Participatory and community-based research, Indigenous geographies, and the spaces of friendship: A critical engagement


  • All authors contributed equally to this paper.

Sarah de Leeuw, Northern Medical Program, University of Northern British Columbia, 3333 University Way, Prince George, BC V2N 4Z9. Email/Courriel:


Geographic engagement with Indigenous peoples remains inextricably linked to colonialism. Consequently, studying Indigenous geographies is fraught with ethical and political dilemmas. Participatory and community-based research methods have recently been offered as one solution to address concerns about the politics of gathering, framing, producing, disseminating, and controlling knowledge about Indigenous peoples. In this article, we critically engage with the emergence of participatory and community-based research methods as “best practice” for undertaking research into Indigenous geographies. We articulate four concerns with this form of research: a) dissent may be stifled by non-Indigenous researchers’ investments in being “good”; b) claims to overcome difference and distance may actually retrench colonial research relations; c) the framing of particular methods as “best practices” risks closing down necessary and ongoing critique; and d) institutional pressures work against the development and maintenance of meaningful, accountable, and non-extractive relations with Indigenous communities. We then contemplate the spatiality of the critique itself. We consider the ways in which our longstanding friendship, as researchers invested at multiple scales with Indigenous geographies and identities, provides its own distinct space of practice within which to confront the political and ethical challenges posed by research with/about/upon Indigenous geographies and peoples. While not arriving at any concrete template for undertaking research about Indigenous geographies, we suggest that certain friendships, established and situated outside research relationships, may be productive spaces within and through which research methods may be decolonized.


La recherche participative axée sur la communauté, les géographies autochtones, et les espaces de l’amitié: Les sites de dialogue critique

Établir un dialogue sur les questions géographiques avec les peuples autochtones est indissociable du colonialisme. Par conséquent, l’étude des géographies autochtones se heurte à des dilemmes d’ordre éthique et politique. Des méthodes de recherche participative axée sur la communauté ont récemment vu le jour dans l’optique de résoudre les enjeux politiques entourant la collecte, l’encadrement, la production, la diffusion et le contrôle des connaissances sur les peuples autochtones. C’est notamment à la faveur des relations étroites d’amitié de longue date que nous entretenons entre chercheurs investis dans les multiples facettes des géographies et des identités autochtones que nous jetons un regard critique sur l’émergence des méthodes de recherche participative axée sur la communauté reconnues comme une « pratique exemplaire » pour la recherche sur les géographies autochtones. Ainsi, dans cet article, nous abordons quatre questions relatives à cette approche en recherche: a) la dissidence peut être étouffée par des chercheurs non-autochtones qui visent la « qualité»; b) les revendications formulées pour contrer la différence et la distance peuvent ramener les relations de recherche à une forme coloniale; c) la définition au préalable de méthodes particulières comme « pratiques exemplaires » peut conduire à une sorte d’immunité face à une critique nécessaire et évolutive; et d) les pressions que peuvent exercer les institutions vont à l’encontre de l’établissement et du maintien de relations véritables, responsables et non abusives avec les collectivités autochtones. Bien qu’un modèle en recherche sur les géographies autochtones ne soit pas encore mis au point, nous sommes portés à croire que des amitiés nouées en dehors des relations de recherche rendraient possibles des espaces productifs à l’intérieur desquels et par lesquels des méthodes de recherche de décolonisation pourront prendre leur essor.


This article, like other iterations of our work, is fundamentally concerned with issues of social justice and change (see for example Cameron 2009; Cameron et al. 2009; Kobayashi and de Leeuw 2010; Waterstone and de Leeuw 2010; de Leeuw et al. 2011, forthcoming). More specifically, we are interested in the possibility of more socially-just orientations towards Indigenous geographies, a topic we (varyingly but respectively) embody, live, and study.1 Geographers have produced a number of thoughtful reflections on the possibilities of conducting more ethical, respectful, anti-colonial research pertaining to Indigenous geographies (see for instance Jacobs 2001; Hodge and Lester 2006; Shaw et al. 2006; Gilmartin and Berg 2007; Louis 2007; Castleden et al. 2009; Swanson 2010) and we draw on that work here. Much of this work turns a critical eye towards the ways Indigenous peoples and geographies are positioned within research and (re)produced and represented as research subjects.

Aligned with this growing body of work, our goal in this article is twofold: first, to critically engage recent turns toward participatory, community-based research2 involving Indigenous peoples; and second, to contemplate the possibility of friendship between researchers outside participatory, community-based research projects, as a space within which to develop and articulate such critiques. While we, individually and collectively, engage in research involving Indigenous peoples, it is the spaces afforded by our friendship(s) with each other, as three researchers with common interests but different positionalities in reference to our research work, that have opened up for us new ways of considering the changing landscapes of research practices involving Indigenous peoples. Specifically because our friendship is not linked in any way to participatory, community-based research, it has offered an important space for grappling with the ethical, political, intellectual, and institutional dimensions of participatory, community-based research, especially as it gains prominence within and beyond the discipline as a means of conducting research with Indigenous peoples. This article is not, then, an attempt to offer new tools, methods, or methodologies by which to undertake research with/about/upon Indigenous geographies and people. Instead, it critically interrogates an increasingly prominent methodology (participatory, community-based research) and contemplates the spatiality of the critique itself by considering the ways in which that critique emerges from its own distinct space of practice.

