Two academics walk into a bar: meditations on community-led research at an altitude of 1,365m

by Dr Helena Robinson, Senior Lecturer in Interdisciplinary Education, University of Sydney, and research team member on the Australian Research Council-funded project Archaeology, Collections and Australian South Sea Islander Lived Identities.

In this personal reflection on a current research collaboration between the Queensland Museum, University of Sydney, University of Queensland, and Australian South Sea Islander communities, Dr Helena Robinson considers what it means to be part of a community-led project.

I feel a little awkward as I step onto the sun-bleached deck of the local pub in Thredbo (rather unimaginatively called ‘The Local Pub’) with a laptop instead of a drink in my hand. I scout around for free seats, and head past animated gatherings of gritty mountain-bikers and a few weathered hikers to a bar table and two stools, as far away as I can get from the loudspeakers playing a medly of 80’s greatest hits. It’s not that I don’t like the music – the retro Snowy Mountains 2XL playlist has become the distinctive soundtrack to my family’s annual summer trip to the Australian Alps – but today I’m in need of silence (or as close as I can get to it). I’m waiting for Professor Jonathan Pragnell to join me for an interview about community-led research on a project we’re both involved in with colleagues from the Queensland Museum.

Navel-gazing in lieu of fieldwork

Thredbo’s an unlikely location for a meeting between two academics working on the heritage of Australian South Sea Islanders in coastal Queensland, but Jon and I jumped at the chance to meet face-to-face after realising our paths would cross while on holidays. In a year marked by COVID-19 lockdowns, border closures, and aborted fieldwork, all of our team’s primary research – including archaeological excavations and cultural mapping of places significant to Australian South Sea Islander communities – was put on hold. Instead, we’ve decided to salvage what’s left of the year by progressing another aspect of the research, which involves evaluating the outcomes of the ‘community-led’ approach being trialled as part of the project. We’re kicking this off with a series of interviews between members of the project team to pin-point what it is that we actually mean by the idea of community-led research.

Detail of cultural items on display at the community museum at The Hut, Mackay July 2019

What is ‘community-led’ research?

The Macquarie Dictionary defines research as “diligent and systematic inquiry or investigation into a subject in order to discover facts or principles”. Conventionally, such work is directed by expert researchers who deploy specialised research methods to obtain reliable insights into research problems. In universities or museums – settings familiar to our team – research might involve testing theories through laboratory experiments, collecting and analysing environmental samples, artefacts or other forms of primary data (including behavioural observations, survey responses, or oral histories), or mining historical sources held archives and other collecting institutions. What does it mean to disrupt this model through a distinctively community-led approach?

I’ve thought about this question a lot, but when Jon asks me to define what I think community-led research means in the context of our project, I still struggle to formulate a concrete response. In abstract terms it’s quite straight-forward: the notion of being ‘community-led’ embodies lofty ideals of democratised, participatory and non-hierarchical research practices, where academic researchers share or even cede authority in the design and execution of a project to the community. In other words, it’s about going beyond ‘consultation’ and making communities equal partners in research, rather than ‘respondents’ or ‘subjects’ on whom research is done. Such a research model is considered the gold-standard when working with communities such as Australian South Sea Islanders, who might be justifiably suspicious of the benefits of participating in studies run by fly-in fly-out academics.

Range of objects displayed by MADASSIA at The Hut, Mackay July 2019

Feeling our way from theory to practice

Putting a community-led approach into practice raises a variety of thorny challenges, though. Together with Dr Geraldine Mate and Imelda Miller from QM, our researcher lead – Sydney University’s Dr James Flexner – ensured that members of the Australian South Sea Islander community were involved from the outset of the project, even in the process of crafting the funding application to the Australian Research Council. The group travelled to Mackay, Ayr, Rockhampton, and Joskeleigh to meet with Australian South Sea Islander representatives to make sure there was as much community as academic interest in the proposed research, and to find out which cultural sites and histories the communities were most interested in investigating.

But attempting to stay true to the spirit of collaboration and co-management has become trickier as the project team has grown and more community members have become involved. The activities of a diverse and geographically dispersed group of contributors requires a certain degree of centralised coordination; a process that paradoxically requires hierarchical structures and delegations of authority, if only for the purposes of progressing different aspects of the research efficiently. The conditions of a pandemic haven’t helped when it comes to establishing a predictable routine for academic and community collaborations.

Interior of the community museum hosted by MADASSIA, Mackay July 2019.

Moving forward with ‘organised spontaneity’

Jon and I ponder how the team’s aspirations for community-led research can be genuinely realised as the pressure to ramp up the project after the delays of 2020 intensifies. How can we move forward on several fronts simultaneously while staying true to the principles of shared authority in the research process and interpretation of the findings?

I grope for a way to reconcile the competing demands for flexibility and discipline, experimentation and rigour within our community-led approach. “Maybe we need organised spontaneity!” I blurt out enthusiastically to Jon, who gives me a sceptical sideways look in response. It’s a clumsy expression, I know; the beer’s gone to my head. What I mean is that, paradoxically, a more conventional approach to planning the research might actually allow for more flexibility and responsiveness in our fieldwork and collaborations on the ground… just like the studies that have found that creativity thrives under more structured conditions. That might require a pragmatic revision of how we enact our community-led ideals. But first, Jon and I savour what’s left in our glasses and look forward to a more predictable, and research-friendly 2021.