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Research and Projects

Community Engagement in Research

Theme: Person-Centred Care
Status: Complete


Public engagement in research is politically mandated, and is increasingly becoming a requirement of funding bodies for researchers to demonstrate how they have engaged, or propose to engage, members of the public in their research activities. This project sought to determine the extent to which complexity theory might offer the most effective means for understanding how communities can be successfully engaged in academic research. We adopted a case study approach, working with participants in a number of projects which had significant community engagement. These projects were all supported by the UK National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement , who we also collaborated with in our work. From the outset our research was informed by a Community Advisory Group, comprising community partners and engagement specialists. The findings of the research were fed back to participants, our Advisory Group, stakeholders and policy makers who further shaped our thoughts and helped us think about implications for commissioning and evaluating publically engaged research.

The objective of our research was to identify the initial conditions that facilitated the creation of enabling environments for community engagement. the results led us to develop a new way of conceptualising community engagement, which we propose to call an ‘engagement cycle’. We suggest that this engagement cycle comprises a number of differential ‘phases’, each of which is constituted by its own characteristic processes.

This research led to the invitation from RCUK to bid to become a ‘Catalyst’ University; one which sought to create a culture of Publicly Engaged Research. We were successful in securing this funding in 2012.

Our findings

The results suggest that the processes of community engagement with research could be usefully understood as phases within an engagement cycle, and that these phases have distinct characteristics.
Thus, we suggest that there is an ‘engaging phase’ within the cycle, comprising the processes of developing relations, and building trust, with communities – the so-called ‘lead-in’ phase. It is within this phase that what we have called the ‘initial conditions’ for community engagement are created. The processes characteristic of this phase of the engagement cycle tend to manifest the typical qualities of complex systems – they are open, fluid, dynamic, and lead to emergent outcomes. Any evaluation during this phase of the engagement cycle should be concerned with reflecting on the processes that facilitate or inhibit engagement, rather than being directed towards outcomes. Moreover, such evaluation should feed back into these processes, allowing them to adapt and evolve, and thereby supporting both the creation of new relations, and the identification of possible mutual benefits for communities and academic partners.

These emergent outcomes may consist in what can be termed ‘constraints’, or ‘parameters’. Such constraints tend to function within the context of projects, or pieces of work, based on community-academic partnerships that emerge from the engaging phase, and which can be interpreted as determining the form and structure of these projects. We conceived of this as constituting an ‘engaged’ or ‘project phase’ in the cycle. The processes comprising this engaged phase frequently exhibit properties typically found in linear systems – for example, successful projects are often well planned, with outcomes identified in advance, on the basis of which impact evaluation can be carried out. Such properties are themselves manifestations of the emergent constraints that are determining of the projects.

A further phase of the engagement cycle was identified, a ‘follow-on phase’, akin to the period following the conclusion of a run of artistic performances, during which reflection can take place, and processes of planning for future work or building towards mutually acceptable closure can occur.

A briefing paper, which indicates best practice for community engagement and offers guidance into working with communities in health research has been published. To access this publication, click here

Since the publication of the report the AHRC have developed a commissioning process for the Connecting Communities Programme which funds both an initial, start up phase and a follow on phase.


Katrina Wyatt
Community Advisory Group
Dr Robin Durie, University of Exeter
Dr Craig Lundy, University of Exeter