Ours is a sympathetic analysis of a shared moment in which geographers, while limited in important ways, are aiming to overcome some of the colonial, exploitative dimensions of research with Indigenous peoples. We are supportive of the impulse to make research socially embedded and socially accountable, to differently engage those who are so often distant “subjects” of research, and to build meaningful, long term commitments with Indigenous communities. We agree with some of the claims made about participatory, community-based research (see for instance Pain 2004): knowledge production needs to be collaborative and relational; process-based rather than outcome-based inquiry is vital; and the merits of qualitative research abound. We applaud efforts to move away from acquisitive, invasive, power-laden research relationships with Indigenous peoples, where non-Indigenous academics descend on communities, take the knowledges they require, and build their careers based on these knowledges, while Indigenous peoples continue to experience systematically and structurally-enforced disparities in their status of living. Where we pause, and where this article intervenes, is on the question of whether, indeed, participatory, community-based research truly does move away from other styles of research and if so, in what ways, and under what conditions? If it does, how do we know it does? What would be the indications that the relations and relationships established by researchers engaged in participatory, community-based research are indeed, different? In what ways does this philosophical and methodological approach demand additional challenge and in what spaces might such challenges manifest?

Our articulation of, and struggles with, these questions and concerns emerges from our friendship with each other. As we detail herein, grappling with these issues together as researchers and friends is very different than looking to research subjects (even if named as collaborators or partners) to work through the challenges raised by participatory, community-based research. Although the development of friendships with research subjects has been considered by a range of scholars (see for example Stacey 1988; Fuller 1999; Nelson and Gould 2005; Han 2010), and although we acknowledge that bonds of care and trust often develop between researchers who build long term relationships with members of Indigenous communities (Koster et al. and Mulrennan et al., this issue3), we follow Ahmed (2000, 58) in arguing that the relationships that develop in research settings, particularly between non-Indigenous researchers and Indigenous research subjects, are fundamentally different insofar as “these friendships and alliances will always take place in situations of asymmetry of power.” The friendships that grow from research encounters necessarily rely on “a prior ethnographic investment in what the trust provides—that is, access to the stranger culture” (Ahmed 2000, 57). Thus, members of Indigenous communities who become the friends of non-Indigenous researchers must first be constructed as other, as strange, in order for that strangeness to be overcome both in the constitution of friendship and, crucially, in the production of knowledge about Indigenous peoples.

While asymmetries of power can inhere in any relationships, and while we depart from liberal, masculinist theories that understand friendship as, by definition, a relationship between equals (see Bingham 2006), we attempt, here, to tease out some of the differences between the relationships we name between ourselves as “friendship” and that which characterizes relationships between researchers and research subjects. We suggest that different forms of knowledge production, accountability, vulnerability, and confrontation emerge from our friendship than those characterizing research relationships. Our purpose is not to idealize friendship among researchers or hold it up as a “better” model of knowledge production—these relationships can be as fraught and power-laden as any others and they throw up their own sets of denials and dangers. Rather, we consider how friendships cultivated outside research-based relationships might function as (one among many) sites that can inform geographic considerations of participatory, community-based research pertaining to Indigenous geographies, and we situate this argument within broader discussions of Indigenous and decolonizing research paradigms.

We begin with an overview of geographic research into Indigenous geographies and its relationship to the emergence of participatory, community-based research in the discipline. Next, we outline four critiques and concerns about the emergence of participatory research as a “best practice” for research relating to Indigenous peoples. Finally, we consider the ways in which friendship relates to the critiques and concerns outlined in the previous section, and elaborate on the ways in which friendship might inform efforts to further decolonize geographic thought and practice.

Geographic research and Indigenous peoples: Background

Research concerning Indigenous geographies has shifted over time (see Cameron et al. 2009 for a review). Over the past two decades, geographers have become particularly attuned to dynamics of power and positionality in the production of knowledge (see Rose 1997; Innes 2009; DeLyser and Karolczyk 2010). This has influenced the methodologies brought to bear on questions of Indigenous geographies. Indeed, research about Indigenous geographies, explicitly or implicitly, increasingly accepts Foucault's (1972, 1980) formulation that knowledge and power are intimately intertwined and, consequently, that the production of knowledge, particularly as it is circulated, integrated within belief systems or discourses, or widely adopted as the norm, has significant social implications. Geographers have also been influenced by a range of Indigenous scholars within and beyond the discipline, who have called attention to the colonial foundations of geographic knowledge and the ongoing production of colonial relations through scholarship (e.g., Smith 1999; Alfred and Corntassel 2005; Louis 2007).

Growing attention is being paid in geography, then, to the potential for deploying decolonizing methodologies and epistemologies within a largely white discipline. In some cases this involves formalizing Indigenous methodologies as worthwhile (Nakamura 2009). In other cases, it involves an overall questioning of the utility and right of non-Indigenous researchers to undertake research in Indigenous communities (Hodge and Lester 2006) principally because doing so risks perpetuating a history of orientalist, heroic, often masculine, practices of fieldwork where information is extracted and circulated in colonial traditions of collections and display (see also Sundberg 2003; Abbott 2006). Others attend to the historical imagination underpinning studies of colonial and postcolonial processes, arguing that geographers too often locate colonialism in the “faraway past” (Gilmartin and Berg 2007, 120) rather than attend to the ongoing articulation of colonial relations in the present (see also Cameron 2012). Noxolo et al. (2008, 147) worry, in fact, that postcolonialism has become a bit too “cozy” a concept in geography and that its political claims are blunted by the partial ways in which postcolonialism is addressed in geographical scholarship. Others argue both that Indigenous peoples remain predominantly understood within the discipline as a homogenous group and that Indigenous geographies continue to be understood principally—and often only—in relation to non-Indigenous geographies, the latter being remarkably monolithic and white (Kobayashi and de Leeuw 2010; see also Mawani 2009). In sum, even research about Indigenous geographies that is attuned to relations of power, and research that accounts for postcolonial, feminist, and anti-racist concerns, needs ongoing critique and refinement (see Smith 1999).

