Partnering in international research and practice

Cross-cultural psychologists argue for the importance of partnering with psychologists from the cultures that are under study

By Michaela Hynie and Susan Opotow

We enter any venue, including international settings, with preconceptions. These may include accurate or inaccurate preconceptions about what to expect as well as how to effectively conduct research or implement interventions. For our work to be meaningful and helpful to people in any locale — but particularly in international work — we need a deep understanding of that setting. A major challenge of working internationally, either to conduct research or implement interventions, is being fully aware of local issues and how they are understood (e.g., Shweder, 1997). One of the most effective ways to ensure that research is relevant and appropriate is to conduct it in collaboration with those who can knowledgeably speak to the needs and interests of their culture and community.

Cross-cultural psychologists argue for the importance of partnering with psychologists from the cultures that are under study (e.g., Heine, 2008). Successful international partnerships, too, benefit from partnering with members of the community. Community-based research initially emerged from Participatory Action Research (PAR), which was utilized in international work to help oppressed people gain control over and improve their lives through research projects (Khanlou & Peter, 2005). PAR enables participants to identify research questions and processes that are relevant for them. Community-based research borrows from PAR's premise that engaging the community as full partners can define relevant research questions, methods, and interventions (Israel, Schulz, Parker, & Becker, 1998). It is a powerful way of ensuring that international research and interventions are relevant to and appropriate for different international settings.

The challenges of partnering with community

Working alongside people from community settings, whether local or international, can be immensely rewarding and effective in its results. However effective partnerships require special skills: careful listening; respecting others' expertise; and willingness to allow the concerns of a community to guide a research or implementation project. Engagement with community partners from the outset of a study also means openness to revising project goals and methods, which can make research design and development a long and somewhat unpredictable process. Partnering is effective when all parties involved are viewed as equal. This requires recognition that partners from different sectors may have different skills, resources and goals. Fostering equal participation means that participant roles, responsibilities and expectations, including who controls project products and how they will be used, need to be thought through and negotiated together before beginning work.

A key and often fraught question concerns who legitimately represents a community and who decides on this representation. No culture or community is homogenous. Choosing particular partners from the community may exclude others and may limit the generalizability of the findings and community benefits. It can be hard to get this right. This is a complex issue, but it is better to work with some community representatives, with an awareness of the limitations of this partnership, than with none.

International partnering projects: Two examples

In Toronto, Professor Michaela Hynie, Associate Director of the York Institute for Health Research at York University, works on local and international projects addressing social and cultural variables that facilitate or inhibit access to health care as well as variables associated with health-protective behaviors.

Local projects include partnering with community health centers and representatives of recent immigrant and refugee communities around accessing mental health care. Their research finds that communities differ in their understanding and concerns about mental health, in resources they use to cope with stress, and in barriers they confront in accessing health care (Crooks, Hynie, Killian, Giesbrecht, & Castleden, 2009). One concrete outcome of this work is the development of a Spanish guidebook on mental health resources in Toronto for and by women in the Latin American community.

International projects include partnering with an international research team to evaluate an HIV prevention program in Durban, South Africa. In this study, observed relationships between psychological variables such as attitudes and behavioral intentions, were much weaker than would be expected in a North American sample. Interpretations of these findings were facilitated by input from community partners who described an environment marked by extreme poverty, high levels of sexual violence and who identified the need for questions addressing these issues in our surveys and focus groups (Nixon, Flicker, Hynie, Casale, Rogan, Rubincam, O'Brien, & Jenney, 2009). The results, which have been presented to directors of the HIV intervention and participating schools in the region, have led to additional research questions about the effective promotion of HIV prevention among youth in this community.

Upcoming events on partnering in Toronto — August 2009

In our respective roles as Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (SPSSI) Program Chair and President, we are planning two initiatives on successful partnerships that connect with the upcoming 2009 APA Convention. We invite you to attend both.

On the afternoon of August 5th, the day before the APA convention begins, 60 psychologists will visit two culturally diverse and economically challenged Toronto communities as part of an interdivisional partnership, Psychology-Community Engagement: Partnering for Social Change. It is cosponsored by 11 APA divisions (8, 9, 17, 27, 32, 34, 35, 39, 44, 45, 48) and the APA Office of Socioeconomic Status of the Public Interest Directorate. The visit will showcase a number of local initiatives that model engagement between diverse communities and university partners. Those who join us will learn how Toronto citizens, community organizations, and universities work together to build stronger, more resilient communities that address such pressing social issues as immigration, crime, public health and health care, education, mental health, LGBT health issues, racism, and youth engagement in Toronto.

During this preconference event, representatives of the community and community agencies will discuss why they partner, what they are looking for in partners, and what constitutes an effective partnership for them. This initiative is designed to deepen psychologists' understanding of partnering so that they can work in partnership with communities confronting a variety of challenges. Those wishing to join us can register online via the APA Office on Socioeconomic Status.

At the APA convention, Partnering on Social Issues for Social Change is the theme of SPSSI's program. Symposia and posters discuss partnering in diverse ways — between researchers and communities, across (sub) disciplines, across cultures, and among activists and practitioners. The program, posted on SPSSI's website, highlights partnerships that cross settings and disciplines, addresses what a successful partnership is, and describes challenges that can occur despite people's best intentions. We hope you will join us in Toronto! Ψ


Crooks, V. A., Hynie, M., Killian, K., Giesbrecht, M., & Castleden, H. (Forthcoming, 2009). Female newcomers' adjustment to life in Toronto, Canada: Sources of stress and their implications for delivering primary mental health care. Geojournal.

Heine, S. J. (2008). Cultural psychology. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Israel, B. A., Schulz, A. J., Parker, E. A., & Becker, A. B. (1998). Review of community-based research: Assessing partnership approaches to improve public health. Annual Review of Public Health, 19, 173-202.

Khanlou, N., & Peter, E. (2005). Participatory action research: Considerations for ethical review. Social Science and Medicine, 60, 2333-2340

Nixon, S., Flicker, S., Hynie, M., Casale, M., Rogan, M., Rubincam, C., O'Brien, K., & Jenney, A. (2009, April). Destiny, disease and desire: Unpacking the results of a school faith-based HIV intervention. Poster presented at the 4th South African AIDS Conference. Durban, South Africa.

Shweder, R. A. (1997). The surprise of ethnography. Ethos, 25, 152-163.