According to Yoland Wadsworth*, who tackles this question head on, Participatory Action Research (PAR) is not a specialist technique but a form of social research that is “conscious of its underlying assumptions, and collectivist nature, its action consequences and its driving values”.
In practice this means reflecting on how “problems” become identified, the questions that are raised and those shaping the process. It requires a deliberate effort to involve all those who could generate practical “answers” and a willingness to adapt the research focus as new ideas emerge. Of real importance is that these ideas are “tested in action”. “It is action which is researched, changed and re-researched, within the research process by participants.”
PAR recognizes the value-laden nature of research – that research questions and participation are selective and privilege some but not others and that observations and results may highlight some issues while ignoring others – and brings them to the forefront of a research process to influence its design and implementation.
“Essentially participatory action research is research which involves all relevant parties in actively examining together current action (which they experience as problematic) in order to change and improve it.”
It therefore is often applied by those tackling complex social problems with impacts that cut across organizations and fields involving multiple agencies. It offers a form of active co-research, by and for those to be helped in a “genuinely democratic” process where those to be helped can “determine the purposes and outcomes of their own inquiry”.
The mix of its elements – action and participation – has a critical influence, Wadsworth argues, on the research process:
- Action is important because…
It recognizes that all research is an action in itself and has consequences – “things inevitably change as a result of research”. In addition, most PAR seeks to explicitly study something in order to change and improve it even if it doesn’t start out with a precise idea of what the end state will look like. Much depends, Wadsworth proposes, on the quality and depth of the theory and the design of the process to facilitate creativity.
- Participation is important because…
It recognizes the different parties involved in research – the researcher, the researched and the researched for (those who have the problem the research is trying to resolve) – and sees benefits in participation. Participation between these groups can reduce confusion or lack of agreement regarding the direction and purpose of the inquiry (for whom and for what), improves the chances of asking the “right questions”, collecting the data and implementing changes. The emphasis on “participation” Wadsworth states, is that conventional research and even some action researchers neglect the importance of participation.
“‘Indeed the reason why many of us have felt compelled to add the “p” for participation to the “ar” for action research has been because we have noticed that many have taken existing levels of conventional ‘participation’ for granted.”
Wadsworth, however, argues that participation, action and research, while distinct concepts, are not separate in practice – i.e. participation is not followed by research and then by action. It is their interaction that gives PAR its distinctiveness.
“…there are countless tiny cycles of participatory reflection on action, learning about action and then new informed action which is in turn the subject of further reflection.”
Wadsworth does point to “numerous barriers” to conducting PAR, for example, its emergent nature can worry researchers and funders, but these are not really explored in any detail.
* Yoland Wadsworth (1998). What is Participatory Action Research? Action Research International, Paper 2.