From: The Nova Scotia Psychologist, 1995, 10 (No. 4), 7-8.

To Understand, Do, And To Do, Understand:
The Scholarship of Community Psychology


K. Edward Renner, PhD 1

The Service for Sexual Assault Victims (SSAV, now Avalon Center) grew out of my community psychology class at Dalhousie University in 1982. For many who are familiar with the agency today -- a strong, woman-centred organization with a large volunteer base and strong community support -- this may come as a surprise, but the beginnings were quite humble, starting with a remarkable group of four students.

The History of SSAV

At the time, the "south-end rapist" was on the loose. Halifax Rape Relief had folded. Violence Against Women Committees were raising awareness across North America. Canada was in the process of redefining rape as sexual assault. The four women in my class insisted that they wanted to do something about rape as their class project. A year later, in July 1983, SSAV began as an agency, operating out of my lab space in the Department of Psychology. Before another year had passed it had re-located in its own facility as an independent community agency with its own Board.

The four students started something that others in the class continued to build on for a decade. Over the years, my personal role changed. In the beginning, the four students and I documented the need for a service, consulted with other groups, developed an organization structure, and a plan for action (for a detailed description see Renner & Keith, 1985). Next I trained the initial workers in crisis intervention and helped to initiate a 24-hour emergency victim support service. From the beginning records were kept that allowed SSAV to make contributions to the professional literature on the nature of sexual assault (e.g., Renner & Wackett, 1987; Renner, Wackett, & Ganderton, 1988). Later, I worked with students and volunteers to develop an empirical data base on the criminal justice process (Yurchesyn, Keith & Renner, 1992; Renner & Yurchesyn, 1994). By the end, I no longer had any direct role in the training of the volunteers, sitting only as a "token" male Board member superfluous for the life, vitality and continuity of the organization.

Community Psychology

What makes the establishment of SSAV an example of community psychology is neither the fact that it is community based nor that it is concerned with sexual assault. Rather, it is the philosophy that was behind each choice and decision that was made along the way. Community Psychology is a way of doing psychology. It does not have substance like personality, social and abnormal psychology, nor specific content like crime or poverty, and doing psychology in community settings such as schools, prisons, and agencies, does not make it Community Psychology.

This is all very awkward, of course, when publishing Community Psychology, because a philosophy of knowledge is largely invisible. Journal space is seldom given over to indulge an author to explain himself or herself. Yet, often, the "why" is a far more important than the "what" of still another F-ratio. In the 1950s when psychology was much more insecure and self-conscious as a discipline than it is today, we did this often, and I believe it is time to do so again.

Being Useful. Every year I received several telephone calls from students in other courses asking to interview me about how SSAV got started for their term paper on community this or that. Those requests used to drive me right up the wall. To teach community organization or intervention, do it! There is no other way, and certainly no shortage of social problems. The four students, like all of the others in my classes, did their project on something "real" (not hypothetical nor in the third person). This is the basis for collaborative and experiential learning now emphasized in the new teaching and learning literature. One of the principles of community psychology is to be useful. Action and research, practice and theory, teaching and learning, are a single process.

Adventure Not Discovery. Adventure is a far better metaphor for good scholarship than discovery. Discovery implies an objective "truth" to be found through the methods of prediction and control developed for the physical sciences. However, an adventure implies a commitment to explore what, by definition, cannot be known or predicted in advance, but only experienced and then meaningfully interpreted as the foundation for beginning yet another adventure. At SSAV, the first adventure was to adjust crisis intervention to sexual assault within the constraints of a largely volunteer organization as an empirical process based on carefully kept records. Next came the extension to the criminal justice system, again an empirical process, but one informed by a meaningfully constructed interpretation based on involvement with victims' actual experiences.

Ecological Validity. Knowledge can not be disconnected from its purpose nor continually reduced to convenient artificial components. Ecological validity maintains the natural integrity of the problem as non-negotiable. Highly reliable and reproducible empirical findings that have no relevance to their own original purpose are bad scholarship (e.g., the history of paired associate learning of nonsense syllables in search of human memory). The building blocks of experimental design are seldom those of nature, and, try as we might, a synthetic product will not approach the real thing. An actual sexual assault includes the natural complexity of the victim's experiences, the social context, and the systemic treatment by the criminal justice process, and, accordingly, the organizational structure of SSAV united crisis intervention, public education and social action as a unified process (see Renner & Keith, 1985).

On Being First Into the Future

I have barely scratched the surface of the many "principles" of community psychology. Although they can be stated as abstractions, as I have started to do, they can only be described in the context of doing something. Thus, the product, such as a sexual assault service, is often confused with the process. If there are misunderstandings about the nature of Community Psychology it must in part be due to the fact that we have stopped being self-conscious about "why." Community psychology was, and still is, a dialogue within psychology about how to do the psychology of the human social condition. Although it can be described through its scholarly contributions to substance and content, Community Psychology has none that are uniquely its own.

As far removed as it may seem, the lessons of Community Psychology are most evident today in modern management theory. Empowerment and management by facts are now economic buzz words for community organization and evaluation research, the major tools of Community Psychology. It is ironic that business may be first into the future while psychology is on the verge of losing ownership of the philosophy of knowledge required for managing the transitions of social change required by the end of the modern era.


Renner, K. E., & Keith, A. (1985). The establishment of a crisis intervention service for victims of sexual assault. Canadian Journal of Community Mental Health, 4, 113-123.

Renner, K. E., & Wackett, C. (1987). Sexual assault: Social and stranger rape. Canadian Journal of Community Mental Health, 6, 49-56.

Renner, K. E., Wackett, C., & Ganderton, S. (1988). The social nature of sexual assault. Canadian Psychology, 29, 163-173.

Yurchesyn, K., Keith, A., & Renner, K. E. (1992). Contrasting perspectives on the nature of sexual assault provided by a service for sexual assault victims and by the law courts. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science, 24, 71-85.

Renner, K. E., & Yurchesyn, K. (1994). Sexual Robbery: The missing concept in the search for an appropriate legal metaphor for sexual aggression. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science, 26, 41-51.


1. From 1976 through 1993 Edward Renner was a Professor in the Psychology Department at Dalhousie University where he taught and practiced community psychology. He is now an independent scholar and consultant in the area of evaluation research, organizational effectiveness, and institutional change. He may be reach at K. E. Renner, Evaluation Research, 14241 110th Terrace North, Largo, FL, 33774. (727) 595-3857 or