The PAR balancing act

The issue of control – the way a PAR project is run and managed – seems to be a practical dilemma for many PAR researchers.  Andrew Sense* gives an insight into the difficulties he faced in a PAR process involved in help employees in an Australian mine participate with an organizational change programme.  His work with a small project team exposed him to the challenge of wanting to participate in the context but also to control the process to meet his research needs. The problem of too much control, he argues, is that the project can lose the benefits of participatory “insights”, but an over-emphasis on participation can lead the process to “meander aimlessly”, wasting time and resources. Balancing the needs of the researcher and the importance of participation so that participants can actively engage in an evolving research process is a complex challenge. Sense describes some important decision points in his project where participation or control needs were sometimes emphasized and sometimes downplayed to ensure project momentum.

Weight on control or participation?

Sense gives examples of how placing weight on control or participation impacted his project.  He describes how at the start of the project, when the roles and expectation of the participants were being discussed, he placed the emphasis on participation even though he had considerable industry and leadership experience in managing organizational change.  He explains how this participatory approach enabled him to better appraise the participants’ “biases for action”, their social, political and personal motivations to achieve research and organizational outcomes, by having the time to build relationships. However, as time went on Sense was confronted with external pressures to be more controlling.  The project team was expanded to 16, the Factory manager “directly and decisively intervened in the operation of the project team” and Sense’s role required him to become more controlling of the process.

Some thoughts on Control…

Sense points to some real tensions in a PAR process – the list of tensions seems to be growing as I read more about PAR!  The difficulty of participating in a PAR project and also meeting the needs of the academic community is a general theme and the PAR process seems especially messy. Researchers seem caught between trying to assist in developing practical solutions for very specific problems and also attempting to carve out the space to develop theory and ideas for a very different audience.  Understanding who is in control and when they are in control seem good questions to ask. However, in this case I am unsure if Sense is really describing a PAR project and because of this a wider issue of control is potentially masked.  He talks about PAR as a “method” and he applies this to working with a team of 3 senior managers adapting and implementing organizational change. With PAR squeezed into an organizational change process already determined by the firm’s management, I wonder if the issue of control at the micro-level (between researcher and participants) is largely irrelevant.  The important question, here, might be around how a PAR researcher can avoid being manipulated. A participatory process to ensure the smooth introduction of a prescribed change doesn’t fit comfortably with ideas associating PAR with democracy, reducing inequality, self-determination and collaborations with personal and collective benefits.  PAR is vulnerable in these contexts as it offers those with a vested interest in change a way to gain legitimacy and reduce resistance by showing a willingness to engage in dialogue. This raises the importance for PAR researchers to not only recognize the controlling interests outside of the direct PAR process that shape and influence the environment in which the PAR project operates, but also to assess whether they individually have the means to gain the space to deliver transformative change with long-term effects..

Sense, A. (2006). Driving the Bus from the Rear Passenger Seat: Control Dilemmas of Participative Action Research. International Journal of Social Research Methodology. 9 (1), 1-13.

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