The challenges of PAR’s increasing legitimacy

Budd Hall, Director of Community-based Research at the University of Victoria, is an expert on PAR. In his paper, “In from the Cold? Reflections on participatory research”, he tracks how participatory research emerged in Tanzania in the 1970s to examine PAR in the present day. He provides an eye-witness account of how a network of individuals from around the world combined to influence and establish the credibility of a new way of doing research. Recalling the influence of Paulo Friere and Orlanda Fals Borda (the first to combine the terms participation, action and research), Hall describes the early meetings of researchers in Holland, New Delhi, Caracas and Tanzania and indicates some of the risks, most notably the imprisonment of Maria Christina Salazar, Colombian scholar and wife of Orlando Fals Borda who was seen as being too close to political movements seeking change. The formation of a Participatory Research group in North America and the promotion of participatory approaches to research within Universities were all part of a process that has meant that PAR methods are now routinely taught in Universities.

“One might say that participatory research has come “in from the cold”, that it has come in from the margins to become an accepted member of the academic community.”

However, it is that acceptance by the Academy that poses some contradictions and challenges.

University Challenge?

The first obvious contradiction is that among the “original premises was the importance of breaking what we referred to as the monopoly over knowledge production by universities.” The increasing opportunities to study PAR within universities may have an affect of somehow “professionalizing” PAR and inadvertedly transferring power away from the grassroots to ‘experts’. Hall argues that the Academy also treats knowledge in a variety of ways that also frustrates its effects:

“It [knowledge] is a commodity by which academics do far more than exchange ideas; it is the very means of exchange for the academic political economy. Tenure, promotion, peer recognition, research grants, and countless smaller codes of privilege are accorded through the adding up of articles, books, papers in “refereed” journals and conferences.”

The difficulties of such an approach in relation to PAR are that:

– academics benefit financially from a PAR project in contrast to other participants;

– collaborative work is rare, especially with non-academics;

– there is a resistance to different ways of conducting research despite awareness – “While the university world explodes with new discourses on power in all its forms, the faces in the universities in my part of the world, the Resumes of scholars we hire, the forms of sharing knowledge we use, and the structures of learning and knowledge production have changed but little.”

Hall sees such structural pressure to conform in the academic world that he wonders whether it is possible to do PAR within a University setting.

“Is it not possible that in spite of one’s personal history, in spite of ideological commitment, in spite of deep personal links with social movements or transformative processes that the structural location of the academy as the preferred location for the organizing of knowledge will distort a participatory research process?”.

The end for academic PAR researchers?

Hall states clearly that he does not believe that university or similarly accredited researchers are required for PAR and that many groups conduct processes that resemble PAR everyday without labelling it as such. However, he believes that academics have some skills that can compliment the skills of others in the community and being part of a University can bring it with some legitimacy – a resource that might be helpful to the participants. Overall, it seems that while PAR may have ‘come in from the cold’, it’s relationship with academia will always be luke-warm – and perhaps some discomfort is essential if PAR is to retain its emphasis on critical reflection.

Hall, B. L. (2005). In From the Cold? Reflections on Participatory Research From 1970-2005. Convergence, 38, 5-24. PDF Version.

Q&A with Budd Hall – June 2008 – on the recent CUExpo 2008.

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