It would seem that Evelyn Peters’ observation about the state of Indigenous-focused geographic research, articulated over a decade ago, remains pressing: Canadian geographers have “not found ways to include the voices of Aboriginal peoples in our research in any significant way. Doing so represents a significant challenge” (Peters 2000, 52). Over the past two decades, Indigenous peoples have insisted that they are “researched to death” (Castellano 2004), that research continues to be “about” as opposed to “with” or “by” them (Schnarch 2004), and that their stories are being “stolen” (Keeshig-Tobias 1997; Stevenson 1999). They have argued that their distinct epistemologies are poorly served by Western systems of knowledge and have challenged the acquisitive, exploitative, and pathologizing dimensions of research (Smith 1999; Ermine et al. 2004). There remains, today, a dearth of Indigenous scholars undertaking research on Indigenous issues. Consequently, a field of (still) mostly non-Indigenous scholars engaged in research about Indigenous subjects are leveraging various theoretical frameworks, along with new and consistently evolving methods and methodologies, in an attempt to ameliorate the injustices between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples—particularly as these injustices are perpetuated by research.

The emergence of participatory, community-based research as a potential methodology for use in research with Indigenous peoples takes its cue, in part, from discussions of decolonizing geographic practice, but also from a broader participatory research interest within and beyond geography. Indeed, part of our interest in this article is to stitch together the aspirations of participatory, community-based research with the concerns raised about the possibilities (and limits) of decolonizing a discipline that remains—as Delaney (2002) observes—“as white as professional golf.” While participatory research, which includes participatory, community-based research, emphasizes social justice, political engagement, non-hierarchical relations, and process-based practice (values that would seem to accord with decolonizing methodologies), we ask here whether or not participatory, community-based research really is fully aligned with decolonizing agendas.

Participatory research: Overview and four concerns

Most broadly, participatory research is a framework that emphasizes redressing power imbalances between researchers (generally academic) and research subjects (generally non-academic). It is one answer to “calls for more relevant, morally aware and non-hierarchical practice…which engages with equity to a greater degree” (Pain 2004, 652). Participatory research makes the effort to open new4 spaces for academics to work outside conventional research “on” or “about” people and places. It involves collaborative approaches that rely on negotiations and allow for mutual benefit to all involved, from the inception of the research idea through to its use and dissemination. Consequently, participatory research has gained significant traction in work that involves subjects traditionally conceived as marginalized because of “its ability to forefront…[their]…perspectives and actively challenge social exclusion” (Pain 2004, 654).

Those from whom academic research practices have historically removed knowledge are now understood, within participatory, community-based frameworks, as collaborators, partners, or active members in a research paradigm designed to build knowledge for all. Participatory research frameworks value results that have utility to both academic and non-academic participants; account from the onset for the needs of “partners,”“collaborators,” or the non-academic members of “the research team” (for use of these terminologies, see, for instance, CIHR 2007); and aim to empower marginalized groups through the co-production of knowledge. In part because of its departure from conventional social science research methodologies, participatory research has been identified as “one of the most exciting new areas for methodological development” (Pain 2004, 655) with particular applicability and utility for “ethnic minority groups and indigenous populations” (Pain 2004, 654).

The applicability of participatory models to research about Indigenous geographies has been explored by a number of scholars, and projects have been carried out on topics as diverse as potlatching protocols in central interior British Columbia (Fiske and Patrick 2000), risk communication in Canada's far north (Giles et al. 2010), the integration of First Nations’ worldviews into forest management practices (Castleden et al. 2009), the potential of GIS technologies for use by Indigenous peoples (Rundstrom 1995), and decreasing rates of diabetes in Mohawk First Nations (Cargo et al. 2008). While some geographers articulate the potential for participatory methods to be used in the study of Indigenous geographies, others raise concerns. Cargo et al. (2008) point out that while democratic or equal participation in decision making is the ideal of participatory research, it may instead compete with Indigenous peoples’ right to self-determination. Kindon et al. (2009) acknowledge that poststructuralist and postcolonial scholars have identified a series of risks associated with participatory approaches. These include the potential for participatory approaches to delegitimize methods that are not participatory; to discipline research subjects precisely as “participatory” and to require those subjects to govern their conduct accordingly; to perpetuate researcher control while presenting researchers as benign arbiters of neutral or benevolent processes; to romanticize “local” knowledge; and to legitimize a broader “participatory” turn in neoliberal forms of governmentality. In response, Kindon et al. point out that all forms of research are invariably shaped by power relations, and rather than seek an unattainable power-free form of relation, participatory research offers a “legitimate, as well as practically necessary” form of engagement “through which the critical social reimaginations promoted by post-structuralist and postcolonial scholars might be distanciated beyond the academy” (Kindon et al. 2009, 93). We concur.

