Journal of Family Violence

, Volume 33, Issue 8, pp 515–519 | Cite as

Observer Effect: Insights for Building Equitable Community-Research Partnerships

  • Connie Burk
Original Article


Grassroots community efforts intuitively understand the physics of relationships—that you cannot interact with something or someone, even if that interaction is simply observation, without having an impact. Research shapes the way our lives are imagined. There’s no way around it. But developing relationships with researchers or others who can help document and disseminate ‘by and for’ information can be challenging for grassroots and community led initiatives. When institutions seek to include marginalized community priorities into pre-existing frameworks or study initiatives, or when researchers come from the outside, extract information from our community organizations and grassroots efforts, and then leave to analyze and make meaning of it elsewhere, the result is never accurate and our own community led trajectories of learning are disrupted and undermined. From significant changes to how research collaborations are conceived and funded, to simple fixes to approaches used in the field, researchers can be better partners to community led efforts to document and understand our own lives.


Community based participatory research Grassroots organizing Community partnerships Experiential evidence Contextual evidence Learning from the margins 

Grassroots community efforts intuitively understand the physics of relationships—that you cannot interact with something or someone, even if that interaction is simply observation, without having an impact. Contrary to the notion that scientific observation can function fully independent from the subject of study, the observer effect demonstrates that the tools we use to measure necessarily change the state of what they measure. The questions we pose frame the possibilities of what can be observed. In this way, research shapes the way our lives are imagined. There’s no way around it. But developing relationships with researchers or others who can help document and disseminate ‘by and for’ information can be challenging for grassroots and community-led initiatives.

When institutions seek to include marginalized community priorities into pre-existing frameworks or study initiatives, or when researchers come from the outside, extract information from our community organizations and grassroots efforts, and then leave to analyze and make meaning of it elsewhere, the result is never accurate and our own community-led trajectories of learning are disrupted and undermined. From significant changes to how research collaborations are conceived and funded, to simple fixes to approaches used in the field, researchers can be better partners to community-led efforts to document and understand our own lives.

In the sections that follow, I seek to illuminate some of the common ways researchers miss the mark when working with community led projects and offer simple adjustments that can minimize unintended consequences to the subjects of study. Drawing from my experience directing a culturally specific agency for over twenty years, this paper posits that more productive and mutual relationships between researchers and grassroots efforts for positive change are possible, and it seeks to provide support to researchers on how to collaborate with community-led projects.

“We Don’t Know”

Some years ago, I was invited to a grassroots organizing conference on domestic abuse in lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) communities in a neighboring county. My panel was scheduled to follow a local researcher and professor from the state college whose research focus was on violence against women. What she repeated in her talk and in the question and answer portion of the panel was “we don’t know”: “We don’t know if abusers use a range of tactics of control in same-sex relationships. We don’t know if abuse is impoverishing in LGBTQ communities. We don’t know if police are helpful in domestic violence calls in LGBTQ communities.”

This person was engaged in her work. She cared. Although she had little to add to the conversation about LGBTQ communities, she was an expert in heterosexual domestic violence and obviously had a passion for the issue. But to her, the only knowing possible was research and the only knowers were researchers. This construction of knowing was natural, objective and neutral to her. It did not need to be qualified or explained. In fact, she did not qualify or explain it. She didn’t say, “researchers do not have evidence to base a claim on how survivors experience” this or that. She simply declared it was unknown by the “we” of knowers and left it at that. It apparently did not occur to her that this narrow view on “knowing” could have negative impacts on grassroots change efforts, hamper community efforts to respond to violence, or delay survivors from seeking help.

But she was not alone in that room. She was talking to the small smattering of humanity that might give up a Saturday afternoon to drive to the city library and attend a community summit on LGBTQ abusive relationships: Some local therapists, a small array of community groups—the LGBTQ student union, PFLAG, advocates from the local dv shelter and, importantly, survivors—people seeking out some type of orientating information to help them make sense of a stigmatized, crazy-making, confusing, dangerous and rarely talked about experience. As her presentation progressed, I watched chance after chance to educate and inform, comfort and exhort the folks assembled there lost with another “We Do Not Know.” She did not operate as if legitimate knowledge might exist beyond the paucity of current available research, or that her status in the community as a researcher and professor might obligate her to take her audience and the community needs into consideration in her talk, or even that advocates in community based anti-violence programs, often survivors themselves, might have experiential or contextual evidence to bring to the table.

