PAR Challenges

Some of the challenges to PAR are either aimed broadly at PAR as an approach or relate to specific tensions experienced by researchers in the field. They include:

  • Theoretical contribution

Jean Bartunekl (1993) argues that the contribution of action research to scholarly thinking has not been very great although this is changing. The challenge is to describe with “some precision” the collaborative practices actually involved in interventions and the mediating mechanisms (p1223). In addition, with PAR’s emphasis on participants as co-researchers whose insider local knowledge is as necessary for valid scientific sensemaking as outsider technical expertise and abstract general knowledge, the implication is that participants can contribute to scholarly as well as practical outcomes of a PAR project. Researchers and participants “interpreting and writing together about their joint endeavours is a fairly logical step in the PAR process” (p1231) offering a more “complete picture’ of the change process.

  • Research Tension: Scientific Rigor or Relevance

Chris Argyris and Donald Schön (1989) argue that PAR, in focusing on being relevant, can fall short of rigorous analysis. They examine the Xerox case (see post) and argue that the researchers don’t adequately explain the causal chain – in other words, make a compelling and transparent argument of the link between participation and productivity. This involves identifying alternative explanations and dismissing them with evidence as well as providing more information on the actual process of change for prospective imitators. The case also starts with a crisis and Argyris and Schön argue that real learning would have come from examining how that crisis occurred in the first place rather than simply using the crisis as a means of gaining participation. Examining the crisis would have, in their view, exposed defensive routines (undiscussable practices that organizations use to prevent them experiencing embarrassment or threat) that, if tackled, would have resulted in “double-loop” or continued learning.

  • PAR Methods – sometimes unchallenged?

John Campbell (2002) argues that participatory research fails to “problematize” and explain its actual use of techniques which undermine its validity. In focusing on Participatory Rural Appraisal, a participatory research approach, he states that “practitioners pay little attention to the published literature discussing the limitations of the techniques”. In particular he examines the use of group interviews and visualization techniques. He argues that there is little awareness of the role of facilitators in group dynamics and the issues around selecting group members. In the case of visualization techniques – mapping a locality, time lines, VENN diagrams – he believes that practitioners seem “unaware of the ‘skills’ needed by local people to take part in visualization exercises” and the “implicit western cultural bias that the technique reflects”. Camppbell believes that the lack of transparency in reporting the techniques used in participatory research undermines its validity and he argues that practitioners need to document the research process in “such a way that the reader can be confident of, and can verify, the reported conclusions”. This raises a much larger issue around how PAR should be judged by the academic community….what are appropriate measures of validity?

  • Objectivity of the Researcher who becomes an “insider” (see post).
  • Determining who is Marginalized? – PAR researchers seem clear in who is marginalized – but a freedom fighter to one is a terrorist to another…..does it matter and what might be the implications for the research “claims”?
  • Mutual learning or agitation around the researcher’s agenda (see post).
  • Double participation (see post)
  • The holy grail of a holistic method – great in theory but only an ideal? (see post)
  • PAR under time pressure – Geraldine Pratt (2007) writes of the importance of having the necessary time to build the trust, skills and community enthusiasm for collaborative projects.
  • PAR dangers – of fixing the life and identity of the teller in victimhood (Pratt, 2007).

June 10th (update June 14th)

Some posts that might be helpful…conventional research, emergence,

Some References

Argyris, C., & Schon, D. A. (1989). Participatory Action Research and Action Science Compared: A Commentary. American Behavioral Scientist. 32 (5), 612-23. A fundamental difference to the research?

Bartunekl, J. M. 1993. Scholarly dialogues and participatory action research. Human Relations, 46(10): 1221-1233.

Campbell, J. 2002. A critical appraisal of participatory methods in development research. International Journal of Social Research Methodology, 5(1): 19-29.

Pratt, G. (2007). Working with migrant communities: Collaborating with the Kalayaan Centre in Vancouver, Canada. In S. Kindon, R. Pain, & Kesby, M. (2007). Participatory action research approaches and methods: connecting people, participation and place. Routledge studies in human geography, 22. London: Routledge.


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