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Psychology Research and Intervention in Community-Based Settings
By Rebecca Boulos, Tufts University


Much psychology research is conducted in an investigator-controlled setting; it’s rare to find effective studies that occur in a broader social context.  This is why, even as a public health researcher, I decided to attend the recent APA Annual Meeting.  I saw an advertisement for the SPSSI-sponsored sessions on community-university partnerships, and was pleasantly surprised since these represent a critical opportunity for investigators to aptly and appropriately apply psychological theory and outcome measurements in communities of interest.

Notably, however, work such as this is challenging, and even intimidating given the responsibility of collaborating with community partners and the degree of trust necessary to make the intervention an efficacious and successful one.  Conducting a gold standard randomized-controlled trial is also complicated since communication between intervention and control populations is difficult to monitor, and the increase in non-academic research staff could jeopardize the validity of the study.  Despite these complexities, the sessions I attended clearly demonstrated the tremendous and lasting impact that can be made when psychological assessments and interventions are thoughtfully and intentionally integrated in a truly community-based setting.

Here are just a few of the highlights and the accompanying lessons:

•    First, listen to and learn from the community about their needs.  In the People Awakening Projects, conducted at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks with Alaskan Natives, researchers first learned about the cultural protocols and values of the community.  They discovered that alcoholism was a new problem; so much so, that the word for “alcoholism” did not exist in the native language, and co-developed a way to describe the path from non-problem to problem drinking as paralleled to traveling down a local river heavily fished by Natives.  This analogy translated the conceptual and psychological transition in terms culturally relevant to community members.

•    Don’t assume you know the cause of, or answer, to a perceived problem.  Researchers at Middle Tennessee State University found faculty were not using the school gym because they were concerned about the power dynamic with students; this is different than the typical assumption that people either don’t have time or don’t know how to use the machines.  By using a values-based analysis, which can elucidate causes of a given behavior from a different angle, investigators were able to produce real and positive change; faculty started to use the gym more frequently when they realized students respected them more for exercising.

•    Communicate clearly and consider the consequences of research findings.  Across all studies, it was readily apparent that formalized, clear and consistent communication between community partners and research staff is essential.  All study leaders should consider the consequences of their findings – not only on participants – but also people who reside or work in the community but are not involved with the study.  There is a mutual vulnerability in this type of work; both the academic institution/s and the community organization/s are opening themselves to risk, and a genuine recognition of that – from both parties’ perspective – will allow for a more balanced collaboration.

Ultimately, these were truly tremendous sessions and the researchers should be highly acknowledged for their remarkable research.  This work is not easy – but the relationships and results are very real, and ultimately, that’s what matters.

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