Many of the writers using PAR explain how their research challenges and reveals the limitations of science that is based on a positivistic premise. James Frideres*, provides a highly critical response. He argues that participatory research is not research at all and states that it can not only mislead participants but is also non-beneficial to their communities.
Frideres makes such claims by first establishing his view of science. He sees the role of the social scientist to identify and establish laws and facts and to present and test hypotheses which create order amidst apparent chaos. This is an objective process, one’s personal views are put to one side, and the researcher uses methods that have rules and logic of their own. Data collection must meet “vigorous criteria implied in the concepts of validity and reliability” and be subject to verification by others. Participation research, in contrast, is the anti-thesis to these assumptions:
“We have, in the case of participatory research, an inarticulate and illogical set of statements which reflect little integration and a considerable number of disparate claims.” (2)
Frideres states that the advocates of participatory research have avoided systematic evaluation and have done so for two decades (Frideres wrote this in 1992). He states that it has been a difficult method to critique as it is a moving target of shifting definitions obtaining a “messianic status in some circles”.
He explains how participatory research emerged out of development projects in the 1970s when academics began working with powerless people. Although it started well with the “rigors of the scientific method”, it was soon hijacked. Community developers started to use the information gathering process to achieve political, religious and ideological means.
“Community development officials began to stretch the credibility of data which was gathered to address a social issue. Lacking social research skills themselves, they began to cast their net to seek some legitimizing strategy to hang their moral and ideological beliefs; participatory research was born.”
Frideres states that these developments were first ignored by researchers using traditional research methods but they soon realized that participatory research was influencing political leaders and community residents and that their way of research was under attack. Universities, Frideres argues, were portrayed as being secretive and manipulative and the solution was to give respondents complete control of the research process.
This allowed local residents not accepting of scientific methods, and with their own agendas, to have what they wanted confirmed as well as legitimizing untrained community activists. The result is that participatory research is “an ideological exercise. What the community wants is reality.”
Frideres then hones in on the research process. He argues that participation is not an alien concept to traditional science and has often been a feature of pre-testing, before the research proposal and plan is finalized. But he makes the following criticisms of participatory research:
- it has an ideological bias that only oppressed people can produce facts that have truth value;
- there is an overall confusion about the research goals – whether to develop new knowledge, educate the people or create action;
- it is light on theory, potentially limits collective learning by focusing on a single case that may be unique and idiosyncratic and restricts the development of more general skills that communities need for future challenges;
- it is methodologically naive in assuming that all participants have equal knowledge about reality and have the necessary skills to do data collection and analysis.
“Their [community residents] ability to understand research, the assumptions and the linkage between theory and data is limited. But then to expect them to have such knowledge is unrealistic. How then can we expect community residents to participate in the research process?”
The solution for Frideres is for participatory researchers to not use the word ‘research’ and to instead call their work “participatory action” otherwise “proponents must be prevented from using such procedures and identifying the “results” obtained as valid or reliable”.
What to make of these criticisms?
I suspect that it would be easy to dismiss these criticisms out of hand. Frideres’s claim that participatory research misleads participants and their communities seems problematic when the emphasis of participatory research is on privileging local knowledge and involvement. Many PAR researchers would also ignore these attacks because they hold such a different conception of science, knowledge and truth and their role as researchers. However, in recognizing that Frideres’s criticisms were made 16 years ago and our understanding of PAR has since developed, Frideres does touch on some important points that have come out in previous readings. What is the primary purpose of a PAR project – is it always possible to incorporate education, action and research? How can PAR researchers develop theory that transfers beyond their communities of interest? Is there a trap of seeing participation as providing research validity and an immunity to challenge? Are the skills needed for different participatory approaches always recognized and acknowledged when inclusivity is the overarching goal?
* Frideres, J. S. 1992. Participatory research: An illusionary perspective. In J.S. Frideres (Ed.), A world of communities: Participatory research perspectives. North York, Ontario: Captus University Publications.