Participation is the central ingredient of this research approach. The label ‘participatory’ signals “a political commitment, collaborative processes and participatory worldview” (Kindon et al, 2007: 11). The impact of stressing participation is that all those involved in PAR projects are known as participants, not subjects or informants, who actively engage in research that is motivated by and focused on meeting their needs.
The difficulty is that the term “participation” covers a multitude of different levels of engagement. Participation may describe an active involvement in all aspects of a PAR project or be limited to particular stages and times. Who participates, how they participate, when they participate and why they participate are questions that expose real differences amongst researchers and this is reflected in the wide range of diverse projects that identify themselves as PAR.
To create some clear blue water between researchers who evoke participation in tokenist ways to those who seek to collaborate throughout the research process leads to the development of participation continuums. The ladder model of Arnstein (1969) distinguishes between co-option, compliance, consultation, cooperation, co-learning and collective action, reflecting increasing levels of participant control and benefit. Pretty et al (1995) start with passive participation and move towards more interactive participation and finally self-mobilization (Kindon et al, 2007 have a great diagram on this on page 16). Biggs (1989) draws a line between contractual, consultative, collaborative and collegiate participation. These make a lot of sense but seem to represent ideal types. In practice, it seems that researchers often have to deal with different levels of participation as the interest and priorities of the group shift and change, as well as take into account the skills within the group. Greenwood et al (1993) point to the importance of distinguishing between the participatory intent of the project and the reality.
In addition, there is a danger of viewing participation as a single activity – ignoring the interactions between the diversity of individual interests, assuming that the group has a clear and consistent identity and that the goals of the project are coherent and uncontested. Exploring the relationship between participation, power and politics within the group and the effect of the participatory process on external stakeholders needs to be considered. What seems to unite the participatory approaches though is that the researcher is not the primary actor. The participants, to varying degrees, shape and mould the research process to their own ends.
June 12th 2008.
Arnstein, S.R. (1969). A ladder of citizen participation. Journal of the American Institute of Planners, 35(4):216-224.
Biggs, S. (1989). Resource-poor farmer participation in research: a synthesis of experiences from nine national agricultural research systems. The Hague, Netherlands: International Service for National Agricultural Research.
Greenwood, D. J., Whyte, W. F., & Harkavy, I. (1993). Participatory Action Research as a Process and as a Goal. Human Relations, 46 (2), 175.
Pretty, J. N. (1995). A Trainer’s guide for participatory learning and action. IIED participatory methodology series. London: Sustainable Agriculture Programme, International Institute for Environment and Development.
Kindon, S. L., Pain, R., & Kesby, M. (2007). Participatory action research approaches and methods: connecting people, participation and place. Routledge studies in human geography, 22. London: Routledge.