Our concern is not only with the gap between the aspirations of participatory research and the invariably imperfect implementation of a given project. We share Gibson-Graham's (2006, 98) commitment to “start where we are” and are sympathetic to the tension Kindon et al. (2009, 93) identify between adhering to theoretical ideals about decolonized social relations and advancing “strategic essentialisms” as part of a grounded politics of imperfect action. Our concern is not so much that participatory projects sometimes fail to live up to the ideals they are based on, but rather with the potential for such projects to actually reinscribe and retrench unjust relations in the very pursuit of opposite aims. Here we describe four potential means by which such reinscriptions and retrenchments may occur in the context of participatory and community-based projects.

First, drawing on research into the ways in which white subjects struggle with charges of racism in contexts of anti-racist social movements (Ahmed 2004; Srivastava 2005, 2006), we worry about non-Indigenous researchers’ investment in being “good” researchers who are precisely not reproducing colonial forms of relation. Srivastava notes of her studies of white feminist involvement in anti-racist organizing, for example, that white feminists tend to be deeply and emotionally attached to an image of themselves as inherently good and inherently “against” racism because of their sense of being oppressed themselves, and because of their good intentions and desires to be “not” racist. Their subjectivity is historically informed: as Srivastava (2005) and other scholars have pointed out (see Stoler 1995; Dyer 1997), “colonial and contemporary representations of virtue, honesty, and benevolence have been a historical foundation of whiteness, bourgeois respectability, and femininity (Srivastava 2005, 30).” This investment in being “not” racist, Srivastava argues, undermines the capacity of the white members of anti-racist social movements to respond to charges of racism within their organizations. Such charges are too often “met with emotional resistance by white women—with anger, even tears… discussions about personnel, decision making, or programming become derailed by emotional protestations that one is not a racist and by efforts to take care of colleagues upset by antiracist challenges” (Srivastava 2005, 42). As a result, Srivastava argues, some antiracist activists become hesitant to voice their concerns about their experiences of racism within the organizations she studies.

Indeed, as (self)consciousness about whiteness, racism, and colonialism becomes more widespread among white subjects, Ahmed (2004) argues that a new white subject has emerged, one that is anxiously and emotionally invested in its own critical stance and goodness with respect to whiteness and racism. In such a context, the very act of naming oneself as engaged in decolonizing, equalizing, liberatory forms of research is, simultaneously, an act of opening oneself to the risk of failing to meet these aims. This risk, we suggest, lends a charge to research with Indigenous peoples on the part of white researchers that may make the expression of dissent, dissatisfaction, and rejection more difficult than participatory, community-based frameworks tend to acknowledge. Indeed, the subjectivity of researchers engaged in participatory action projects is perhaps even more at stake than in conventional forms of research with Indigenous peoples; in their review of participatory action research in geography, for example, Kindon et al. (2009, 91) identify not only the key features of participatory action projects, but also of participatory action researchers. They are described, among other things, as “hybrids of scholar/activist,”“mavericks/heretics,”“sociable and collaborative,”“concerned with achieving real outcomes with real people,” and “able to tolerate paradoxes and puzzles and sense their beauty and humor.” The production of a typical participatory research subject who is invested in a self-image as helpful, politically engaged, and effective, may place additional strain on researchers aiming to make meaningful, decolonizing contributions to the “complex, multidimensional, intractable, dynamic problems” (Kindon et al. 2009, 91) that Kindon et al. suggest are hallmarks of participatory research. In such a context, the capacity for Indigenous “participants” to express concerns about the colonial, racialized dimensions of the research process, dimensions that non-Indigenous researchers may self-consciously and explicitly aspire to have overcome, may be even more limited than in more conventional research contexts.

Our second, and related, concern is around the claim advanced by participatory researchers that the line between researcher and researched is blurred, or might even be upended, in this mode of research. We propose, in line with Ahmed's (2000) line of thought about collaborative ethnography, that difference and distance can be (and often are) re-inscribed through acts that purport to merge subjects who occupy different positionalities: “to simply redefine the ‘informant’ as an ‘equal partner’ would work to conceal the power relations which still allow the gathering together of the ethnographic document. In other words, the narrative of overcoming relations of authorisation in traditional ethnography constitutes another form of authorisation….So it remains the ethnographer who is praised for giving up her or his authority” (Ahmed 2000, 56). What Ahmed provokes us to consider here, is that the very act of authoring research framed in participatory and collaborative language risks reinforcing the distance between subjects precisely by naming that distance as overcome. While we support the aspiration to challenge the hierarchical dimensions of research relationships, Ahmed reminds us of the necessity to remain alert to the ways in which researchers and research subjects come to occupy conventional, power-laden positionalities. The very act, we suggest, of advancing a model of co-production of knowledge and shared interests may reinscribe and reify difference. To the extent that, in participatory discourse, Indigenous peoples are first produced as different and distant, only to have that distance and difference overcome, the “otherness” of Indigenous peoples is actually reinforced.

