what are scholars’ responsibilities to the communities we study?

I am delighted to serve as a guest blogger on I have been meaning to get into the blogging game for quite some time.  I am an avid reader of various blogs, and I always wondered about people who had the pluck to release their thoughts to the internet world, without the benefit of editors, peer reviewers, and the scads of people that we rehearse our arguments in front of during academic conferences. So here I am, taking up the challenge and coming to you weekly for the next month.

I have to admit, I found myself with competing pulls today as my ‘to do’ list seemed to be growing instead of shrinking. In addition to writing this blog, I am also preparing to speak to an Illinois-based group of HIV/AIDS activists and service providers about my research. I am currently conducting a study of the economic and social survival strategies of a racially and socioeconomically diverse group of women living with HIV/AIDS in Chicago.  With the 30th Anniversary of some of the first documented cases of HIV/AIDS upon us, it is definitely a time for reflection on the epidemic, the medical and social advances made in our understanding of the disease, and the long way we still have to go in eradicating the epidemic.

But in fact, I am frequently asked to give presentations on my HIV research to what scholars call, “the community,” the group of people actually living, speaking up about, fighting for, and fighting against the particular phenomenon that we study.

It raises the question: what are our responsibilities as scholars to the communities we study?

Robert Greenleaf coined the term, “servant-leader,” in his 1970 essay, “The Servant as Leader.” Greenleaf argued that servant-leaders dedicate considerable attention to the needs of individuals within their organizations and as a result, see considerable results. They are humble stewards of an institution’s human capital, financial resources, and time, bringing a myriad of skills to what they do: listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, stewardship, commitment to the growth of people, and building community. Many other leadership and management writers would come to expand upon Greenleaf’s initial concept.

Community-based research places one in the role of servant-scholar.  It is the marriage of one’s passion for social justice with a deep and abiding commitment to rigorous scholarly inquiry. It means climbing an analytic mountain (or in some cases, plunging into an investigative abyss) while upholding a promise to return to base camp with information about what was out there, told in an accessible and usable format.

When I began studying HIV/AIDS, I participated in a three-summer training program at The Center for AIDS Prevention Studies (CAPS) at the University of California- San Francisco. One of the things that I greatly appreciate about my training at CAPS was its strong encouragement to formalize the engagement that our projects would have with the communities we were studying. Per their suggestion, I created a Community Advisory Board (CAB), a group of women living with HIV/AIDS as well as activists and service providers working on HIV-related issues. We meet regularly both as a group and individually so that I can update them on my research, solicit their feedback, and hear how I can be useful to them in the work that they do. Community members often appreciate and enjoy being asked to participate in the various steps of the research process. My research team sees CAB members as experts who have experiential knowledge that is crucial for us to incorporate for a comprehensive analysis. In many ways, the CAB operates as our study’s board of directors, helping to set the strategic direction of the project by amplifying the vision for the research and ensuring that we are connected to the appropriate people and places in the community that will drive the analytic rigor and practical usefulness of the project. As a result of my study’s Community Advisory Board and my insistence to accept just about every invitation to share my HIV/AIDS research with just about any group who will have me, I am quite busy as a servant-scholar.

Every servant-scholar has to make a decision about the level of engagement that one will have with the community she/he is researching and how much input that community will have on research study design and execution. In the most intensive forms of Community Participatory Research, community members work with researchers to formulate the research questions, select appropriate methods, create strategies for analysis, and come up with a results dissemination plan. I have even seen a few instances in which community members become data gatherers themselves by becoming trained interviewers and even co-present findings.

To be sure, being a servant-scholar takes work. I closely guard the reputation or “brand” of my research project to ensure that my research team and I are trusted and respected for the expertise that we bring, but I am also careful not to promise to have all the answers. It requires us to master the scholarly literature that we are trying to engage, the subject area we are studying, and the local politics that drive the happenings when we are in and out of our field site on any given day.

Being a servant-scholar also takes a fair amount of time. We have existing commitments to our universities and the larger scholarly community. Being servant-scholars requires us to add yet another constituency, the community that we are studying. Each group makes serious demands on our time.

Finally, being a servant-scholar takes people skills.  One’s personality, style of interacting with others, and ability to communicate intellectual ideas in an accessible way are critically important. To the people that you work with in the community, you represent “academics,” the university, and are battling (or riding on) decades of actions from previous researchers who have also promised great payoffs for the research being done, and sometimes not delivered.

I often get the question of how feasible it is to be a servant-scholar, especially as a graduate student or assistant professor. My answer is simple: parallel tracks. If you are publishing in high quality venues, regularly presenting your work to scholarly audiences, and offering strong teaching, you have a great deal of freedom. Even as an assistant professor, I was never challenged for my extensive community work, whether it was my engagement with respondents and other community members in the course of research, serving on the board of directors of a local non-profit, or writing public opinion pieces for a general audience. I firmly believe that what protected me, and eventually led to colleagues seeing my community work as a strength rather than a diversion, was my commitment to ensuring that I hit the traditional academic benchmarks. Publishing, it seems, is our ticket to the autonomy to be servant-scholars.

And with ticket in hand, it’s hard to imagine a more rewarding professional ride.

Written by Celeste Watkins-Hayes

June 8, 2011 at 6:15 am

7 Responses

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  1. This might be a trivial objection to the phrasing of an obviously weighty question, but in what sense are the “communities” that sociologists study actually communities? The answer might be quite straightforward for (say) urban ethnographers who study parts of cities, but I think the notion of “community” gets quickly problematic when we apply it to institutions like NGOs, nonprofit healthcare orgs, and the like. Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t a large part of why these institutions are loci for people in the first place due to the way access to healthcare in America is socially and politically structured? Would many of the nonprofit/nongovernment healthcare organizations that sociologists study even exist if the U.S. had universal healthcare?

