Quality Choice-points in Participatory Research

The issue of quality in participatory research is often difficult to nail.  Hilary Bradbury and Peter Reason* propose that the answer to the question – are we [researchers] doing good work? – is answered by considering quality in relation to five key issues:

  • relationships;
  • practical outcomes;
  • extended ways of knowing;
  • purpose;
  • and enduring consequence.

Getting to grips with Quality

Bradbury and Reason explore each of these central issues in participatory research to articulate ways to assess quality.

a) Quality as relational praxis – involves considering whether participation in the research process has been maximized.   A mark of quality…

people will get energized and empowered by being involved, through which they may develop newly useful, reflexive insights as a result of a growing critical consciousness.  They may ideally say that “this was our research and it helped us to see ourselves and our context anew and to act in sorts of new ways”. p344

b) Quality as reflexive-practical outcome – an assessment as to whether the research has generated alternative practices.  A mark of quality…

participants should say – “that was useful – I am using what I learned”

c) Quality as plurality of knowing – relates to: “conceptual-theoretical integrity” – the degree to which theory is anchored in people’s experience and whether theory has been used to “bring order to complex phenomena; extending ways of knowing – drawing not only on conversations and writing but also other forms of expression such as theatre, video, poetry, photography; and methodological appropriateness – choosing methods that fit a “relational world view”.

Does it promote further knowing by raising new questions or by allowing us to ‘see through’ old conceptual frameworks so that they are newly experienced as more limiting than enabling? p 345

d) Quality as engaging in significant work – examining the reasons for the purpose of the research.

So why are we are doing this work and why this way?

e) Emergent inquiry towards enduring consequence – considering the long term impact of the inquiry.

The evolutionary, emergent form of inquiry – sustaining the work of action research is often the outcome of a logic of structurated action in which the dyadic or small group micro-engagement of people working on a project together convened around an area of mutual concern manifests in an ongoing patterning of behaviors at a more macro-level p348 –

Ideally people will say “This work continues to develop and help us”.

Choice-points & Quality

Bradbury and Reason argue that these 5 issues represent choice-points for researchers.  While they recognize that the issues overlap they believe that researchers are unlikely to be able to deal with all of these issues within a project and instead are likely to concentrate on one.  Some will give primacy to one issue, such as practical outcomes, whereas others such as a dissertation student will focus on conceptual-propositional integrity.  Once made, they should then focus on answering questions of quality related to that choice.

The strength of connecting quality to these five broad issues allows Bradbury and Reason to accommodate a broad range of perspectives and research situations. It reflects the context-bound nature of participatory research and its emergent nature unsuited to an overly prescriptive approach to quality that could be restrictive and detrimental to participation.

The weakness of such an approach, however, is that allowing researchers “choice-points” may allow them to “cop-out”.  A PhD student, for example, might point to the quality of the theoretical contribution but now feel that it is legitimate to ignore the relational and long-term impact of the research, especially if those components of the inquiry didn’t go to plan, while still labeling the research as “participatory”. This might be partially overcome if the researcher has to negotiate their “choice-points” up front with their participants.  One other area of concern is that some choice-points seem potentially easier to demonstrate than others.  Bradbury and Reason point out that few researchers spend time justifying the purpose of their research in contrast to those who demonstrate practical outcomes presumably because it easier to point to specific practices than expose complex and often self-interested motivations.

As participatory research continues to become more popular the issue of quality will become more pressing.  The choice-points approach offers a framework and some challenging open-ended questions but distinguishing the “good” from the “not so good” will need to become more sophisticated.  In the interim, I wonder if the choice-points should not be viewed as ‘choices’ but considered as essential ‘discussion-points’ in every project. This could open up the project to critical appraisal and ensure the researcher assesses and presents the strengths and weaknesses of their inquiry to multiple audiences.  This might make issues of quality more transparent (quality isn’t simply choosing an area that fits the results) to enable participants and others to judge the credibility of its process and results.

Bradbury, H., & Reason, P. (2006). Broadening the bandwith of validity: Issues and choice-points for improving the quality of action research. In P. Reason & H. Bradbury (Eds.) Handbook of action research (343-351). London: SAGE.

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