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27th Annual SCUTREA conference proceedings 1997

Crossing borders, breaking boundaries : Research in the education of adults

Issues and experiences using participatory research to strengthen social capital in community development

Jeff Zacharakis-Jutz and Jan Flora
Iowa State University, USA

In the United States, rural Midwestern communities are encumbered with the same systemic challenges and cultural biases that many rural communities around the world endure. In addition to the seemingly inevitable decline in physical, financial, and human capital, these rural communities are all-too-often burdened by entrenched forces of cultural reproduction. Leadership seems to be an inherited right, where young leaders are identified by the position of their parents, grandparents, and great grandparents. Many young people who can leave usually do leave. Locally owned banks are bought and absorbed by regional and national holding companies. Low wages require an average family to maintain about 2.5 jobs per household just to meet basic needs.

To compound this problem, today's dominant paradigm in rural economic development is industrial recruitment, where rural communities compete and bid for outside investment with tax abatements, employee training programmes, and land give-aways. With dwindling state and federal money, less and less outside capital is available to subsidize these types of community development programmes. There is a growing body of research that suggests that tax abatements and other financial incentives are inherently problematic (LeRoy 1994, Ginsburg and Bluh 1994). The effort to attract footloose firms pits one rural community against another, where the 'successful' bidder is often the loser as firms which received public entitlements may pick up and leave just as the investment begins to pay dividends to the community.

Social capital and participatory research

Social capital in a community is defined as collective norms of reciprocity and mutual trust. Putnam (1993, 35-36) says social capital refers 'to features of social organisations, such as networks, norms, and trust, that facilitate co-ordination and co-operation for mutual benefit. Social capital enhances the benefits of investment in physical and human capital'. Coleman (1993, 9) says that such informal norms 'depend on a dense and relatively closed social structure that has continuity over time'. Thus, social capital thrives only when individuals within a social system interact with one another in multiple roles over a period of time. Only then can trust reach sufficient levels to allow for the reduction of transaction costs. Increased social capital can reduce transaction costs of using other forms of capital physical, human, and environmental. Alternatively, as is suggested by Bourdieu (1977, 487), privileged groups can maintain their privileges through intergenerational transfer of social and cultural capital to their offspring, which may reduce the efficiency of other types of capital.

Thus, social capital refers to the structural relationship between different actors and organisations within community. The essence of social capital might be characterised at 'people' power in the positive sense, or as the 'old boys network' or other similar negative aphorism, when used to exclude certain categories of people. In either case, as a form of capital, it involves the use of social resources to generate other resources. For communities or groups with limited resources of other types capital, social capital as an asset is seen as a sustainable resource for development (C. Flora 1995, J. Flora et al. 1996).

Participatory research, within our framework, is an educational approach that strengthens social capital. Whereas professionally trained researchers, adult educators, and community developers, may have certain skills, talents, and insights which might be useful to a community, as 'outsiders' they cannot create sustainable change within a community. We argue that unless the community is a full partner in the research process, the resulting strategies and implementation will not be successful. In essence, we see this community development process beginning with an alternative system of knowledge production and understanding that can lead to self-development (Tandon 1988, Fals-Borda and Rahman 1991, Participatory Research 1982).

For our purposes, though, knowledge production is not enough. The knowledge that is created through participatory research must be utilised. Moreover, both the community and the participatory researcher need to be able to recognise and understand the impact of this utilisation. Although participatory research is appealing to the academic as a 'democratic' manifestation of knowledge production, our experience suggests that to the community member it is only useful when applied to developmental activities.

Building communities for tomorrow

The philosophical foundation of BCT is deeply rooted in community development, social capital, and participatory research theories. The origins of this programme date back to 1995 when Extension to Communities staff began to ask ourselves how effective we were, and what type of impact we were making. Upon closer inspection, we recognised that most of the programmes we offered to Iowans were short term, one evening to several months long, facilitation of organisational and community planning workshops, leadership institutes, and economic and community development programmes. Seldom did we work long enough on a project to measure impact or change in behaviour.

In 1993-1994, there were several new staff addition to Extension to Communities (including the authors). With new personnel came new ideas, skills, and experiences in participatory research and social capital. In 1995, we invited John Gaventa to Iowa to conduct a residential staff training on participatory research. It was shortly after his workshop that we began to develop BCT. When we initially began to develop and design BCT in 1995, there was an emphasis on developing social capital as the means to sustainable development. Unfortunately, the final printed material for BCT in 1996 de-emphasised the introduction of social capital in lieu of more mainstream community development language.

Bellevue, Iowa

Bellevue was selected through a competitive process to be Iowa's first BCT community. When we began looking for a pilot community to test our new programme, we looked for a community with indicators of strong social capital. As a first test of this new programme, we were not looking for a problem community but one that would have a high likelihood of success. The citizen's steering committee that first invited us to Bellevue was and is impressive. It is a relatively young cohort, 30-45 years old, with good gender balance, representing a cross-section of the community, and possessing a willingness to experiment and take on new challenges. As a group they are proactive and reasonably progressive.

