Mission Impossible: Doing PR as a Doctoral Student?

Participatory research methods may be becoming more acceptable within Universities but its openly ideological approach and challenge to conventional science may lead some to conclude that it is an approach only for those academics who have tenure or have found other forms of immunity.  Patricia Maguire*, however, shows that it can be done as a doctoral student – albeit with some particular challenges!

Maguire was living in a small multi-cultural community in New Mexico and decided that she would use PR in her doctoral project. She responded to a request she read on a local laundromat bulletin board asking for volunteers to help with women and children who had experienced domestic violence and, after volunteering for some time, she approached the nonprofit board to gain access to former clients, with the goal of setting up an independent battered women’s organization. She describes how she interviewed a number of women, how they were mobilized to meet and the challenges of running those meetings.

Some of her take-aways for doctoral students considering PR include:

  • Carve out time up-front – recognize that the initial stages of a PR project can be “very elongated” and require a lot of time.  There is no way to short-circuit this process of developing meaningful relationships although she points out that she started her project from scratch whereas it might be better for a student to either join an existing PR team or collaborate with an organization.

Collective work is messy and time-consuming. People may decide not to take action. They will surely not become empowered, liberated or transformed on our schedules.

  • Pure PR projects are rare – Maguire talks about her group being more of a consciousness-raising group rather than a research group and that the group did not formulate a specific research question or collectively design, conduct and control a PR investigation. However, at the end of the process group members talk of a rehumanizing process where they no longer felt alone and had firsthand experience of collective problem posing and solving.
  • The importance of resources – to sustain collective reflection and action over time requires considerable resources and Maguire argues that her group might have continued beyond her involvement if she had been more effective in connecting it to the local nonprofit agency.
  • PR has personal implications – Maguire writes about being “challenged daily to consider the dilemmas and contradictions of my own life choices”and her struggles with the process:

By working hard to motivate women to become active and regular group participants was I trying to make the project, also incidentally part of my dissertation, a success? Was this “contamination” of a true participatory research project? Was that fear itself a holdover from the old research paradigm?

  • Find faculty who are open to learning!  Obvious but essential!
  • Practical issues of PR – from the lack of transportation to enable participants to make the meetings to the difficulty in getting women to facilitate discussions reveals that the experience of running a PR process is a messy one and long term collective action isn’t inevitable:

At the meeting several of the most active members suggested that it would be a good time to stop, even if only for the summer. A few quieter members offered no opinion. Two members, who had no transportation nor had offered any active leadership throughout, were adamant that we continue. But the majority won out. After an evaluation discussion, we ended with a fried chicken dinner.

* Maguire, P. (1993). Challenges, contradictions, and celebrations: Attempting participatory research as a doctoral student. In P. Park, M. Brydon-Miller, B. Hall, & T. Jackson (Eds.) Voices of change: participatory research in the United States and Canada. Westport, Conn: Bergin & Garvey.


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