Our third concern with participatory, community-based research relates to its ascendancy as a normalized, institutionally-supported standard for research involving Indigenous peoples. We have observed the emergence of a kind of institutional and disciplinary “common sense” over the past several years, whereby participatory forms of research have come to represent a “best practice” for research that relates to Indigenous communities, and a proliferation of projects of enormous variation have come to be framed in participatory language. In Canada, where “Aboriginal research” is identified as one of six national “research priorities” (SSHRC 2010, 12), researchers are urged by funding bodies to “consider applying a collaborative and participatory approach as appropriate to the nature of the research, and the level of ongoing engagement desired by the community” (CIHR et al. 2010). Letters attesting to “community partnerships” are now expected from researchers applying for funds relating to Indigenous concerns, and research bodies that engage in research of particular relevance to Indigenous communities now commonly create paid Indigenous research advisor positions to assist researchers in establishing relationships with Indigenous communities, developing proposals, disseminating research findings, building community and regional research capacity, and the development of community-driven research projects.5

These are welcome shifts, of course, and in many ways these reorientations at the institutional, disciplinary, and funding levels are in response to concerns voiced by Indigenous peoples for decades about the impacts of research upon their cultural, social, political, and economic well-being. The fact that participatory models of research have “gained momentum in recent years within First Nations and Inuit settings” (Schnarch 2004, 82) is rightly celebrated. But we also see in these shifts the emergence of a discursive terrain within which the terms of research with Indigenous peoples are being concretized in new ways. We are not convinced that participatory, community-based models of research are appropriate in many situations; their development and implementation can place significant burdens on Indigenous communities. As a guide to research in Inuit communities makes clear, “it must be acknowledged that not all types of northern research will require, or inspire, the same level of community involvement” (ITK and NRI 2007, 10). Researchers are warned to “avoid disturbing families on particular days of the week, times of day, or in the wake of a local tragedy” and reminded that “work-related demands take a back seat when a family, or the community, has experienced a tragedy or if large communal events/celebrations are planned. Research is fairly secondary as local life and activities continue” (ITK and NRI 2007, 8). What is alluded to here, is the burden placed on Indigenous communities by researchers aiming to meet ethical and institutional commitments to participation, consultation, and engaged, community-based research. However much Indigenous scholars and leaders have insisted on precisely these forms of consultation and engagement, on the training and participation of community members in research projects, on the building of research capacity in Indigenous communities, and on the development of meaningful, long-term relationships between researchers and communities, the demands these forms of research place on already burdened communities are significant. Participatory, community-based research may not, in fact, be a “best practice” in many situations, and the interest among researchers and granting agencies in the development of such projects may, at times, jar against the actual priorities of a given community at a given time.

While we do not take issue with the intent of participatory research per se then, and while we in fact support efforts to validate research that is socially relevant, that aims to ameliorate exclusion and marginalization, and that builds research capacity in Indigenous communities, the emergence of a kind of institutional and disciplinary “common-sense” about participatory methods being the “best” model for engaging Indigenous communities concerns us. Indeed, as one of us has argued elsewhere, there is always a potential danger when something is normalized, when it achieves a status as the “right” thing to do (Waterstone and de Leeuw 2010). The very condition of attaining status quo risks making fallibilities invisible, of possibly colluding with hierarchies of power, and/or (re)entrenching historic inequalities (see also Kobayashi 2003). In other words, just as participatory research rightly problematizes the assumptions and traditions of methodologies to which it is responding, so too, as its adherents themselves insist (see Pain 2004; Kindon et al. 2009), it must itself be continually open to critique.

Finally, as Demerritt (2000), Castree (2006), and many others have pointed out, academic research is increasingly subject to measures of accountability and productivity. As is increasingly noted with specific reference to research with Indigenous peoples, the need to develop long term, ongoing, meaningful relationships with communities can directly conflict with institutional and disciplinary expectations around academic productivity and timelines; nevertheless, such relationships are prioritized (see Smith 1999; CIHR 2007; Castleden et al., this issue, 160). Researchers who carry out participatory projects quickly confront the mismatch between the demands of the institutions within which they operate and their own commitment to build meaningful relationships with the people and places about which they care. Indeed, many academics in community-based research partnerships experience various forms of professional discipline for failing to produce sufficient numbers of publications and the other “deliverables” expected of tenure-track or tenured faculty.

How, we wonder, does the struggle to reconcile these competing demands influence the participatory, community-based relationships that researchers develop with their research subjects? What are the specific implications of the competing demands experienced by primarily non-Indigenous researchers with regard to their relationships with Indigenous peoples, particularly in the realm of participatory, community-based research? To what extent can one be “community-based” when one is also expected to fulfill teaching and research obligations at a university base? These pressures are particularly acute for Indigenous researchers, who not only express a sense of being torn between very different realms of knowing and being, but are also called upon to offer their “Indigenous” expertise and presence at all manner of university and community meetings, events, and other functions (Greenwood et al. 2008). In such a context, even the most committed, careful, and ethically-driven researchers understand that their relationships with communities need to “yield” results of some kind, particularly those who are unprotected by tenure. How, we wonder, do these demands, however much researchers themselves abhor them and endeavour to mitigate them, undercut the relationships that can be nurtured in participatory, community-based settings?

Relational accountability, friendship, and the spatiality of critique

Participatory, community-based research is fundamentally driven by relationships. We have raised questions about the nature of relationships developed between researchers and research participants, collaborators, or subjects in the context of participatory, community-based research projects, and particularly the contradictions that can arise between the care and trust that might be built in specific research settings and the broader structural context within which research unfolds. Here, drawing on Indigenous research paradigms and our own experiences of knowledge production and relational accountability in our friendship with each other, we attempt to broaden the terms upon which the relational dimensions of geographic research are understood. We argue that a) the relationships at stake in participatory, community-based research (and, indeed, all forms of research) include not just those developed “in the field” between researchers and research subjects, but also the network of relationships through which researchers are themselves constituted; b) friendship is one such form of relationship through which research and researchers are experienced, known, evaluated, and critically interrogated; and c) working to decolonize geographic thought and practice requires nurturing forms of relational accountability, including not just the relations and spaces through which research is formally evaluated or circulated, but also the multiple ways in which researchers and research subjects are known, seen, and made. As Fitzmaurice (2010) argues, relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in settler colonies are inescapably marked by colonialism, but Indigenous systems of knowledge and practice have the potential to meaningfully shift the nature of those relations (see also Ermine 2007).

