Exploring Beliefs, Listening for Change

Research, even in a community-based context, is often associated with providing evidence and providing some degree of certainty. Can we prove that poverty is increasing? Can we show that our organization’s efforts are making a difference (and thus we deserve more funding)?

There are other aspects of research that get less attention but are equally as crucial. Exploratory work may not “prove” something in the traditional sense, but can help sketch out a map of what direction to take next. Likewise, research can help disconfirm previously-held ideas: as the cliche goes, one black swan is all that’s needed to disprove the belief that all swans are white. Through these two approaches, research can challenge established ideas and ways of effecting change.

Last night, I came across an article about an exploratory research project on auditory hallucinations, originally reported in The Lancet Psychiatry. Cleverly titled “Hearing the Voice”, the research group behind the project decided to use a survey to learn more about what people actually experience, even if they did not have a clinical diagnosis.

Using open-ended questions, they found some results that countered previous research and long-held assumptions. For example, in contrast to the idea that most voices are violent or potentially harmful, most respondents described them as being helpful or benign. Although the research has its shortcomings, such as no way to verify participants’ self-reported experiences, the results suggest that what we previously thought about “hearing voices” may not be totally correct.

What beliefs do we hold onto in the for-impact sector about the people and communities we work with?

  • Seniors / newcomers to our country / low-income individuals and families don’t use social media, so we shouldn’t bother to advertise our events and programs on Facebook or Twitter
  • Our clients have poor education and skills
  • Participants and local community members don’t have the time or interest to play a leadership role in our organization

Some of these beliefs may in fact be true for your context, while others should put thrown in the same bin as “If you’re hearing voices, they’re most likely saying bad things”. Holding on to these old beliefs in absence of evidence could easily lead us to miss opportunities to create a broader impact.

Fortunately, the solution is pretty straightforward. Ask your participants open-ended questions, watch what’s happening in the community, and connect with partners and local leaders around your issue. Most importantly, approach this research not to confirm what you already know (or think you know), but to challenge your beliefs and learn something new.