The identification and engagement of communities and potential participants is an important initial step and an on-going process during the research. Some communities form organised groups and are relatively easy to identify and engage. In other cases, communities may be relatively closed to outsiders. Some points to consider:

  • The most appropriate community organisations or grassroots groups to collaborate with will vary depending on context and not all will have the same capacity to be involved or play a facilitatory role.
  • The most prominent or well-established group may have the greatest capacity to collaborate but could risk excluding other voices.
  • In other cases, individuals and organisations that are very active in their communities may have limited capacity to get involved in additional projects.
  • Where people have not formed organised groups or are not represented by the community groups that do exist, the strength and identification of informal connections and networks is key.
  • It is not necessarily apparent prior to engagement with community members the extent to which there are formal or (especially) informal structures in operation.

Identifying and engaging with participants proved challenging in this case, requiring flexibility in the timing and adaptability in the choice of methods.

There were limited formal structures with a community-wide, place-based mandate. There was no tenants’ association in place during the study period and requests to meet with the local Community Council (a point of entry in other studies) did not receive a response. This did not reflect any lack of connection within specific communities (some respondents specifically mentioned an attachment to the area on account of the sense of community), but these informal networks were more difficult to identify and engage with, exacerbated in some cases by a language barrier.

Attending activities and connecting with community organisations holding events for local residents, either at the site or elsewhere in the immediate area, provided alternative opportunities for engagement. It was necessary to find ways of supporting engagement that placed minimal demands on the community organisations, which had their own priorities and limited resources.

Finally, working with formal gatekeepers assisted in the identification of some participants.

Ways of Identifying Communities

  • Reviewing documentary sources, such as organisational records and local newsletters or newspapers. Census information can be helpful, but keep in mind that the categories of data collected may not reflect communities of identity and interest.
  • Searching online, including community websites and key word (or hashtag) searches on social media platforms.
  • Checking notice boards in community hubs such as libraries.
  • On-site observation, such as physical traces mapping, and attending public events. Some communities may not be regularly present at a site, and who is present may depend on the timing of the activities: i.e. whether it is the school holidays; weekends vs weekdays; and the weather, and interview methods.
  • Contacting individuals familiar with the site. These might include any on-site staff, community or local councillors, and those involved in the management and conservation.

Collaborating with Organisations or Gatekeepers

Working with organisations, such as community groups or schools, and (formal or informal) gatekeepers can help to overcome identification and access issues. In the Arnol Blackhouse study, school-based activities also provided an opportunity to subsequently engage with adult members of the community.

However, being closely affiliated with specific community organisations or gatekeeper has the potential to affect participation both positively and negatively. Care is required to ensure participation remains voluntary and free from coercion.

The involvement of another party will impact on the research context. An understanding of wider community dynamics is therefore critical when proposing collaboration with a community group or requesting their participation.

Widening Participation Through Referrals

Once you have established contact with members of a community, a ‘snowball’ process of personal referrals is one means of widening the group of participants. The gradual widening of research relationships through referrals has its own timing, from when contact is made to when individuals are available to participate. The efficacy of this method of engagement depends on the ability to respond to such practical considerations and incorporate evolving networks of respondents into the research.

Identifying Gaps in Participation

As an assessment progresses, the research methods may reveal gaps – absences or silences – within the process.

Absences refers to communities that are not directly involved in the research, or behaviours that are not directly observed, but which are made apparent through the actions or statements of others. For example, in several studies, respondents identified ‘problem’ behaviours or what they considered to be inappropriate use of the space. These responses suggest other groups or communities who, through their forms of engagement, are enacting a different set of values or associations with place.

Silences are when communities or groups are omitted from presentations of community or place. These are potentially more difficult to identify and address. Things to look for include:

  • Very high levels of consensus or commonality, raising questions over whose voices may be excluded from the dominant narratives.
  • Groups or activities that are observed (whether in-person, online, or through document reviews) but are not apparent in other discussions and spaces.

Once communities or groups have been identified attempts can be made to contact and involve members directly within the assessment. Communities or individuals who decline to participate in the research activities (or are not effectively engaged) are still a factor in the wider research context. It is recommended that they are included in the assessment report as a limitation, so the gaps are made visible and can be taken into account in future use and actions.

Hard to Reach Groups

Absences and silences often correspond with ‘Hard to Reach’ groups. It is important to reflect before and during an assessment on the potential barriers to participation and adjust the methods and approach accordingly.

The term ‘Hard to Reach’ is used in recognition that some groups are:
a) hard to reach due to their physical or social location;
b) marginalised, disenfranchised or vulnerable; or
c) hidden (no records of their experience exists).
It should not be read as implying any deficit on the part of these potential participants, merely that particular consideration and effort is required on our part in order to achieve their inclusion within the research process.