Indeed, we take our cue from a large body of work emphasizing the crucial importance of relationships in Indigenous systems of knowledge and practice (see, for example, Smith 1999; Battiste 2000; Ermine 2007; Archibald 2008; Hatcher et al. 2009). In a review of Indigenous research paradigms, for example (as articulated by a broad range of Indigenous scholars), Wilson (2008, 6) suggests that “relationality and relational accountability” are foundational to Indigenous epistemologies, ontologies, axiologies, and methodologies. He emphasizes the importance of attending to the network of relations through which a researcher is defined and held accountable, and insists that within Indigenous research paradigms, “relationships do not merely shape reality, they are reality” (Wilson 2008, 6). Ideas themselves are networks of relations, Wilson argues, and he points to “the responsibility that comes with bringing a new idea into being (or articulating/making visible an existing one). The new relationship has to respect all of the other relationships around it” (Wilson 2008, 79). Wilson contextualizes calls for Indigenous control, access, and ownership of research as grounded in a relational understanding of knowledge and practice. From such a perspective, calls by Indigenous leaders and scholars not only to exercise control and ownership over research, but also to orient research toward self-determination and liberation struggles (see Alfred 1999; Rigney 1999; Schnarch 2004) can be understood as calls that are fundamentally grounded in a desire to strengthen relations within and beyond Indigenous communities, including relations with land and culture.

This body of scholarship thus calls attention not only to the relationships that are developed in “the field” between researchers and research subjects, but also to the networks of relations through which a researcher (and knowledge itself) is constituted and held accountable. Non-research friendship, we suggest, is one such form of relation.6 Indeed, the questions, concerns, and possibilities we articulate here were first voiced, tested, and elaborated in the context of our friendship with each other, friendships that have been shaped, in part, by our professional experiences and collaborations, but also, crucially, outside of our professional lives: over meals, in living rooms, and in the series of other intimate moments through which friendships are forged and maintained. While each of us has grappled with our position with respect to participatory, community-based research throughout our lives as researchers, we have done so primarily through our friendships, not through our formal academic writing, conference presentations, teaching, or grant-writing. What is it about friendship, and particularly our friendship with each other, we asked ourselves, that allowed for the concerns we have articulated here to be developed and refined? And, perhaps more pressingly, what do we find in our friendship with each other that we do not find in our more formal academic relationships and practices, that might guide us further toward decolonizing geographic praxis?

When we came to realize that friendship, itself, was of interest to us, we undertook a series of purposeful conversations. Although we only summarize the themes of the conversations here, they were recorded and transcribed, allowing the opportunity to reflect back on our thoughts and to then undertake additional inquires about what the conversations generated for us—collectively and individually. We asked each other and ourselves how our relationships as friends might be different than the relationships we develop in research settings, and what it is about friendship that facilitated the articulation of our concerns about participatory, community-based research. Although we drew on theoretical and methodological writings about friendship in preparation for these conversations, we do not aim here to stake out a formal place for friendship in geographic praxis, nor to idealize our own friendship. Indeed, we follow Christian and Freeman's (2010, 378–9) insistence that our friendship, like those developed in research settings, is shaped by “the power relations of the colonizer/colonized dichotomy which accentuate cultural, racial, economic, and class differences.” Neither do we aim to make general claims about friendship per se. Instead, we aim to call attention to friendship as one among many spaces through which research is constituted, experienced, known, evaluated, and critically interrogated, and to emphasize the importance of such relationships for decolonizing geographic praxis.

Although our friendship may be shaped by many of the same structural and political tensions that we identify between non-Indigenous researchers and Indigenous research subjects, it is different in two notable respects. First, it is not a pre-requisite for success in a specific research project nor for our broader success as researchers (although see Hanson 2000 for a discussion of the importance played by friendships in professional development and advancement). Second, it is not subject to formal institutional or disciplinary oversight (but see Valentine 1998 for a discussion of no less powerful forms of social scrutiny in academic networks). The fact that our friendship is not expected to “yield” results, and that it is not guided by institutional measures of conduct, makes it a fruitful space to develop ideas, formulate critique, and nourish distinctive forms of accountability.

A friendship built outside participatory, community-based research relationships does not risk undermining a research project, thus arguably allowing for a space wherein critical analysis and reflection about research relationships can more fully occur. The years of work invested in getting to know someone as a friend, we observed, and the nurturing of relations of care and trust, fosters relational forms of knowledge production, important aspects of undertaking research with and concerning Indigenous peoples and geographies. The ability to self-reflect with an open heart and open mind, and to be subject to new, difficult, and perhaps even transformative demands that are not always in one's own personal or professional best interests is, according to many Indigenous scholars, crucial in the building and maintaining of meaningful and ethical relationships (see, for example, Battiste 2000; Ermine 2007; Archibald 2008; Wilson 2008; Hatcher et al. 2009). We would argue that it is precisely because our friendship is not explicitly expected to result in formal knowledge “outputs” that this kind of thinking and tentative knowing becomes possible. Indeed, possibilities for such learning often arise precisely in moments and spaces when a search for answers is not occurring and when research-based relationships are neither foregrounded nor the principal reason for the engagement. In other words, it has been through our friendship with each other, outside any conversations about research per se, that many insightful realizations about our research work, including realizations about responsibility and one's relationships with knowledge, have occurred.