At that time, her assessment of what was known through research was not far off the mark. But, of course, much was ‘known’ about the experience of surviving abuse in LGBTQ communities (yes, all the letters! Way back then!). We already knew how to build community based responses to this violence that mattered. We knew how diverse LGBTQ survivors’ experiences mapped onto and diverged from the anti-violence movement’s narrative of heterosexual women’s experiences. We knew the dangers that lurked in civil institutions like police and hospitals. We knew how the practice of chosen family within LGBTQ communities created opportunities for support and safety that were rare elsewhere.

By neglecting to present her knowledge in relationship, or even in tension, with experiential and contextual evidence –by never even acknowledging that there were other ways of possibly knowing something—her presentation sowed confusion and consternation. The consequences were significant. The community not only lost the opportunity to usefully educate and activate the participants that day, those people actually left the summit less prepared to help themselves or others. The momentum that convened the summit dissipated and it was years before that community mounted another grassroots effort to respond to violence in LGBTQ communities.

One could argue that I am overstating the impact, but I have to insist. The blanket and unqualified assertion of “we don’t know” has a powerful effect of negation. And when communities face multiple marginalization that include dominant institutions consistently denying, minimizing and obscuring the common experiences of that community, the erasure of “we do not know” looms large.

People who understand that their formal research is one component of a strong evidence base can be strong allies to community based efforts. For starters, researchers can consistently locate research data (or the lack thereof) in a larger framework of evidence that includes research, context and experiential data. When researchers lack study data on a topic they can still acknowledge that communities may have rich experiential data, for example. By explicitly identifying who the ‘knowers’ are for a specific assertion, such as “researchers can’t answer that question from the study data,” researchers can ensure that the limits of available research evidence do not serve to undermine other legitimate forms of knowing. Further, researchers can simultaneously explain the limits or absence of available, validated research evidence while lifting up contextual and experiential evidence sources. In the story above, for example, the presenter could simply explain the limits of the available research while posing questions to the audience about their community experiences with same-sex abuse.

We would Expect it to Work the Same Way

Just at the conclusion of the Bush administration, I was asked to join an invitation only summit on the state of research in the domestic violence field. The summit included luminaries from research and practice domains, folks with impressive degrees and CVs from the academy as well as folks with practice expertise and grassroots community organizing experience.

Because I was there with the ‘sexual orientation and gender identity’ alphabet soup on my table tent, people kept pausing in their presentations to patch in content about same-sex domestic violence. I appreciated the effort to include my community in the discussion, but it led to some interesting moments.

One exchange stands out. A team was presenting about the differences they had documented among men and women’s violence in heterosexual relationships. Men, they said, most often use coercive controlling behaviors in their violence toward partners, while women are more likely to use situational violence in their relationships. As the heterosexuality hung in the air, the speaker paused and said toward me something to the effect of, “We haven’t looked at same-sex relationships but we would expect it to be the same: men more likely to use coercive patterns of control and women more likely using violence situationally.”

There were a few nods around the table before I interrupted to disagree, “We find just the opposite to be the case.” I shared that in our experience, women who batter their female partners almost always use coercive controlling behaviors while men who batter their male partners often use less patterned violence. The complex of oppression renders women more vulnerable to coercive control and so anyone, of any gender, who harms them is more likely to default to those tactics. I said, “It’s the vulnerability of the target that structures the violence.”

The insight countered their assumptions about how violence might be operationalized among LGBTQ people, but it wasn’t inconsistent with their data with heterosexual people. They thought that expressions of violence would be stable within a given gender, while I explained that the type of violence expressed was more stably predicted by the gender of the target than by the gender of the violent person (The 2010 NSVIS data, published a few years later, would demonstrate this point, but I digress). It’s the difference that makes all the difference.

In my experience, the ideas that “it will be the same” and “we do not know anything” are two sides of the same coin. Neither requires ethical curiosity or genuine engagement with ‘the other.’ On one side of the coin, people can proceed blithely confident that what they think they know about the dominant community experience can be universalized to everybody. On the other, the lack of rigorous or validated data can defend that status quo by failing to offer any evidence-based alternatives.

One solution to this problem is to assume that the dominant culture perspective is incomplete. By assuming that there is more to know, researchers can foster a practice of checking assumptions against experiential and contextual knowledge held within communities and groups closest to the topic. In the example above, the format of the summit encouraged the engaged exchange of perspectives. Far from being defensive or resistant, the research team was open to the possibility of an “aha” moment emerging from the discussions with practitioners and experts from the field.

