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Questioning PAR’s benevolence: Recognizing negative effects

41J 7CdBBDL._SL160_ In a previous post I explored some criticisms of PAR as a “scientific” method – the writer argued that PAR could not be considered “research” because it is riddled with bias and offers limited opportunities to theoretical development as it is so focused on an individual case. In this post, I explore the views of some proponents of PAR who would fundamentally dispute these criticisms, arguing that PAR poses a significant challenge to traditional research, but recognize that PAR is not necessarily benevolent in its effects. Sara Kindon, Rachel Pain and Mike Kesby* argue that PAR researchers need to recognize the power dynamics within PAR and the potential for negative effects. These can include:

  • the delegitimization of non-participatory methods;
  • the “production” of participants requiring research;
  • the production of participants who “perform appropriately”;
  • the retention of researchers’ control despite the appearance of neutrality;
  • the re-authorization of researchers as the “experts” in participatory approaches;
  • the “romanticization or marginalization” of local knowledge;
  • the reinforcement of existing power hierarchies in participating communities;
  • the legitimation of elite local knowledge simply because it is produced through participatory processes;
  • the legitimation of neo-liberal programs (eg World Bank) that use participatory processes.

Kindon et al argue that power can take a number of forms in the PAR process:

  • domination – for example, researchers can set ground rules at the start of the participation process that ensure control for the researcher;
  • coercion – for example, participants may have to participate as they perceive it as the only means to gain essential resources;
  • manipulation – for example, researchers can encourage “self-critique under the cover of seemingly innocuous topics”;
  • authority – for example, researchers can be given an expert status enabling them to resist handing over authority to the collective.

A recognition but also a response

However, while recognizing the power dynamic in PAR, Kindon et al do not see this as completely negative. They argue that to focus on the possible negative effects ignores researcher motives and how PAR can radically alter power dynamics for the benefit of the community. For example, PAR can facilitate the negotiation of interests between “unequally positioned participants” who share a common goal. It can encourage the sharing of authority among participants and elevate the importance of persuasion by “strength of argument in an atmosphere of equality”.

Kindon et al encourage researchers to identify both the positive and negative effects of PAR and how participation can on the one hand be used to close down possibilities for some by giving power to a group but it can also give voice to those previously marginalized to act assertively. Of particular importance, they argue, is the space in which the participatory process is conducted.

The importance of space

According to the researchers interest in spatial perspectives on participation is growing. They explore Cornwall’s (2004) distinction between “invited” and “popular” spaces where the “popular” spaces are presented as having more opportunities for empowerment. They challenge this approach by arguing that invited spaces can also facilitate positive interactions and radical transformations, and popular spaces may not be as generative of change as suggested in that they can be hierarchically structured and authoritarian. The important point is to recognize “PAR as a spatial practice” where issues of power and empowerment are “entangled” in an arena. This highlights the spatial embeddedness of participants and the importance of locating spaces in which marginal groups can speak and critique everyday society and where “normal” social relations can be partially suspended.

“…we would urge researchers and practitioners to recognize that the empowering effects of PAR are embedded in place (‘How far did the environment governed by the participation extend?’).” p25

The implication is that PAR is “enmeshed” with issues of power, and the space in which it is practiced directly influences its empowering effects.

“We can no longer see PAR as a privileged, power-free mode of research, and must see it as a contestable work in progress.” p25

*Kesby, M., Kindon, S., & Pain, R. 2007. Participation as a form of power: Retheorising empowerment and spatialising participatory action research. In S. Kindon, R. Pain, & M. Kesby (Eds.), Participatory Action Research approaches and methods: Connecting people, participation and place. London: Routledge.


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