The Future of Participatory Research

I thought it would be apt to write my last post (certainly for a few weeks!) drawing on the concluding reflections of Peter Reason and Hilary Bradbury in the latest Sage Handbook on Action Research Participatory Inquiry and Practice.  Their conclusions are wide ranging and so I will continue, as I have in the last few posts, to summarize and comment on how these ideas might influence participatory approaches in general, also seeking, where appropriate, to connect ideas specifically to PAR.

Concentrating on the Big Issues

Reason and Bradbury invited contributors to the handbook to point to key issues facing researchers engaged in participatory research.  An important theme they identify involves encouraging researchers to connect to the “big issues” of our time – research with a “global ambition” – on issues such as poverty, ecological catastrophes, water distribution and HIV/AIDS.   And yet there is also a recognition that the track record of participatory research in facilitating large-scale change is not that impressive.  Where it is used in managing change, there are concerns that it is viewed as an “instrumental tool” thereby losing its radical edge and silent on questions on the reasons for change and on identifying the winners and losers of a change process.  Mary Brydon-Miller writes

“action research seems to have gained a popularity of late, and it’s this very popularity and potential watering down of our vision for social changes that will accompany it that are of greatest concern for me.”

In fact increasing the legitimacy of participatory methods seems a double edge sword – on the one hand it provides researchers with more opportunities to study participatory approaches but on the other hand it potentially waters down its liberatory and emancipatory philosophy.  Brinton Lykes puts it the challenge in no uncertain terms…

“As we labor for quality and validity – which are, are they not, legitimacy and recognition – and celebrate the recognition of AR within the panoply of legitimate research methodologies in universities, NGOs, the World Bank and the UN, can we simultaneously press for the revolutionary change needed to ensure life on earth and justice for the human community….What is the meaning of earning wages including research dollars that situate us within the top quartile of the world’s income distribution when those who we collaborate frequently live on less than $2 a day or lack healthcare or housing?”

Some Thoughts

In the last few weeks I have read a fraction of the literature on participatory methods but I am leaning towards some tentative conclusions.  Not only is the act of participatory research incredibly difficult with complex ethical and practical dilemmas but also the outcome of the research, despite good intent, is often very limited in terms of social change.  In addition, the role of a participatory researcher seems particularly challenging –  to be part bricoleur, innovatively using the resources at hand, part connector, weaving together ideas, relationships and networks to enable creative conversations, and part politician, negotiating interests and adapting to changing environments – to name but a few roles.  To add a participatory element to research is relatively easy but those who seek to fully embrace the participatory mindset probably require a unique combination of skills, a sense of injustice and opportunities to collaborate on projects where their input can assist collective action. It makes structural equation modeling look like a walk in the park and fleetingly attractive – but if you want to change the world then who said it would be easy?!

Note: Over the next few weeks I am working on paper exploring how a PAR approach might inform research into institutional work – any comments/thoughts always appreciated either through the blog or direct –  Cheers!

Reason, P. & Bradbury, H. Concluding reflections: Wither Action Research? In P. Reason & H. Bradbury (Eds.) The SAGE handbook of action research: participative inquiry and practice. Los Angeles, Calif: SAGE.


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