Academic Participatory Researchers: More harm than good?

According to the experience of Randy Stoecker, academic participatory researchers can be irrelevant or damaging to PAR projects. Irrelevant, as the whole purpose of participatory research is that community members become “self-sufficient” researchers and activists, and potentially damaging, as academic researchers may over-emphasize the research component of a PAR project and find themselves incapable of assisting in social change.

So what are the options for an academic interested in participatory research?  Stoecker examines the existing roles academics play and lists their tensions:

  • The initiator – even though one of the features of participatory research is that the research question should be generated from the community and not the researcher, researchers usually initiate contact with a community.  The difficulty for a researcher who is an intiator is to switch over control to the community once the project has started.
  • The consultant – while recognizing that the community members should do the research themselves, a community may commission research by an academic who is then held accountable.  Stoecker states, “To ask already overburdened community members to do the research when they could be doing other more important things contradicts the social change goal of PR” (p844).  The dangers in this approach is that the transfer of ownership of knowledge may not occur and the researcher leaves with the skills and newly acquired knowledge.
  • The collaborator – here the skills of the researcher compliment the skills of the participants. However, real collaboration takes a lot of time and may be unnecessary.  Stoecker argues that asking participants to collaborate in ways they are not interested in or have no time for is inefficient. Also collaboration may not fundamentally challenge existing arrangements to generate new knowledge and understanding for both community members and academics.

Stoecker argues that the tensions experienced in each of these roles is not a problem with the approach per se but with the idea that participatory research is essentially a research project.  This neglects broader goals: gaining knowledge and skills for the immediate problem; developing relationships; and engaging in actions that build self-sufficiency.  Research needs to be seen only as a method to acheive these goals.  In this light, “successful” participatory research, Stoecker proposes, depends on recognizing the importance of a broader range of roles – roles that an academic may or may not be able to play.

Participatory Roles

Stoecker outlines four roles (one person can fulfil multiple roles) in a participatory research project:

  • animator – whose role is to develop in the people a sense that they and their issues are important;
  • community organizer – whose role is to mobilize and organize the community – a role that Stoecker believes few academics have the skills for;
  • popular educator – whose role is to facilitate the learning process and help people discover what they already know and create new knowledge;
  • participatory researcher – whose role is “to  find the references quickly, can construct a survey blindfolded, and can create a research process either with strong guidance from community members or in collaboration with them.”  More than simply technically skilled, the participatory researcher has a “commitment to transforming the social relations of knowledge production and to democratic participation in the research process”.

Stoecker argues that understanding the different roles can help academic researchers better select their approach – initiator, consultant, collaborator – to engage in a participatory research project.  Stoecker presents a model where the academic needs to weigh up the type of project being considered, the level of community organization, and their own skills in the context of the roles that are filled or available in the project.

For example, if the community is disorganized, under-resourced and with limited capacity to fill the different roles, they need an initiator researcher. This may prove to be a very difficult role for an academic researcher as it requires so many more skills than simply doing research. For those academic researchers who are only comfortable with researching, Stoecker argues that they are limited to a consultant approach and to well-organized communities that are able to enact the other roles.  For those researchers suited to animator and popular educator roles, a collaborative approach is appropriate and this may suit disorganized groups, albeit with some organization to facilitate collaborative processes.

Stoecker places a high value on organizing skills arguing that researchers with these skills can potentially walk into any community and add value.  For those without such skills the questions to ask include “To what extent are the functional roles of animator, organizer, educator, and researcher filled? and “Which of the unfilled roles can I play?”.

Multiple Roles & Community Organization

Although Stoecker recognizes that one person may undertake multiple roles, he doesn’t explore how these roles might change over time and how academics and non-academics negotiate and may protect these roles. In addition, the connection between the need for participation in the research process and the level of community organization may need further consideration.

It seems that full participation in research is only important for “disorganized” communities as part of a community building process in contrast to “organized” communities who can more “efficiently” commission or contract out sections of the process in the interests of time.  The difficulty of this perception is that it has to assume that it is easy to identify organized communities, that organization has not undermined the values of equality and democracy in participatory research, and that the technical aspects of research are easily defined and can be infused with the values of the participants without their continued involvement. While it may make practical sense to ring-fence the research component within a participatory research project, I wonder if in doing so it can potentially disconnect research from action, reducing the critical reflection of both academic and participant and perhaps inadvertently privileging those who “commission” the research.

Having made a strong case identifying the difficulties of academics to engage in participatory research, Stoecker may have convinced academics to give participatory research a wide berth. For those still left, Stoecker offers a glimmer of hope (!)

“There are cases in which the academic is irrelevant and where we can do no good.  But also do not sell yourself short.  Even where the academic is not needed you may be able to help by documenting the struggle so that others may learn from it.”

Stoecker, R. (1999). Are Academics Irrelevant? Roles for Scholars in Participatory Research. American Behavioural Scientist, 42 (5), 840-854.


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