God Is Good, All the Time; All the Time, God Is Good

Some time ago, I participated in a roundtable on LGBTQ communities, faith and intimate partner violence designed to gather data to create a curriculum. The convener started the event with the declaration that, while many belief systems and cosmologies and ritual practices were represented at the table, we could all agree that God is good, all the time. All the time, God is good. Her assertion was met with enthusiasm from some and confusion from others, but, in the end, every faith represented there had some liturgical or theological link to the phrase ‘God is good.’

The God is good notion was central to the convener’s understanding of her faith and of what her religion had to offer survivors, and she was relieved to find that, despite all the difference, there was this place of commonality. What she didn’t register was that for at least a few of the religions represented, and in particular the non-Christian theologies, this tenant, so central to her faith, was marginal at best to others and certainly wouldn’t make the “top ten things you should know about our religion” list. For some around the table a human assessment of God’s goodness had little bearing on how one should act, what obligations one had, how one should proceed to assist survivors or to survive abuse oneself. The thread was there, but it was in no way as central or durable for these ‘other’ religions as it was for hers. Still, an idea held in common among the faiths present was enough to secure the phrase as a framing concept for the entire roundtable, and, indeed, the subsequent curriculum.

By overemphasizing an area of commonality, without understanding the degree or relative importance of the common idea, the dominant culture (in this case Protestant Christianity) was able to determine what would be ‘status quo’ and what would remain otherized, even within a diverse group of people from widely varying religious backgrounds. Commonality can be a heartening oasis in the disquieting land of difference. But rather than functioning as an energizing fueling station, this comfort zone can quickly become the destination.

The opportunity cost is the richness that emerges from the diverging ideas, as well as the crosscutting beliefs. Finally, overemphasizing an area of commonality undermines the possibility of usefully centering marginalized community knowledge and perspectives. Rather than prioritize commonalities, community researchers can practice inviting and giving space to difference. Researchers can start by noticing how they react when they lean into difference. Does your heart beat faster? Does your gut tense up as the tension in the room heightens? Learning to tolerate the physical sensations that accompany challenging content is an important, but often overlooked, task of convening spaces that can hold complex and competing ideas.

Researchers can work with communities to bring the margin to the center and frame the launching point around an ‘uncommon’ tenant or idea.

One simple practice that can help researchers attend to difference in a useful way involves the iceberg model of culture. The iceberg model posits that while some cultural differences are visible, easily observed and expected, such as differences in cuisine, language or styles of traditional dress, most cultural differences lie beneath the range of conscious observation of people in a dominant position. Variations in the organization of time, speech patterns, individual or collective community concepts, familial roles, concepts of relationship to religious practice, gender expectations and the like are often interpreted as deviations from moral, ethical or etiquette common norms or manifestations of deprivation, disease or dysfunction, not as legitimate cultural differences get at the same values in a different way or that prioritize different values or goals than the mainstream altogether. A lack of understanding of cultural differences ‘below the surface’ is the basis of many damaging stereotypes.

I come from a conversation culture wherein multiple people speak simultaneously. This overlap demonstrates affirmation, rapport and an interest in the speakers’ ideas. Pauses between speakers are rare, people speak quickly and topics circulate rapidly. Conversations are cooperative, rather than serial. In the dominant culture, where the custom is for one person to speak at a time and for long pauses to occur between speakers, this involved, cooperative style of conversation is experienced as interrupting and can be interpreted as rude and disrespectful, and people who use this style are often labeled pushy. A classic example of a clash of cultures.

A researcher unfamiliar with our conversational culture may find herself imposing ground rules of ‘one mic, one speaker’ in a focus group, for example, instead of figuring out ways to capture information in the group that matches the conversational style. A researcher willing to move the center might plan to mic each member of the focus group individually so that the full, cooperative conversation is captured. Of course, there are myriad variations in conversational customs, and conversational customs are but one of a myriad aspects of human culture. Researchers can consider the cultural practices, norms and expectations that lie beneath the obvious and use those considerations to help construct studies that can move the center from the default mainstream custom to a custom that might otherwise stay in the margins.

Mind the Gap

The NW Network’s work to illuminate and understand survivors’ use of violence as a tactic to survive coercive violence and take back some type of control over their own life has been foundational to our work in LGBTQ communities. It has also been instructive and inspiring to people working with primarily heterosexual women in traditional shelter programs. Many long-time advocates share that our insights and tools have helped them resolve inconsistencies and confusions they have held dating back to the first orientation they received as freshly minted advocates.

