Using GPI (Genuine Progress Index) Atlantic’s efforts at constructing social indicators for evaluating wellbeing in Nova Scotia, Maureen Reed explores strategies necessary for working with rural Saskatchewan communities and the benefits of such work. She argues that research initiatives can help develop new skills and provide valuable learning experiences for communities and researchers alike. Community involvement in identifying research questions, and data gathering and analysis, can serve to empower communities to address their own needs. These issues are explored and critiqued in Situating Indicators of Social Well-Being in Rural Saskatchewan Communities.
Reed identifies three approaches for integrating communities and agencies or academic researchers in research about social well-being. In the Contributory approach, the research is performed for and about community groups by outside researchers. The community’s role is of providing resources, support and/or funds, and possibly some consultation on the work’s scope. In the Operational/Consultative approach, research is conducted with greater involvement of community groups. While the agency or academic researcher retains control of the project, community participants have influence in terms of policy recommendation and indicator selection. Finally, in the Collaborative approach, the research is done with and by community groups. In this format, community participants and the researcher equally share power, ownership, and risks. While some have suggested that greater community involvement leads to increased commitment and learning, there is also a greater possibility that community members do not want to be directly involved or that they may burn out from their many local activities. Ideally, whatever approach is taken, researchers and communities need to ensure that local needs are addressed and the research advances mutual interests.
When dealing with rural communities, Reed advises, researchers need to be aware of the peculiarities unique to that region and lifestyle that make the usual methodologies (i.e. those used in urban settings) inappropriate. Indeed, traditional definitions often define rural as something in contrast to urban, that is, urban is the norm and rural is that which does not properly fit. For example, rural communities often do not neatly fit census categories, thus making the Census, a standard source of data for community research, inappropriate or unreliable. Rural communities also face different challenges (or have different needs or concerns) than urban centres, such as the effects of economic globalization, demographic and environmental changes, the evolving role of First Nations peoples, and welfare state restructuring. Researchers must be more in tune with rural communities’ unique needs, to recognize the particular symbols, metaphors, myths, and traditions that frame that community’s history and outlook.
These “peculiarities of place” (p.17) are important for determining how best to approach research in a particular rural community. Rural communities often benefit from help from government, non-governmental organizations or academic researchers who focus on their locality. Nonetheless, the research must be situated to ensure we understand whose well-being is affected by community change. Vigilance is required at all stages, with an eye to ensuring that research methods, results, and longer term effects empower local residents and improve their long-term prospects for economic, environmental and social sustainability.