RPN 21 published April 1996

3.Combining research with educational intervention by Heloisa Szymanski

  • `Sociological care is not paternalism. It does not righteously diminish the responsible growth and variety of opinion that it will surely meet. It is not parasitic. Yet it is nurtured only in belonging to others. It seeks community without wanting to dominate the community'. J O'Neill, Making sense together: an introduction to wild sociology
  • In 1992 a group of researchers at the Pontifical Catholic University of Sao Paulo, Brazil, began a study combining research and intervention in a low income community of migrants in a suburb of Sao Paulo. The approach they took is applicable to both rural and urban refugee situations. This article discusses some of the problems involved in that task, from planning the research to helping the community solve the problems they had identified and looking for financial support to implement these solutions. The project is longitudinal because the problems of development which it addressed are themselves longterm. An intervention which aims at community transformation requires commitment.

    This study is based upon the philosophy of Paulo Freire, whose work is best known through his book, The pedagogy of the oppressed. The study was informed by the awareness that there is no research which is not an 'intervention': even interviewing is intrusive. Consequently, all research should not only satisfy the aim of the researchers, which is ultimately the production of academic knowledge, but should also result in some benefit to the population studied. This is especially the case where the participants are themselves impoverished and marginalised. We aim to work with the participants, not for them, as McCallin proposes in her study of the impact of forced migration on children and their families.

    Aims and objectives

    The aim of the study was to plan and implement activities that would improve the conditions of life in the community, after considering with them their social, psychological and material conditions. Actions would be directed to developing human resources within the community and helping them to put their demands to officials and attend to community needs.

    A wider objective was to put into practice an educational project that represented an 'authentic' exchange of knowledge between members of the University and the community. The final product of this approach to combining research with intervention should be a community development programme. The point of departure was a psychosocial intervention, because after all, we were psychologists and educators.


    The research was based upon the following assumptions:

    the transformation of reality depends not only on critical reflection but on action. According to Freire (1992:103), it is not enough to become aware of the cause of one's poverty and oppression, one must take responsibility for actions which could lead to a transformation of these conditions;

    Criteria for evaluation

    While these criteria are not comprehensive, they cover some aspects of social life studied and offer a general framework for evaluating the project.

    The target community

    The first step was to identify a 'community' which had already organised itself within some geographical limits, and which could provide us with a basis for contact with the population.

    The community we found for the present study, had been formed some 12 years earlier by people who had been expelled from another part of Sao Paulo. Most were migrants from the northeast of Brazil. It originally comprised about 200 families and, since 1992, has grown to include 284. These people had formed a strong Neighbours' Association and already had experience of struggling for better conditions of life. At the time we met, they were negotiating a way to buy the land their houses were built on, a first step before they could request the city authorities to extend such services as water supply, electricity and sanitation to their neighbourhood. In addition to the Neighbours' Association, the community had several churches, many little drinking places, small football fields, and although the 'streets' were only muddy lanes, an active street life.

    This community faced the continual danger of drug dealing, which from time to time resulted in a state of war between gangs. Problems were increased by inadequate police surveillance and harassment. Members of the community lived in a state of risk, exacerbated by migration, chronic poverty, expulsion from home, and violence (Garbarino 1992). Alcoholism was also a serious social problem, responsible for much violence both within the household and in public life.

    The research

    Our interest, for a Programme of Postgraduate Studies in Educational Psychology, was to start our project by focusing on family life with the objective of developing a programme of family education. We needed to learn about people's values and beliefs, and their relation to institutions such as the school. We identified individuals who could be trained to work as community organisers. Through group discussion, data was gathered about the socialisation of children, models of family life, relationships within the community and attitudes towards formal education. People were asked to role play and then comment on their ways to resolve problems within their households.

    After six months, we held a meeting at which the results of our research were presented in pictorial form to the people who came and went. Although those involved in our previous meetings remembered our disapproval of using violence as a method of disciplining children, they admitted that they had not changed their ways. Obviously knowledge and reflection had not been enough to bring about changes in behaviour.

    It took time to gain people's confidence even though they appeared to be participating enthusiastically in meetings.The implementation of a psychosocial intervention cannot be rushed. Only seven people had regularly participated in meetings and it was this group that we identified as potential organisers, or, as they preferred to be called, support group. We proposed that this group should become a link between the households and the education and health services; they agreed. In order for them to assess the needs of the families, we trained them in interview techniques and developed a questionnaire.The findings were to be the basis for the family education programme: the 'action' component of our project.