The same cannot necessarily be said for friendships forged in research settings. Although participatory, community-based research hinges on the development of trust and the building of long term relationships, and no doubt results in a similar form of relational, emergent knowledge production, the fact that such relationships are, ultimately, expected to be “productive” fundamentally alters the nature of the relationships. We follow Ahmed (2000, 57) in observing that non-Indigenous researchers who claim friendship with their research subjects often fail to recognize the ways in which such friendships are pre-conditions for research itself; the researcher must befriend her participatory or community-based research subjects in order to gain trust and access to knowledge7. Friendship in such settings, then, is not only strategic and methodologically essential, it is also a response to a general concern with what to do and how to work as a cross-cultural researcher. There is a relationship, Ahmed insists, between “becoming friends,” the working requirement of participatory, community-based research, and “theoretical reflection on how to do feminism across different cultural spaces” (Ahmed 2000, 57). In other words, insofar as participatory, community-based research with Indigenous peoples mobilizes a theoretical, general vision of “friendship” between researcher and research subject (whether described as “partnership”, “collaboration”, or other forms of trusting, equalizing relationship), it elides the difference between specific, placed friendships and their structural, strategic, and institutional contexts.

Our conversations also explored the forms of accountability and responsibility we experience in friendship, as compared to those we experience through more formal institutional oversight of our work as scholars. The relationships developed in research settings are, for better or worse, subject to institutional oversight at a number of levels. Research ethics boards (REBs) scrutinize proposed research projects and monitor their implementation (particularly around issues of consent), funding bodies evaluate methodological design and the strength of community partnerships, partner communities exercise their own forms of institutional oversight, and some regions (such as Canada's northern territories) govern research through territorial-level licensing processes. A number of scholars have emphasized the limitations of REBs and other formal bodies to govern “ethical” conduct and particularly in participatory action settings (see Cahill 2007; Martin 2007; Butz 2008). They have called attention to the much broader ways in which ethical practice is made possible and the impossibility of governing such conduct at an institutional or bureaucratic level. Sultana (2007, 382) notes, for example, her commitment to be “ethical and true to the relations and experiences that occurred in the field,” a commitment that REBs have little ability or jurisdiction to assess, and that will ultimately be determined and evidenced by the ways in which those relationships unfold in the future. Indeed, refusal on the part of Indigenous peoples to participate in research projects is a manifestation of relational accountability; it emerges from past and present relations and aims to maintain, alter, and materialize specific relations in the future.

We find in friendship distinct forms of accountability that inform our efforts to engage in ethical research practices. The same lines of care and trust that seem to offer important sources of learning and support in friendship, we observed, also lead to moments of confrontation, disruption, and accountability. It is the capacity for our friends to know us in complex and sometimes confrontational ways, and the requirement within friendship that we face each other as whole people, that holds us accountable to each other not just as friends but as researchers. As we have struggled with some of the political, ethical, and emotional dilemmas of research into Indigenous geographies, we have found each other more effective and rigorous sources of accountability than the formal, institutional bodies that oversee our conduct. While there is no professional or institutional oversight of our friendship—no research ethics boards (REBs) scrutinize our interactions and our professional advancement is not directly contingent upon these relationships working well—we experience it as a highly accountable and even vulnerable space of relation. The hardest people to face as we struggle through the ethical challenges posed by our research, we noted, are our friends. It is because we care, because we have shaped each others’ thoughts and experiences over many years, and because we know each other in complex ways, that we feel most accountable to each other. This weaving of care, trust, and vulnerability holds us deeply accountable to each other, we noted, and yet it is neither adequately nor necessarily appropriately formalized. Indeed, friendship may offer and demand forms of accountability and responsibility that are more robust than those that are formalized through research ethics boards and licensing processes. The capacity for the intimacy, trust, and care built through friendship to foster learning and knowledge production and to limit knowledge production by demanding certain forms of accountability and integrity is, we suggest, illustrative of the importance of relational accountability in efforts to decolonize geographic thought and practice.


We have described a moment where institutional and disciplinary discourses and structures support the expansion of participatory and community-based research, largely on the grounds that this is one of the “best” ways to address the ethical, political, and epistemological challenges posed by research about, for, and with Indigenous peoples. At the same time, we have articulated a series of concerns about this form of research: dissent may be stifled by non-Indigenous researchers’ investments in being “good”; claims to overcome difference and distance may actually retrench colonial research relations; the framing of particular methods as “best practices” risks closing down necessary and ongoing critique; and institutional pressures work against the development and maintenance of meaningful, accountable, and non-extractive relations with Indigenous communities. These concerns, we observed, were first articulated and tested within the confines of our friendship with each other, and we went on to consider the spatiality of the critique itself. We argued that friendship is one among many spaces through which researchers are constituted, and that it nurtures forms of knowledge, practice, and accountability that can inform geographic contemplations of participatory, community-based research. Relationships are central to participatory, community-based research, we noted, but in order for participatory, community-based research to be effectively, ethically, and meaningfully deployed in Indigenous communities a broader understanding of relational accountability—particularly the broader relations through which researchers are themselves constituted—must inform this mode of research. Relationships and relational accountability are central to Indigenous research paradigms and they have much to offer efforts to decolonize disciplinary understandings of the political and ethical dimensions of research about Indigenous geographies.

