Research Article: Can we Build on Social Movement Theories to Develop and Improve Community‐Based Participatory Research? A Framework Synthesis Review

Date Published: May 04, 2017

Publisher: John Wiley and Sons Inc.

Author(s): Marie‐Claude Tremblay, Debbie H. Martin, Ann C. Macaulay, Pierre Pluye.


A long‐standing challenge in community‐based participatory research (CBPR) has been to anchor practice and evaluation in a relevant and comprehensive theoretical framework of community change. This study describes the development of a multidimensional conceptual framework that builds on social movement theories to identify key components of CBPR processes. Framework synthesis was used as a general literature search and analysis strategy. An initial conceptual framework was developed from the theoretical literature on social movement. A literature search performed to identify illustrative CBPR projects yielded 635 potentially relevant documents, from which eight projects (corresponding to 58 publications) were retained after record and full‐text screening. Framework synthesis was used to code and organize data from these projects, ultimately providing a refined framework. The final conceptual framework maps key concepts of CBPR mobilization processes, such as the pivotal role of the partnership; resources and opportunities as necessary components feeding the partnership’s development; the importance of framing processes; and a tight alignment between the cause (partnership’s goal), the collective action strategy, and the system changes targeted. The revised framework provides a context‐specific model to generate a new, innovative understanding of CBPR mobilization processes, drawing on existing theoretical foundations.

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Community psychology, community development, social work, public health, and health promotion are fields of action and research that aim to transform the life and health conditions of individuals, groups, and populations (O’Neill & Stirling, 2006; Perkins & Zimmerman, 1995; Rappaport, 1981, 1987; Rootman, Goodstat, Potvin & Springett, 2001). These fields have a vested and inherent focus on social change (Lehrner & Allen, 2008), and build on approaches that emphasize critical investigation, empowerment, as well as transformative action (Maton, 2000; Minkler & Wallerstein, 1997). Community‐based participatory research (CBPR) is one of these approaches, viewed as a valuable way to empower people and groups, enhance their voice and power in society, and facilitate social change (Cargo et al., 2008; Green & Kreuter, 2005; Labonte, 1994; Maton, 2000; Merzel & D’Afflitti, 2003).

In a review on participatory research, Cargo and Mercer (Cargo & Mercer, 2008) identified three different drivers for CBPR: (a) translating knowledge into action; (b) social and environmental justice; and (c) self‐determination. Each of these drivers justifies a social movement‐derived conception of community change to act on the root and systemic causes of health inequalities. Our framework allows CBPR community change processes to be addressed in practical terms, with the added advantage of providing a temporal perspective on the development of these processes. Although not in a prescriptive sense—which would be contradictory to the fundamental assumptions of CBPR as a coconstructed process between partners—these results provide valuable theoretical guidance to researchers, intervention developers, and community actors by clarifying and detailing how mobilization processes, and consequent community and system changes, emerge and develop. At each stage of a CBPR project, the constructs of the framework can be translated into questions to guide practice and evaluation (Table 4).

Our review is not without limitations. As mentioned earlier, the search strategy was not meant to be exhaustive, but rather focused on finding information‐rich examples of illustrative CBPR projects. We therefore developed the search strategy using the term “community‐based participatory research,” and excluded studies using “participatory action‐research,” “participatory research,” and other related terms. This choice, which builds on practical considerations, has potentially excluded other relevant projects. Thus, the context‐specific framework developed from the review is highly relevant in the context of our larger project, but perhaps not generalizable to all participatory research projects.

Framework synthesis, building on social movement theories, has proven to be a useful analytic strategy to conceiving and mapping community change processes in the context of CBPR. The resulting revised framework that draws on existing theoretical foundations provides a context‐specific and evidence‐based model to generate a new, innovative understanding of these processes. It is relevant to CBPR projects sharing fundamental principles, but implemented in numerous settings, and with different types of partners and a broad range of goals. Our framework provides valuable practical guideposts for CBPR practice and evaluation by clarifying and detailing how mobilization processes and consequent system changes emerge and develop from CBPR.

The authors have no conflict of interest to declare.




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