Bellevue is a picturesque community of 2239 people along the banks of the Mississippi River in a farming valley surrounded by palisades and bluffs. Whereas twenty years ago this was primarily an agricultural community, it is now a bedroom community to Dubuque, Iowa. It has a small, and until quite recently a vibrant retail district that relies upon both local and tourist traffic. It is a historic Roman Catholic community with a small but important Protestant population. It is not only beautiful but in a romantic way an ideal locale to raise a family safe, clean, and protected

Bellevue is also a community which is at a crossroads. Because of the surrounding bluffs, there is little land on which to build new housing or to expand its industrial base. Since the 1993 Mississippi River flood (which did not physically damage the town), tourist traffic has significantly diminished. In addition, as part of a national trend, more and more residents view shopping as a social activity and therefore prefer driving a half hour to Dubuque's malls and retail districts in contrast to supporting local businesses. As a result, many downtown businesses and restaurants are experiencing serious decreases in business, resulting in financial stress.

Developing community research

The Bellevue project began in January 1996. The first task of the steering committee was to identify and recruit a larger group (35-40 people) for the project. With the help of a worksheet developed by the National Civic League in Denver, Colorado, the steering committee identified existing leaders, new leaders, emerging leaders. They recruited people between the ages of 15 and 75 years of age. They sought out long-time residents, up to three generations, and new residents of less than a year. Traditional families, grandparents, single parents were recruited. People of different socio-economic classes were invited and joined, as well as rural residents and farmers along side the city residents. A sincere effort was made to invite a diverse cross-section of people to form the larger group. As a group, they agreed to participate once or twice a month for up to three years a major commitment of time and energy. Later in one of their studies, it was revealed that some community leaders saw the Bellevue BCT committee as the most diverse in Bellevue's history.

From the beginning, we decided to emphasise the theoretical aspects of social capital and participatory research. After the first two or three meetings with a newly constituted and diverse citizens committee of thirty-five people, we discovered that most everyone understood the theory, and were able to discuss with each other specific aspects of it relative to the community. More than a year later, social capital language has become institutionalised within the group. This important experience underlines not only the importance and relevance of developing theory within a community setting, but also the relationship between theory, research, and practice.

The first evening the large group developed a 'community map'. They were asked to develop a schematic drawing which showed 'the Bellevue' they want to see in the near future. The map captured their feelings, intuitions, and experiences of both Bellevue today and a Bellevue for tomorrow. It relied upon drawings rather than words, and involved everyone first developing maps in small groups then, together, synthesising a whole group map. This exercise served as the first 'interpretation' of Bellevue. Although not scientific, the themes and issues that were identified that night have re-emerged in every subsequent study.

The group then decided they needed a larger community voice in developing an understanding of Bellevue's issues and opportunities. Working together, a simple survey was developed around one stimulus question: 'What do you like about Bellevue and what would you like to change?' The large group divided itself into several subgroups based on peer relationships, for example, teenagers, seniors, retailers, commuters, farmers, and professionals. Using this stimulus question, each peer group went into the community and interviewed people who were similar to their peer group, and people who were most dissimilar to their peer group. For example, the seniors interviewed other seniors and teenagers. The results of this activity showed that there were some difference in perspectives based upon age and peer groups. This exercise also revealed a potential problem within the retail community; the retailers were very reluctant to interview their peers, fearing that the intent of their question might be misinterpreted as a scheme to gain some 'competitive advantage' or that the survey itself would be viewed as a criticism of the community. Their solution was to ask a third party perceived as being more neutral to conduct the interviews on their behalf.

The Bellevue BCT committee then invited a graduate sociology class from ISU to develop a leadership study. Jan Flora and some of his students had recently developed an in-depth interview instrument and tested it in Vandalia, Missouri, and Aurora, Nebraska, two rural Midwestern towns with similar populations to Bellevue. Because of some of the sensitive questions in the interview, the committee decided to invite Flora's rural sociology students to conduct the interviews in an effort to get more honest responses. The Bellevue BCT committee began the research process by identifying the first group of eight community leaders for the graduate students to interview. In each interview, which generally lasted an hour or more, four final questions were asked: (1) Whose support do you need to make a project successful? (2) who can stop a project? (3) who are the best project implementors? and (4) who are the most effective representatives of Bellevue to the outside? People identified by these questions were then interviewed. The interview process went on for five days for a total of 31 interviews until everyone who was identified by multiple respondents in these questions had been interviewed. Once the same names kept showing up in the interviews, the leadership interviews were completed.

The leadership study was profound. Although there are many civic and church organisations in Bellevue, there is a cohort of about 25 people who comprise the inner circle of all these organisations. Even though the leadership is generally young by rural Midwestern standards, between 30-50 years old, many of these leaders are second and third generation leaders. An unexpected outcome of this survey showed that the Bellevue BCT committee is probably the most diverse committee in the community's history. Also, the data indicates that many of the younger leaders want to open up and share leadership responsibilities with others in the community. These young leaders clearly are not conspiring to maintain power. Rather, they have inherited power in seemingly innocuous ways that are difficult to identify and understand. Through this map, we are beginning to understand some of the aspects of cultural reproduction in community leadership.

