Participatory Action Research: An emergent reality?

Davydd Greenwood, William Foote Whyte and Ira Harkavy* argue that the discussions on PAR often miss two important dimensions – the participatory intent of the research process and the actual degree of participation achieved by a project. Like Andrea Cornwell and Rachel Jewkes (see post) they believe that it is very rare to see high levels of participation in a research project but they put forward quite different reasons for why this might happen. For Greenwood et al, PAR is fundamentally an emergent process – even if the researcher starts with a commitment to involve others, it is only over time that this becomes possible.

“Participation is a process that must be generated. It begins with participatory intent and continues by building participatory processes into the activity within the limits set by the participants and the conditions. To view participation as something that can be imposed is both naïve and morally suspect.”

For Greenwood et al participation is shaped by three elements:

  • the character of the problems and the environmental conditions under study;
  • the aims and capacities of the research team;
  • and the skills of the professional researcher.

The rarity of PAR is because research situations do not make it possible for full scale PAR to emerge.

“The convergence of a professional social researcher who is an advocate for participatory action research, an organization willing and able to commit itself and its members to a broadly participatory and demanding process, and environmental conditions that permit a sustained process of participatory discussion research and analysis is unusual.”

To make their case they examine how PAR emerged in three different organizational settings – a large corporation (Xerox), a cooperative and a University (University of Pennsylvania) and community initiative.

Copiers, Cooperatives and Public Schools

All three organizations were facing a crisis. Xerox needed to find a way to cut costs in a competitive market, the Mondragon cooperative perceived its members were dissatisfied and the University of Pennsylvania was struggling to connect with their community. However, while each case started as an attempt to solve a particular kind of problem they gradually opened up into a much broader and deeper participatory action research process.

Xerox’s management and union developed an Employee Involvement Program that utilized ideas and theories from a variety of fields ranging from industrial engineering and cost accounting to organizational behaviour to cut its manufacturing costs, saving an estimated 900 jobs. The Mondragon cooperative’s initial aim to teach their members some social research techniques developed into a broad scale analysis of member commitment to cooperative goals and the need for organizational reforms to sustain those commitments. The University of Penn researchers engagement with community groups led to the formation of the West Philadelphia Improvement Corps, an internationally recognized school-based, school and neighbourhood revitalization program made possible by the coming together of different intellectual and practical approaches and disciplines such as community organizing, education, history, anthropology, organizational behavior, community medicine and social work. PAR is seen then as an “emergent intensifying process” that gains “increased dimension and depth through the entire research process”.

Bounded Participation?

For Greenwood et al, PAR emerges under certain conditions which raise a number of questions. How important is a crisis for PAR to emerge? Would it be possible for PAR to emerge without a crisis? What too are the similarities or differences (if any) between PAR that takes place within organizations and those that overlap multiple organizations? For example, do those who engage in PAR within organizations place less emphasis on marginalization and inequality? For example, Greenwood et al showcase PAR at Xerox but this is a collaboration to solve a problem of sustaining existing organizational arrangements rather than fundamentally alter them (see page on PAR challenges at Argyris and Schon’s paper which directly examines the Xerox case).

Greenwood et al do, to their credit, outline their assumptions about social science and PAR. They believe that the social sciences exist to assist society in solving social problems, that good research is an ongoing learning process involving continual management and change throughout any project and that participation improves the quality of the research. However, although recognizing that “democracy in knowledge production gives the participants a stake in the quality of the results, increasing the reliability of information and the likelihood that results will be put into practice”, the researchers do not explore how this “democratic” process challenges vested interests. All three examples created innovations that left their sponsoring organizations intact but the implications of PAR is that it is not always additive and who controls the process is critical. If PAR is, as Greenwood et al argue, a powerful way to resolve complex organizational problems, then its political nature has to be acknowledged and a recognition that what constitutes “success” may be highly contested.

*Greenwood, D. J., Foote Whyte, W., & Harkavy, I. 1993. Participatory action research as a process and as a goal. Human Relations, 46(2): 175-192.


One Response

  1. This seems like a very interesting and useful discussion of PAR, providing a much more nuanced view than might often be found in more idealistic texts. Your concluding point, however, is a vital one, especially for someone interested in social innovation. I suppose “success” might be a much more difficult concept in this kind of process than would be “participation”. Even with the latter, would it be the degree, scope, breadth or nature of participation that was its measure? Nice job on these, Graham – I find them very stimulating.

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