    I suppose I’m left with two questions, which I’m not sure are answerable in this format:

    1) ontologically, in what ways are groups like San Franciscan “women living with HIV/AIDS” similar or different to a community in a conventional sense — a neighborhood or city, for example?

    2) does it really best serve the people sociologists study if we naturalize them as “communities” instead of illuminating how their assembly itself is a product of social and political institutions?

    As you are perhaps able to tell, I am very unfamiliar with the sociological literature on medicine/healthcare NGOs, so feel free to skewer this comment. Thanks for tackling this enormously complex question — I look forward to reading your posts in the future!



    June 8, 2011 at 7:43 am

  2. […] This is servant leadership, and it is diaconally oriented in its nature- bridging two worlds and providing the “stuff” necessary to assist others without demanding to be recognized at center stage. I meant to write this; now I can just pass it on to you instead. So please, read the whole entry and comment, here or at orgtheory. I think you will find it a worthwhile investment. Thank you, and Peace. I am delighted to serve as a guest blogger on I have been meaning to get into the blogging game for quite some time.  I am an avid reader of various blogs, and I always wondered about people who had the pluck to release their thoughts to the internet world, without the benefit of editors, peer reviewers, and the scads of people that we rehearse our arguments in front of during academic conferences. So here I am, taking up the chall … Read More […]


  3. ucgrad – I don’t think it’s that controversial to conceptualize communities as existing in and between organizations. In the 70s there was a thread of research that used network analysis of organizations to identify community structure. In an Annual Review of Sociology piece, Laumann, Galaskiewicz, and Marsden promoted this as a “a conception of community structure as an aggregate network of interorganizational relations.” Their point is that community often emerges and is maintained in an interorganizational context. Anyone who’s ever been simultaneously involved in the PTA, Girls Scouts and/or Cub Scouts, children’s sports leagues, and local elementary schools probably has an intuitive understanding of this idea.


    brayden king

    June 8, 2011 at 2:08 pm

  4. ucgrad- Defining community is a challenge- and I think that defining it too narrowly (such as limiting it to geographical areas like neighborhoods or cities) can be detrimental to our thinking. When it comes to community, I like Selznick’s take- “…definitions in social theory should be weak, inclusive, and relatively uncrontroversial.” (1992:358) in addition to the article Brayden linked to, you might also find Brint’s 2001 piece in Sociological Theory helpful.

    I can’t make hyperlinks so the Brint piece can be found here:



    June 8, 2011 at 3:00 pm

  5. Great post, Celeste.

    Extending Brayden’s comment that communities can be “within and between organizations”, I think it’s important to note the possibility of multiple potential communities, which can vary in their degree of participation in or receptiveness to our research.
    Within a given study on health care or social services, for example, you could have potential communities among both clients and practitioners, and they may not overlap in their perspectives. Take Goffman’s Asylums, for example. I doubt many of the staff in St. Elizabeth’s saw the book as good for their community, but patient activists definitely did. Publishing facts that one group or the other might not desiring being made public can make it difficult to maintain the type of close relations to one community or another that one might desire.



    June 8, 2011 at 4:51 pm

  6. What happens when the “community” you study is conducting business counter to your sense of social justice? It could be drug dealers or gang members in the urban context, Tea Party or radical right-wing activists in the political context, homophobic or racist NGOs in the organization context, etc. These are “communities” that certainly deserve scholarly attention–qualitative and quantitative–but involving them in the research design and presentation of findings would probably run counter to the researcher’s ideals of justice and equity.

    I guess I’m just having a hard time applying this model to the study of communities more generally (i.e. taking a literal definition of “community-based research”). Instead, it seems like it applies mostly to *disadvantaged* or *marginalized* communities, rather than any and all “communities” we might study.



    June 8, 2011 at 5:17 pm

  7. Thanks for the responses and articles, Brayden and Melissa. I don’t mean to make this a definitional issue or to derail the very important discussion of what sociologists owe to the people they study. I suppose my basic point is that “community” denotes a wide and heterogeneous field of entities — as KMD points out, we can use “community” to mean patients, doctors, practitioners, or clients, but also categories of patients (those with particular diseases or those of a particular gender or race), as well as the more conventional “community” of the hospital itself. The question, then, of “what scholars owe to the communities they study” is an equally protean question that depends on how any particular sociologist conceptualizes the “community” she studies.

    The two questions I have that relate specifically to the healthcare field is whether it’s actually (1) “correct” to refer to the populations targeted by NGOs as communities and (2) whether it’s best for the people to do so. I think that (1) is a question that should be answered contextually and empirically, by specifying how people interact with one another, what % of time they spend in interactions with other community members, what they give and get back from each other, etc. If we’re trying to answer the big question at the top of this post, I think it’s worth asking how, say, interactions between women living with HIV/AIDS who use the services of an organization in SF are (un)like those of parents with elementary school-aged kids in the same town, and how these are both (un)like interactions between people who live in the same residential neighborhood.

    (2) is obviously the more difficult question. Is having a bunch of NGOs that target specific “communities” that are “underserved” — e.g., poor — while maintaining a system of privatized medicine really the best way to structure access to healthcare? How can sociologists be embedded — physically, intellectually, ethically, emotionally — in these organizations while maintaining the distance from them necessary to criticize their existence? This is where I think “community” gets really problematic — in some cases, my (naive) opinion is that it can just be a nice word for “people who can’t go anywhere else for the care they need.”

    Thanks again for the thought-provoking responses. Hope I’m not missing the forest for the trees…



    June 8, 2011 at 6:05 pm

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