PAR: Reflections from the frontline

So far my exploration of PAR has been largely theoretical and has missed a practical perspective. Marja-Liisa Swantz*, provides some corrective – offering an insight on PAR in practice as she explains her work, started in 1965, in two regions of Tanzania.

Swantz immersed herself into the local community and found that she became too involved in people’s lives to stay as an observer developing friendships with people whom she did not want to view as “informants”. Her view is that participatory research is undertaken from “inside the culture, from the premises of the people and the situation”. She recognizes that this means that it is open to criticism for not being “objective” but argues that the observations of an insider, who has everyday contact with people and participates in their activities, is likely to be less subjective than those made by an outsider who will have less understanding of the practices they are studying. This makes sense although there may be some challenging issues such as becoming too immersed in a community to the point that practices become taken for granted; practical issues around having the time to ‘go native’; and the acceptance of the community for an outsider to become an insider.

For Swantz the role of the participatory researcher is to act as a catalyst to help explore issues that matter to the community.

“A participatory researcher acts as a catalyst for engendering a spirit of inquiry into areas in which the people themselves also have an interest. Asking questions that probe for a deeper meaning can set people thinking about their own problems and possible solutions. People get an opportunity to speak of things that are significant to them or give them hope, joy, or sadness. If the search is an honest one, then even the earliest stage of the research process can serve as an instrument in human development.”

However, Swantz recognizes that the questioning process is not straightforward.

“What is the border between “mutual learning” and agitation? When is it justified to inject new ideas and ideologies and to leave it for the partners to judge what they are and are not willing to accept? These are questions a participatory researcher with a political or an ideological goal has to face, especially if that researcher has his or her own axe to grind.”

Swantz’s approach to this dilemma is to focus on trying to “enhance” the lives of the community starting from their framework of beliefs and values. But Swantz’s later statement on the definition of PAR shows how her PAR is shaped not only by the context but also by what she perceives as a “crucial issue”.

“Participatory research has been defined in many different ways; I have given it my own interpretation in the different contexts in which I have practiced it. At the moment, I am engaged in a PAR that starts with the assumption that today’s world economics is detrimental to small and poor people.”

The commitment by the researcher to be transparent about their agenda may encourage a more self-critical approach compared to research where researchers are blind to or disguise their motives. However, transparency in itself does not mean the research is without criticism.

Swantz does provide an insight into her approach:

“During a process of participatory planning and gradually evolving implementation, we learn how people sustain their lives and their communities and their environments, what communication and safety nets and exchange systems they use, what resources they have at their disposal and make use of, how their social organization operates in changing conditions, what their goals and strategies in life are, what prevents them from making better use of available resources and the assistance offered them, and last, but not least, what kind of integrated social and economic approach could support bottom-up development more comprehensively. Genuine participatory planning makes implementation part of the planning process; with it, not only does more accurate information become available, but the plans are tested in action.”

Swantz finishes her reflections with a series of questions which challenge all participatory action researchers – double participation, power differentials and the nature of “scientific” research.

Swantz, M. 1996. A personal position paper on participatory research: Personal quest for living knowledge. Qualitative Inquiry, 2(1): 120-136.

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