Researching Community Building in Gloucestershire

At the start of 2016, researchers at Barnwood began a programme of in-depth data collection in places across the county where Barnwood is supporting the process of building connections between residents – ‘Community Building’ – using the principles of asset based community development. This blog post shares some reflections from carrying out the research fieldwork over the last eighteen months.

When you think of the word ‘research’, the first things that spring to mind can often be laboratory experiments, crunching complex numbers, and reading reams of reports. Whilst researchers at Barnwood are not averse to setting up spreadsheets or producing a graph or two (or three!), you might be surprised to hear that we’ve also spent quite a large part of the last eighteen months getting involved in activities ranging from chopping vegetables and grouting tiles, to playing bingo and litter picking, to painting pictures and learning to crochet.

You might well wonder why all of these activities are important when it comes to carrying out research with communities. Essentially, a key part of our approach has been spending time building relationships with groups and residents across the county, who have often had some support from the Trust. Frequently this means getting stuck in with a whole range of activities, beyond simply asking questions about impact and outcomes.

When first beginning to think about how we might capture what difference Barnwood’s work is making, we realised that an integral part of planning the research would involve initially spending time with community members. Not only would this help us explore how our research methods might be as inclusive as possible, but also help us to formulate the right kinds of questions to ask in our research. A wealth of evidence already indicates the benefits that expanding social relationships can have on wellbeing, but in what ways might we meaningfully engage with groups and residents to capture this locally?

The preliminary stage in beginning any research project is often deciding what it is you’d like to ‘measure’ or capture. Perhaps the greatest freedom, yet also one of the biggest challenges, in carrying out this research has been that, unlike some other community development approaches, Community Building doesn’t have any predetermined outcomes to measure. Instead, inherent within the asset based community development principles is a focus on supporting resident-led initiatives, rather than striving to achieve a range of pre-set targets relating to volume and variety of activity.

This leads to the question of how determine ‘what counts’ as an indicator of success. Whilst examples of individuals joining groups, running events, and applying for Barnwood’s Small Sparks neighbourhood grants have been important to capture, so too have been the more subtle yet equally important changes in people’s lives. From having the confidence to smile and say hello to your neighbour, to thinking differently about what’s possible for your community, it’s been important not to overlook the seemingly smaller things.

The challenge of deciding ‘what counts’ as an outcome is particularly magnified when looking at how to capture the ripple effects emerging from Community Building over time. In many instances, community groups and events which have been established with encouragement and support from a Community Builder have, in turn, led on to further involvement by people in their local communities. Trying to capture this ‘ripple effect’ is not always straightforward and also raises the question of how much we can attribute back to a Community Builder’s initial input.

Furthermore, as individuals, there are also many factors in our lives which can influence whether or not we get involved in our community, from our health and housing, to friends and family commitments, to work and financial circumstances. Trying to disentangle the ‘cause and effect’ behind people’s involvement in community presents a particular challenge. By their nature, Community Builders too are embedded in the communities they work in and don’t operate in isolation from other organisations and agencies. Taking stock of these multiple influences and how they impact on the way in which Community Building unfolds in an area is an essential part in trying to understand why and how certain outcomes have emerged.

During the course of carrying out the fieldwork, we’ve increasingly realised that no two neighbourhoods where intentional Community Building is happening are the same. This not only plays out in terms of residents telling us about the myriad ways they’ve got involved, but also in the process of carrying out the fieldwork itself. It’s been important for us to constantly be mindful of whether it’s appropriate for researchers to be engaging with residents, including at what point we are introduced. Carrying out the fieldwork at a different pace in each community presents a challenge in trying to plan data collection in advance, particularly when what we are seeking to measure is itself constantly evolving. But overall this approach enables us to focus the fieldwork around what feels most appropriate and comfortable for those who are taking part.

Reflecting on the range of crafting, cooking and sporting activities that the research has involved so far, you might wonder how different the process of carrying out research is to the process of Community Building after all? Many of the questions which are central to Community Building practice are important for researchers too: Who isn’t being included in the conversation? When do you step back from a community? And what should relationships and connections with residents look like? On more than one occasion we’ve found ourselves listening to individuals talk about their passions and interests, which has sparked suggestions of other community groups they might like to join or colleagues we could connect them with.

Ultimately, however, through having these conversations with residents across the county, as well as producing people maps, analysing our grant-giving, and capturing reflections from Community Builders, we are gradually building a body of evidence documenting the impact that all of this activity is making for people in Gloucestershire. We look forward to starting to share insights from these research findings in 2018 when we have analysed the data we are currently collecting, and are thinking creatively about the ways in which we might do this. Potentially involving crafting, cooking and more!