Participatory research: Power and Problems

Getting to grips with “what is participatory action research” requires considering what we mean by the term “participatory” and how it is different to other forms of research. Andrea Cornwall and Rachel Jewkes* explore this theme within a health context and make the case that participation is a feature of most research. They argue that what distinguishes participatory research from conventional research is not primarily about methods or theory but concerns the “location of power in the research process”. What does this mean?

Stages of Research

For Cornwall and Jewkes participatory research is focused on gaining knowledge through action and using a “bottom-up” approach – a focus on locally defined priorities and perspectives. In practice, they argue, this is a “choice which is both personal and inherently political”. Personal, as the decision to use a participatory approach is influenced by a researcher’s attitudes and views, and political, as questions about who is researching whom and why are placed at the forefront. Their table below compares participatory research (PR) to conventional research to show that through the different stages of research (identifying a research problem, data collection analysis, presentation and action) there are different emphases on who participates and who is given power to shape the research process.

Modes of Participation

Cornwall and Jewkes propose that researchers tend to use four modes of participation (drawing on the work of Biggs, 1989):

  • contractual – where people are contracted into the projects of researchers and people act as informants;
  • consultative – where people are asked for their opinions and consulted by researchers before interventions are made;
  • collaborative – researchers and local people work together on projects designed, initiated and managed by researchers;
  • collegiate – researchers and local people work together as colleagues, combining their different skills in a process of mutual learning.

These different levels of participation in the research process show the relationship between participation and control. Cornwall and Jewkes argue that most conventional research is contractual and tends to maintain rather than challenge the relations of power. Participatory research in contrast is aimed at the collegiate level of participation and can transform social arrangements. However, Cornwall and Jewkes state that in practice few researchers adopt this mode through their entire research process

“Participatory research is theoretically situated at the collegiate level of participation. Scrutiny of practice reveals that this level is rarely, if ever, achieved. Much of what passes as ‘participatory’ research goes no further that contracting people into projects which are entirely scientist-led, designed and managed”,

In reality, they propose, researchers use different modes at different stages in the research process. For example, a researcher may be very collegiate in identifying a ‘community problem’ but more consultative or contractual when it comes to analysis and presentation of the findings.

Power Problems

Issues of power, however, are at the heart of participatory action research (PAR). Cornwall and Jewkes identify how PAR, shaped by the work of Paulo Freire, is directly concerned with recognizing and confronting power differentials between the researcher and the researched and to elevate the importance of involving all actors to contribute to shared knowledge. It takes a directly political stance focused on “empowering disenfranched and marginalized groups to take action to transform their lives”. PAR is more of an “attitude” than a series of techniques where the researcher can pick and choose from a range of techniques from performance, art and story-telling to more conventional methods such as focus groups with “processes developing through praxis”. The problem, Cornwall and Jewkes argue, is that PAR rarely follows the smooth pathway in theoretical writing and in fact the visibility of the researcher in the process and their transparent intentions present some specific challenges in practice.

Not only is the control over research rarely devolved completely to the ‘community’, ‘communities’ do not always want it. Local people may be highly skeptical of research that elevates the ideal of democracy sometimes perceiving it as a mask for western cultural imperialism let alone be willing, or able, to invest time and energy in the process. Participation may be more significant to outsiders than to the poor. Researchers also need to manage expectations to “tread a careful path between generating sufficient interest for participation and not raising false hopes”. Participation research is also based on the assumption that local communities exist as distinct entities who share similar realities. In reality researchers can find “competing, changing and contested versions of community needs”.

There are problems too with knowing whether to work within existing local power structures where the research is vulnerable to being manipulated by the agendas of the powerful or working outside these structures and potentially weakening the impact of the project and potentially further marginalizing the participants. Unintended consequences are likely. Those who participate are easier to identify and therefore easier to repress. There is also the possibility of generating a heighted awareness within the marginal group of its oppression, leading to higher levels of unhappiness. Researchers are not only ill-prepared for this type of research operating in systems that work against participation (eg disciplinary conventions and funding priorities) but also local communities may not see themselves as equal partners, lacking the knowledge or confidence to challenge the guidance of ‘experts’. It may also be inappropriate to engage local people in some elements of research – eg in researching HIV in Uganda there was a need for non-locals to collect sensitive data due to the stigma of HIV.

For Cornwall and Jewkes, despite these problems, the strength of participatory research is in its approach – to respect and understand the people for whom researchers work. The focus on working together throughout the research process may involve navigating a minefield of different power differentials but an awareness of these issues could help realize a more collegiate approach so espoused in theory but rare in practice.

*Cornwall, A., & Jewkes, R. 1995. What is participatory research? Social Science & Medicine, 41(12): 1667-1676


2 Responses

  1. Hi Could I have permission to use the picture of the people holding hands? I’m a PhD student and have used PAR. I would certainly acknowledge the appropariate person, group.

    Many thanks


  2. Hi Maureen
    Sorry for the delay – this image is taken from – easy to purchase from this site.
    Many thanks

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