We have only briefly explored some of the ways in which friendship might inform efforts to decolonize geographic thought and practice, but some tentative conclusions can be drawn from these conversations and provocations. As is no doubt clear, we are not suggesting that researchers should become friends with their research subjects; we concur with Ahmed (2000) that it is impossible and, in fact, potentially harmful to claim friendship with one's research subjects, and we are careful to understand and acknowledge that our friendship with each other is unrelated to any specific research project or practice. We are also not interested in promoting any one path for research on/into/about Indigenous geographies, nor are we suggesting that participatory, community-based research projects, writ large, are not tremendously worthwhile. If anything, the growing range of projects that are described as “participatory” makes it difficult to make general claims about the methodology, and we recognize the desires of some Indigenous communities to engage in precisely these kinds of relationships and for all involved to benefit. We are, however, interested in understanding how such relationships might be analyzed and evaluated so that the relationships—and the theoretical frameworks upon which they are premised—do not become imbued with the very problems participatory, community-based research seeks to redress.

While we remain attuned to Peters’ (2000) claim that geography remains devoid of Indigenous peoples and voices, we simultaneously worry that this gap will not be fully addressed by increasing the presence of Indigenous peoples and places as research subjects from whom non-Indigenous researchers learn and with whom non-Indigenous researchers engage, in whatever way that engagement unfolds. Instead, one way of working to encourage Indigenous presences in geography and other disciplines is by ensuring that friendships amongst Indigenous and non-Indigenous researchers, outside the confines of research projects, generate critical insights into normative ways of thinking that too often (re)produce non-Indigenous ways of knowing and being. Drawing again on Gibson-Graham (2006), we suggest that achieving new insights into ethical and decolonizing relationships concerning Indigenous geographies might best be achieved when researchers consider our practices and ourselves as “a becoming of something yet to be defined” (Gibson-Graham 2006, 99): in other words, at the very moment that a relationship becomes defined by or attached to research, the ability to critically reflect upon that research can slip away. To critically and productively understand, and possibly transform, research relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, researchers need to establish relationships outside those of a researcher/research-subject formulation. This requires investing time and resources in activities and relationships that may have no connection to a particular research question or project and that have no preconceived or clearly defined association to research in general. It requires shifting focus away from relationships between researchers and research subjects to the broader networks of relations through which researchers are constituted and held accountable, including those between Indigenous and non-Indigenous researchers, where honest, critical, and sometimes tense contemplations about research relationships can occur prior to researchers turning to research participants for guidance and direction. If decolonizing geographic thought and practice requires, at least in part, decolonizing the production of Indigenous peoples as wholly other, developing non-extractive relationships, fostering spaces of dissent and disruption, and confronting the persistence of colonial, racialized dynamics within the discipline, then we find in friendship a potentially fruitful space to undertake such work.


  • 1

    One of us is an Indigenous Cree woman and two of us are non-Indigenous Canadian women. We have conducted research collectively and separately into Indigenous geographies, Indigenous/non-Indigenous relations, and (de)colonization in Canada for over ten years. The contours of our friendship relationship, which are both personal and professional, are germane to this paper—we do not suggest that any friendship between any groups of people will necessarily lead to spaces wherein critical reflection upon research about/with Indigenous geographies (or some other specific research area) is possible. A fundamental premise of our argument is that there must be a mutual interest in a topic (in our case research concerning Indigenous peoples and geographies), mutual interest in critically exploring that topic, and (perhaps most importantly) very close, definitely not abstract or solely theoretical, lived, or embodied understandings of and experiences with the topic under consideration. In other words, we are not suggesting that friendship, and friendship alone, opens spaces to critically consider Indigenous geographies. We are, however, suggesting that friendships constituted and maintained outside of participatory, community-based research relationships, and friendships with particular contours and components, may open one kind of space in and through which to critically reflect upon research methods that, as we argue in this paper, demand ongoing, evolving, and open-ended analytical scrutiny.

  • 2

    Our intention in this paper is to interrogate participatory, community-based forms of research relating to Indigenous peoples and geographies, broadly defined, including not just formal methods but also modes of thinking about and relating to research and knowledge. While our argument relates to the papers collected in this special issue, and to the concept of CBPR (community-based participatory research), we are not responding exclusively to this form of research.

  • 3

    All cross-referencing to other articles in this issue was done by the guest editors for cohesion throughout the special issue.

  • 4

    While participatory, community-based research is being received as a “new” method in geography, we thank Heather Castleden for pointing out that the method itself is actually decades old. Its application to Indigenous geographies, however, is a more recent phenomenon.

  • 5

    ArcticNet, for example, a Centre of Excellence involved in northern research in Canada, recently created three Inuit Research Advisor positions to facilitate links between Inuit communities and southern researchers. See

  • 6

    We note here our departure from the literature on friendship in research settings (see, e.g., Tillman-Healy 2003; Nelson and Gould 2005; Stacey 1988; Han 2010) and our interest in how friendship outside of research settings informs research praxis.

  • 7

    At the same time, Koster et al. (this issue, 195) offer insight on the value of friendship from the community partner's perspective while Mulrennan et al. (this issue, 243) speak of how friendships may flourish as a result of engaging in community-based participatory research.