In early 1997, a retail trade analysis for Bellevue was developed by ISU's Economics Department. This analysis was based on sales-tax receipts. It showed that there is tremendous retail trade leakage to the surrounding urban communities of Dubuque and Davenport, Iowa. The results of this research were not very encouraging, yet very consistent with almost every other Iowa community of similar size to Bellevue. It also showed that in order for Bellevue's small retail community to remain viable it would have to focus on developing its assets location on the Mississippi, tourism potential, quality of life, and quality service and serve a niche that fits the character of the community. One positive outcome of this retail trade analysis occurred at the large public meeting at which the data was presented to the community. Representatives from the city council, the local economic development agency, and the chamber of commerce recognised that they would have to work closer together in order to develop successful strategies.

The next research project initiated by Bellevue's BCT committee was to commission the ISU's Community Development-Data Information and Analysis Laboratory to conduct a survey that measures local assessment of community services, attachments, spirit, participation, and quality of life. This particular instrument was developed in 1993, and randomly administered to one community in each of Iowa's 99 counties between 1994 and 1995. A composite community called Sigma developed from this state-wide survey will be compared with Bellevue. The results of this survey will be available by May 15, 1997. Of all the research conducted by the group to date, this will be the most traditional. Yet, the ownership of this information, and ultimate interpretation, will reside with Bellevue's BCT committee.

Even though several more research projects are planned for the fall 1997, the BCT committee has been moving to develop action plans via subcommittees in retail trade and tourism. As a group, they realise that an investment needs to be made in both tourism and retail trade in order to keep the town viable. These two primary areas of concern were identified the first night in the community mapping activity. There has been consistent corroboration with all subsequent research to this initial research activity research based upon committee's experiences and intuitions.

Cultural reproduction of community leadership

Keeping in mind that we are reporting on the first 15 months of a two to three year project in Bellevue, the issue of cultural reproduction is emerging as a dominant theme (Bernstein 1977, Bourdieu 1977). Class, family socialisation and personality seem to be predictors of leadership (Rossides 1976). Within a rural community the size of Bellevue, class may have a diminished role. The distance between classes is perceived to be narrower than in a larger urban setting. And, the youth who are most likely to leave the community upon high school graduation are those with cultural and economic means. Therefore, the available pool of leaders to draw upon is limited within the elite classes. Family socialisation, hence, may be a stronger determinant in identifying potential leaders.

The symbolic universe (Berger and Luckmann 1966) of leadership connects existing leaders to predecessors and successors. Hence the collective memory of leadership within a small rural community might in fact be extremely limited. In Bellevue, the connection between past and present leaders, as well as those who will assume leadership in the future, is relatively linear. Persons selected by other leaders on the four questions in the leadership study were overwhelmingly male, Catholic, and defined as the 'old guard', with at least twenty year of residence in the community. The four teenagers who participated throughout most of the first year are from families of leaders, and personally are seen as leaders among their peers.

Whereas the literature on cultural reproduction focuses on the negative aspects related to preserving the status quo of the social elite, the Bellevue example seems more complex. The sincerity of the steering committee to invite people from the community who had not previously acted in a leadership role resulted in the creation a very diverse group from which to begin the project. Yet, after approximately nine months of working together, we started to see many of the potential new leaders stepping off to the side in deference to the established leaders. From our perspective, we did not witness any acts or behaviours within the group that would have encouraged people to leave the project. In fact, when we approached formerly active members to solicit their input and encourage them to rejoin the group, we did not hear of one negative comment or incident that might have resulted in their decision to leave the committee. Rather we heard about other demands upon their time such as church, family or business. Thus, it may be speculated that an important aspect of cultural reproduction is the intergenerational inheritance of community service as a family tradition. Though that 'service' may be self-serving to a degree, conversely, there seems to be a lack of this tradition among other families, particularly the working class and small farmers.


Cultural reproduction of leadership within a community can only be discussed in the context of the entire BCT project. Even though the group is still actively engaged and starting to realise tangible results from their months of hard work, we cannot ignore the fact that the size of Bellevue's BCT committee is about 33% of its original size of 35 members. Reasons for this drop-off might be attributed to poor or inadequate programme design of BCT; too much emphasis on research and analysis rather than action; a lack of immediate results; and/or poor facilitation on our part. Yet, we cannot ignore the reality of modern families with the many demands upon their limited time and energy. The question, though, that we raise is why have some individuals remained active, and why is it that they are from families with established leadership traditions?

Participatory research as a tool for social change within rural communities should also be examined. Can PR be used in a non-revolutionary setting such as the rural Midwest? Most description and examples of PR emphasise the popular education opportunities in grossly exploited situations, among severely disadvantaged groups (Participatory Research, Fals-Borda and Rahman). We see rural communities such as Bellevue becoming marginalised within society, subject to exploitation and low wages, with limited economic or social opportunity. Social capital is for most rural communities their greatest asset. PR, as a means to community empowerment and actualisation, may enable rural communities to clarify issues and problems required for targeted strategies and investment of this asset.


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