the power and privilege that we carry with us and put it to work to further our common goal of achieving positive social change? The first step is to recognize our own positions of power. Peggy MacIntosh’s now well-known metaphor of the knapsack of privilege is a helpful way to enter a discussion of how privilege works. If we could all begin by honestly acknowledging our own positions of privilege and work together to consider how these very tangible assets can be to use in addressing the issues our community partners have identified, we might establish a framework for using power and privilege in a productive manner.
Here's the case study if you didn't get a chance to see it earlier
In an effort to address the problem of AID/HIV transmission you have established a research project designed to bring all the stakeholders to the table. This includes local physicians and other health care providers, community leaders, sex workers and union officials representing local miners who have high rates of AIDS/HIV infection and who often transmit the virus to their wives and other sex partners. In order to make clear the importance of this effort and to show respect to the participants in the process, you arrange to hold the meetings at a regional conference center with state-of-the art facilities. Unfortunately, when you have your first meeting, few of the union members and none of the sex workers you have contacted attend, despite your work to provide stipends to cover travel costs and other expenses. In the interests of moving forward, you decide to go ahead with the meeting, in hopes of increasing participation next time.