This sense of “aha” is so great that when we are offering trainings on the topic, we often have to explicitly coach participants through keeping LGBTQ people in their consciousness. In fact, after trainings specifically detailing our work in this area, people often respond with, “I thought you were going to talk about LGBTQ people.” Since the information resonates so deeply with their own experience, they find it almost impossible to understand/remember that we were always and only talking about LGBTQ people.

We know that the understandings and solutions created in the margins can have huge relevance for people at the center, and we celebrate when people are excited to bring what they’ve learned back to the populations they traditionally serve. Our work is in solidarity with all survivors, and we want every survivor, including those who are closer to the center of the field’s imagination, to be safe and self-determining. We also want people who learn from the margins to contribute to the safety and self-determination of the survivors whose lives and struggles produced the insights that enrich everyone.

When learning and innovation is extracted from the margins and presented from the alleged neutral vantage point of independent research, the innovators are often left behind as mainstream projects—already plugged into funding streams and other structures of influence—can pick up and implement the innovation without any knowledge of, much less responsibility to, the people who made that innovation possible. A common dynamic is: marginalized community innovates on a vital topic without support or resources from the field in order to address their community’s needs. That innovation, once developed, is discovered, documented and recognized to be useful. While the innovators may be seen as ‘early adapters’ because they are rarely the documenters of the approach or tool, they are rarely ultimately credited with creating it. Finally, the only resources dedicated towards the implementation of the “new” strategy are for programs who have not used the strategy yet. Thus, the final insult to injury is that the organizations that innovated the strategy are often the very last to get any support from the field!

An example of this cycle is in the development of domestic violence advocacy outside of shelter programs in the anti-violence movement. Most ‘by and for’ grassroots organizations working in specific populations did not open brick and mortar shelter programs, but instead expanded the efficacy and scope of advocacy in community programs. Programs, such as the array of community advocacy programs working in marginalized populations in King County, WA for example, developed the idea of ‘sheltering’ as a verb that may involve any manner of flexible advocacy, financial assistance, mobile support and other previously uncommon strategies to meet survivors of violence where they are at and minimize tradeoffs among elements of wellbeing, without the constraints of a physical emergency shelter facility. This model was seen as promising, but the subsequent investment in researching and documenting the efficacy of this approach bypassed marginalized providers and sought to demonstrate how traditional shelter programs could ‘retool’ using these strategies. Marginalized providers were largely shut out of the funding streams that were dominated by brick and mortar shelter programs, and were subsequently, largely shut out of the resources dedicated to retooling these same programs. The researchers involved found it logical to take promising practices developed in the margins and document their efficacy within programs at the center of the field.

In addition to making sure commonalities are not exaggerated, researchers can assist people who document knowledge at the grassroots to ensure that differences are not minimized or that the “aha’s” that resonate back to the center from a marginalized communities’ innovations in a certain area do not result in the erasure of the context and specifics of the original work, or the strengths, needs and opportunities within the original communities that should be resourced and supported.


At the NW Network, we say that grassroots organizations and local communities have to “own the means of knowledge production.” This requires investing precious resources into evaluation and research within our own agencies. Consortiums of organizations within a city or town are one way to pool resources to hire or train qualified researchers and evaluators. Ultimately, we have to take responsibility for investing our communities with the skills needed to document and make meaning of our own experiences, and to partner with trusted researchers who have a track record of investing in the communities they research.

Domestic violence advocacy is humbling work. We bear witness to people at their most vulnerable, most exhausted and terrified and brave. Trite but true, we see the best and worst that humanity has to offer day after day. And just when you think you have the handle on the broad strokes of a situation, you learn once again that the devil is in the details. You have to be willing to notice the impact you didn’t intend and try something new. Advocacy teaches us that no matter how much expertise you develop, no matter how many relationships you build, or crises you’ve managed, you have to pay attention to the person in front of you as an individual operating in a larger social context.

This same skill, the ability to keep a specific person in focus within a larger flow of relationships, structures and circumstances, could be brought to bear to strengthen relationships between researchers and community efforts for positive change. By being willing to elevate experiential evidence, not jumping to conclusions about grassroots community experiences, checking our assumptions, and being willing to move the center, we can start to build these skills together.

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.The NW Network of Bisexual, Trans, Lesbian & Gay Survivors of AbuseSeattleUSA

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