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Conservation and Society
An interdisciplinary journal exploring linkages between society, environment and development
Conservation and Society
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Year : 2007  |  Volume : 5  |  Issue : 1  |  Page : 44-59

On the Local Community: The Language of Disengagement?

1 University of Michigan; Research Associate of WISER (Wits Institute of Social and Economic Research), University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa.
2 TPARI and Department of Geography, University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa.

Correspondence Address:
Clapperton Mavhunga
University of Michigan, Department of History, 1029 Tisch Hall, 534 S. State St, Ann Arbor, MI48109, USA

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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

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For several decades now, social researchers have advocated and steered the popular paradigm of participatory, grass-roots research. The emergence of research that engages, transfers authority to, and empowers 'the community', apparently marks the end of centrist, top-down research ini­tiatives. We offer an alternative interpretation of this assumption. In the case of one Indaba in South Africa-a participatory meeting-we show that while it seems to have achieved its stated objectives on the surface, underlying re­search beliefs and attitudes still interpreted 'local people' and 'the commu­nity' as simple, discrete concepts. Such concepts turned abstract processes into concrete entities. In turn, the use of such concepts by researchers ensured that local settings remained simple so that themes, participants and communi­ties were readily accessible and easily understood. Social researchers thus re­interpreted local reality as if it were an absolute so that results would remain simple, effective and digestible. We conclude that rather than allowing local people to speak on matters that concern them, the discourse of this and other participatory meetings ensures that social researchers speak on behalf of 'the community'.

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