Shaping Research: Key Informants
Despite our different ways of engaging with communities, my co-author, Dr. Debbi Main, and I we have both found that the relevance and meaning of our findings is shaped by who we engage in our research. Because key informants – whether in an anthropologist’s ethnography or a health researcher’s community-based participatory research (CBPR) – can be so influential in shaping a study’s direction, we felt it would be important to cast a critical eye on how this influence can happen and how it may be affected by the role or position of said key informant in the population under study.
Using theoretical and empirically-driven arguments from a number of social science disciplines, we make a case that key informants remain important to community-engaged research, but that new researchers and those new to this style of research, need to ask themselves who their key informants are (are they professionals in the community, are they residents?) and how these roles may affect the knowledge they provide (e.g., their perspectives on community priorities and community member behaviors), the doors they open (with whom do they interact in the community, to whom can they help researchers gain access), and their position(s) of power relative to community members (are they in a position of power to push an agenda on the community?). These are issues that emerge in community-engaged research, regardless of specific methodological tools, region of study, or general area of interest/focus. The increased collaboration of researchers with those they research blurs lines that other approaches insist should be rigid and clear. However, the great strength of community-engaged research is its relevance to and potential empowerment of participating cultures, neighborhoods, and groups. Yet, we cannot optimize these benefits if we don’t have a full understanding of the nature of the data provided, the questions asked, and the people participating.