PAR: A theory of possibility in Belfast and Connecticut

Probably one of the best books I have read so far on PAR is this latest book by Alice McIntyre*. In the hour it takes to read it is possible to gain theoretical and practical insights into PAR as McIntyre draws on her experience of two PAR projects – one with women in the Monument Road community of Belfast and the other with students in an inner-city school in the US.

McIntyre starts by tracing the history of PAR from the 1970s. She notes the differences in theoretical perspectives of PAR researchers (eg Marx, Gramsci, Freire, Lewin and Critical Theory) and also how their research disciplines can shape their emphasis. For example, researchers interested in community development tend to stress issues of equity, oppression and access to resources in contrast to management and organization theory researchers who focus on individual and interpersonal action. Although PAR encompasses a diverse range of activities, political ideologies and methods, McIntyre identifies three shared characteristics:

  • active participation of researchers and participants in co-construction of knowledge;
  • promotion of self and critical awareness that leads to individual, collective and or social change;
  • building of alliances between researchers and participants in planning, implementation and dissemination of the research process.

In addition, McIntyre argues that even though every project is different, reflecting their “context specificity”, the PAR process is cyclical, involving exploration, knowledge construction and action where questioning, reflecting, dialoguing and decision-making are core activities. Using Belfast and Connecticut as her setting she explores the broader elements of PAR: Participation, Action and Research.

Participation

McIntyre places the emphasis on the quality of participation and not its proportionality – in other words, she seeks to value participation which reflects different levels of individual engagement and skills. Her experience is that the “participation of people living in conflicted communities in the context of a PAR project is always in flux” (25) and “it is unlikely that each party, individually or collectively, can or will participate equally in a PAR process” (31). Participation can be difficult within group settings as people are self-conscious and can resist project-related activities. She gives an example of how one participant drifted away from the project and raises broader questions about how project participants reach consensus, build community and share responsibility in the context of missing participants. The importance of defining roles and responsibilities is seen to be critical.

The role of the researcher is also discussed in some detail. McIntyre explores how a researcher might initiate a PAR project – should they approach the community group or can the researcher approach a community to instigate the project? She argues that academics also face particular challenges. How much assistance should they provide to the PAR project with the risk of telling people how to do things – “too pedagogic and or manipulative”. She outlines how she works with her research team before the projects starts to try to eliminate stereotypical beliefs that might create barriers to learning and to grapple with the ethical challenges that need to be confronted such as who decides on the research questions, who participates, who will speak for whom, who owns the data generated in a PAR project, what actions will be taken and how will information be disseminated.

Three things particularly struck me in this section. First, the importance of humor in overcoming tensions. Secondly, the objective of a PAR project to provide “opportunities for local people to develop strategies and garner resources for changing their environments for the better” (30) and finally, the inclusion of the students definition of participation:

“Participation means being part of the group and paying attention to what it is we’re doing. Action means that we have to agree to do things that are good for the project”….[research means] investigating and studying things so that we can understand them better”.

Action

A PAR project creates an awareness for participants of their environment and their individual and collective experience which can lead to action. What is interesting is that McIntyre points to two issues around action – firstly, that it can be very slow and secondly, participants may choose not to act despite their ‘awareness’. For example, the students working on cleaning up their community deciding on a group logo:

“I imagined that it would take a few short sessions to design such a symbol [symbol for the clean up project]. I was wrong. It took almost 2 months for the young people to create a symbol”. (37)

McIntyre also gives examples of when participants decide not to take action. Sometimes that is because external events mean they are unable to commit the time or because their priorities change. In addition, they may be uncertain as to the implication of the action on themselves and their communities.

She also raises the issue that the action may not deliver the desired results. For example, the students present their proposals to clean up their community to city officials but the response from the city, although initially positive, does not result in change. The students, McIntyre states, perceive this lack of action as attributed to the city staff rather than their group efforts and seek other ways to enact the project. She states that

“The participants were not able to enact the kind of widespread social change they hoped to generate in the project because it was not within their power to do so. Yet what they were able to do was exercise their power in realistic ways, in ways that were important to them, to their particular situation, and to the goals they had formulated for the overall PAR project.” (41)

This may highlight a real tension for PAR researchers, previously raised (see post), of how expectations are managed when actions don’t appear to deliver the hoped for change.

Research

In terms of research, McIntyre states that no two PAR projects are the same – activities, methods, participants, objectives and collection techniques are peculiar to their context. She argues that PAR researchers should state upfront how they intend to analyse and disseminate their research. The challenges of integrating multiple perspectives which are sometimes contradictory into an academic based manuscript are acknowledged but she argues that they are essential for authenticity as well as building relationships between theory and practice. She gives practical examples of how transcripts of group sessions became the focus for discussions about validity and for setting strategies during the project and how draft manuscripts are discussed with participants before submission.

There are also substantial ethical issues within PAR associated with the longevity of most PAR projects and the relationships between participants and researchers which require considering matters such as informed consent, documentation of the data, data ownership and privacy. While not exploring in great detail issues of how PAR research should be evaluated by academics, she does grapple with the broader idea of what constitutes success and failure in PAR terms. For McIntyre, success is about raising awareness within the group and outside of the group of a community issue and of developing the opportunities for people to “become agents of change in their own lives”.

A theory of possibility

To conclude, McIntyre describes PAR as an approach that is interested in a “theory of possibility and not predictably” that enables a particular group to construct knowledge and integrate theory unique to them, to “insert themselves in the research process as subjects of their own history”, to “explore and value their individual and collective realities” and “innovate about how they engage in that process”. PAR creates the space for people to reflect on who they are and how they relate to their worlds. That reflection leads to change – “change that is the product of people’s knowledge, experience and practice” (69).

*McIntyre, A. 2008. Participatory action research: Qualitative research methods series 52. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

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One Response

  1. Great job! This does look like an excellent book. I’m learning a ton from this blog.

    Thanks!
    Tom

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