Recognizing PAR as a movement

Of all the articles I have read so far, an article by Orlando Fals Borda* is one that has probably impacted me the most.  Why?  Fals Borda articulates a motivation and vision behind PAR in such a way that a researcher considering PAR may find disconcerting.  A researcher that engages in PAR, in Fals Borda’s terms, is not simply engaging in a participatory method, they are joining a movement.

Fals Borda tracks the history of PAR from the early 1970s and the desire of its early proponents to engage in research with a “seriousness of purposes and cultivated discipline” comparable to traditional university research but with fundamentally different goals. Viewing science as socially constructed and therefore subject to re-interpretation, revision and enrichment, led researchers to ask a different set of questions about knowledge, the relationship between theory and practice and the research process. Emphasis was placed on previously unrecognized sources such as “the rebel, the heretical, the indigenous, and the common folk” and efforts focused on connecting popular thought with academic science.  Attention was placed on very practical problems in society as “science appeared in need of a moral conscience” and the accepted wisdom of researcher ‘neutrality’ and ‘objectivity’ was challenged as being more indicative of support for the status quo.

“Regular scientists may discover ways to travel to the moon, but their priorities and personal values may not permit them to solve messy problems for the poor woman who has to walk each day for water for her home.  The former is of primary interest for technical development as such; the latter is one of the persistent expressions of humanity.  We therefore declared that the common people deserved to know more about their life conditions in order to defend their interests, than do other social classes which monopolized knowledge, resources, techniques and power; in fact we should pay attention to knowledge production just as much as the usual insistence on material production, thus titling the scales towards justice for the underprivileged.

The early PAR researchers had to “decolonize themselves” from the dominant institutional logics in their University environment in order “to discover the reactionary traits and ideas in our minds”.   Once identified the PAR researcher would get directly involved in “processes of social action” demonstrating what Fals Borda describes as a “praxis-inspired commitment”, to use knowledge for the improvement of practice in contrast to the mass of redundant information produced by conventional science. The “researched” now became participants and involved from the very beginning of the research process and collective group research “became possible with the advantages of obtaining interesting, reliable and cross-referenced results”.  This approach is epitomized by an empathetic attitude which they termed vivencia, meaning life-experience.

Present Day PAR

Fals Borda still sees PAR researchers as part of a movement for change.

We feel there is still a need for active crusaders and heretics for the great adventure of peoples’ emancipation, in order to break the exploitative ethos that has permeated the world with poverty, oppression and violence for much too long.

Its multi-disciplinary approach and mixed methods are seen as critical for “investigating symptoms of social pathology like anomie, violence, conflict and drug addiction, so common in today’s world” and he poses as a challenge:

“Can we therefore be participative students and agents of change and work together in order to assist in this intellectual and political movement for people’s self-reliance and empowerment, for the defense of life and the pursuit of relevant, useful science?  Can we commit ourselves as scholars and citizens to this epoch-making task?

This question doesn’t always seem an obvious motivating factor for some of the research that associates itself with PAR.  The question is openly ideological, political and unhesitant in its call for research to be connected to social change – ideas that don’t neatly fit with an academic world that often values incremental inputs to established specialist conversations. Fals Borda’s view of PAR isn’t easy to manage as it inevitably raises controversial questions and complex challenges for all participants.  However, PAR projects become seen as part of a wider endeavor – in themselves small steps but cumulatively important – and the opportunity within PAR to make a tangible difference makes it incredibly compelling.

Fals Borda, O. (2006). Participatory (action) research in social theory: Origins and challenges. In P. Reason & H. Bradbury (Eds.) Handbook of action research (27-37). London: SAGE.

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