PAR adopts a very different approach to conventional research in the way it actively engages participants in the research process, from research design to dissemination. Deborah Tolman and Mary Brydon-Miller (2001) argue that PAR challenges a positivistic approach of science where the focus is on knowable truths, eliminating bias and subjectivity, quantifying constructs into measurable units, and prediction and control. Instead PAR, they propose, in rejecting the possibility of a neutral stance to research, is concerned with the subjectivity of participants, a commitment to research that has implications beyond publication in peer-review journals, and an acknowledgement of the relationships between researchers and participants. So PAR challenges not only the status of researchers as experts but also raises questions about how knowledge is generated.
The view that trained researchers should enter a field with predefined sets of hypotheses that have emerged out of past findings, to collect data using ‘objective’ methods, leave with minimal disruption and not contaminate the site or their results in order to develop theoretical insights, primarily for other academics, hardly fits with the PAR model. PAR research is messy, with research questions generated by the participants – both of which can change over time. PAR researchers are not dispassionate about those they are working with and often they create strong relationships with people immersed in a process to help change their circumstances. It is through the interactions between participants that they believe that knowledge is generated. The goal isn’t research for its own sake – it’s research focused on making a practical difference to the participants. This means that the actual research methods used can vary significantly with each PAR project – PAR researchers use both qualitative and quantitative techniques.
However, there are some significant issues with the ‘research’ component. First, few PAR projects have full involvement of the participants in the entire research process. For example, data analysis is often done by the researcher on their own which may be due to the time constraints of the participants, trust in the researcher skills or a recognition that full participation in data analysis can create vulnerability in a group that may be damaging (Cahill, 2007).
Second, research in academia is often associated with the development and refinement of theories. In PAR projects the research is not primarily theory development per se and refers more to the practice of collecting and presenting information to inform and mobilize collective action. New theories may emerge from this process but the emphasis is on generating local knowledge that improves conditions. This can create real tensions for academic researchers who need to navigate meeting the needs of the participants and their own needs to develop ideas that might have application in other contexts.
Third, for some academics PAR is not research at all. It is consultancy or political activism in disguise that uses the term ‘research’ to provide its proponents with a cover of legitimacy and credibility that hides the highly subjective nature of its design, data collection and analysis. To cope with such criticisms requires researchers with significant tenacity and the ability to navigate the often vastly different worlds in which their research takes place and that of academia. For example, disseminating the findings of a PAR project for a community may be through websites, drama productions and informal conversations in contrast to peer-reviewed journals, conferences and formally taught courses. This is not an approach to research for the faint-hearted or those who prefer to work alone!
June 13th (updated June 14th)
Cahill, C. (2007). Participatory data analysis. 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.
Tolman, D. L., & Brydon-Miller, M. (2001). From subjects to subjectivities: a handbook of interpretive and participatory methods. Qualitative studies in psychology. New York: New York University Press.