Engaging the complexities of community: conflict and difference in community-engaged research


This paper engages with the methodological and ethical complexities of conducting research across diverse sites of power and privilege, specifically by drawing upon twelve months of ethnographic fieldwork on the ecological restoration of the Ventura River in Southern California. The design of this project incorporates people from multiple, conflicting positions, including people who are homeless and living in riverbottom encampments, people in the environmental field working to restore the riverbottom, and people in social services working to house the homeless. Throughout my fieldwork various groups attempted to assert agency over my research methods and priorities, pulling me in multiple directions. However, despite this tension, this research design also afforded me the opportunity to develop trusting relationships across difference, which facilitated the opening of a new (and potentially more just) socio-ecological imaginary for the Ventura River. This paper demonstrates how one can create change across diverse positions of power, and the role community-engaged researchers can play in this process.

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  1. 1.

    For a broader discussion of the role of accompaniment in Community Geography, see Bradley Wilson’s presentation on “Accompaniment Research” from the 2019 Workshop on Community Geography sponsored by the National Science Foundation (http://www.communitymappinglab.org/commgeog19.html).

  2. 2.

    Pseudonyms are used to protect the confidentiality of research participants.

  3. 3.

    The overlooked object exercise is one of the activities taught at a workshop on performative ethnography led by D. Soyini Madison, in which I participated at the International Congress of Qualitative Inquiry.


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The American Association of University Women supported this research through an AAUW American Dissertation Fellowship.

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Correspondence to Jennifer T. Mokos.

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Mokos, J.T. Engaging the complexities of community: conflict and difference in community-engaged research. GeoJournal (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10708-021-10397-3

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  • Community geography
  • Ethnography
  • Participatory research
  • Homelessness
  • River restoration