    The 'intervention'

    Our model of participatory research seemed to be working. The support group started visiting the families. Soon after, instead of carrying on with the planned study, they decided that the best way to begin to help the families was to reopen a nursery school that had been closed a year before by the City Education Council.

    Why had the nursery school been closed? Although we never learned all the details of the 'irregular' practices which had led the authorities to close it, we did learn a great deal about the history and dynamics of the community itself. Needing our help to overcome the problems which had arisen, they had to admit and analyse the actions which had led to them. The major insight which they gained was that they had been led astray by strong individuals, both from within and outside the community. Helping a group of people to develop critical awareness about their condition of life is valuable for both sides. For the researchers, the process provided data; for the members of the community, it provided the basis for addressing the underlying causes of the school's closure. The next step was to prepare the formal appeal to the authorities for permission to reopen the school on a different basis.

    Although this meant that our study had to be postponed, we agreed to help them with this process. Our intervention was limited to helping them define priorities and schedule their work. We met with them every two weeks, and they used us as a kind of 'sounding board' to reflect on what was happening.

    They needed (and recruited) professional help from a lawyer and a social worker. We suggested they selected community members, although the City Council objected, wanting them to use more highly qualified personnel. Our encouragement helped them to insist on using people of their own choice. Finally, they achieved their objective and the nursery school was allowed to reopen.

    We also participated in meetings to decide the criteria for admitting children to the nursery school. The demand far exceeded the 60 places. We did not agree on criteria but the process taught us more than we could ever have learned from simply administering interviews and making observations. Because they wanted our help in training the teachers, we were also able to collect data on the behaviour of the children and their families on a continuing basis.

    From then on, the support group, which was by then well established, began work on various community projects. These included improving the water supply and building a community centre. There was a varied degree of convergence between our study and these activities.

    Some conclusions

    Many NGOs aim to promote participatory planning and implement participatory projects; all NGOs are aiming as organisations to improve their capacity for 'institutional learning'. Although time consuming, I strongly recommend our approach: the community sets the agenda and determines the priorities. Our role, as far as the community was concerned, was to act as a facilitator and also as a sounding board against which they could reflect on their own experience and on their subsequent actions. Although our presence undoubtedly lent credibility to their negotiations with officialdom, we never did for them what they could do themselves.

    We have the satisfaction of knowing that a nursery school is operating, a community centre is being planned, access to clean water has been extended, and that the support group continues to be trained while working for the community. Our researchers continue to be welcome in the community and have begun a new study in the schools, looking at how the education system fails individual students and leads them to drop out of school. One of the team has also done a study of how teachers themselves perceive the community in which they are teaching.

    One of the issues raised by this project and our findings is the question of what constitutes 'development'. We believe genuine development begins with developing human resources, not simply with projects which can be shown to be 'sustainable' after three years. It is very difficult, however, to get funding for projects which are aimed at providing services while developing the human potential of a community. For example, it was a struggle to convince the city officials to allow women from the community to work at the nursery school; they only agreed because there was a team of educators from the Catholic University working with the women. Once the community centre is opened, there will be the same struggle to get agreement to employ people from the community to administer and run it; the City Council will require such positions to be filled by professionally qualified people, but at a level of pay that no professional would accept and in a place where no outsider will want to work.

    Finally, it is possible to begin a project combining research and intervention from any point. As we happened to be psychologists and educators, we focused on a psychological intervention from an educational perspective, but in order to follow the lead of the community, we have been forced to work in a multidisciplinary way.

    Dr Heloisa Szymanski is based at the Department of Educational Psychology of the Pontifical Catholic University, Sao Paulo, Brazil, and is currently a Visiting Research Fellow at the Refugee Studies Programme, Oxford.


    Freire P, Pedagogia da esperanza 3rd ed, Rio de Janeiro, Paz e Terra, 1992.

    Garbarino J, 'Developmental consequences of living in dangerous and unstable environments', in McCallin M (ed) The psychological wellbeing of refugee children: research, practice and policy issues, Geneva, International Catholic Child Bureau, 1992.

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