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This paper presents an exploration of participatory action research (PAR). First, it briefly surveys PAR’s historical evolution, then attempts to respond to the question: What is PAR? This is followed by an examination of the challenges and issues involved in using this methodology. Finally, there is a brief examination and reflection on the meaning of some of these issues for the conduct of my research.
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Running Head: Participatory Action Research
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Citation APA: Nelson, D. (2014). Participatory action research: A literature review. Unpublished
manuscript.
Participatory Action Research: A Review of the Literature
By
Dorothea Nelson
EDER 701.10 Introduction to Interpretive Inquiry
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This essay presents an exploration of participatory action research (PAR). First, I will
briefly survey PAR’s historical evolution, then attempt to respond to the question: What is PAR?
This will be followed by an examination of the challenges and issues involved in using this
methodology. Finally, I will briefly examine and reflect on the meaning of some of these issues
for the conduct of my research.
PAR’s Historical Evolution
The exact origins of participatory action research (PAR) is contested, however, writers,
including Reason and Bradbury (2008), MacDonald (2012) and Kemmis and McTaggart (2005),
trace the origins to Kurt Lewin a Prussian psychologist and Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany,
who after the second world war conducted a form of action research that sought to address such
social problems as segregation, discrimination, and assimilation. A critical part of Lewin’s
approach was the impulse towards initiating change and studying the impact of that change.
Lewin is also credited with coining the term “action research” to distinguish a client-centered
approach to the study of social systems with the intent of finding solutions to particular social
problems and bringing about change (MacDonald, 2012).
Kemmis and McTaggart (2005), while admitting that there were earlier “actionist”
approaches, track the evolution of PAR in terms of generations beginning with Lewin whose
work and reputation they describe as giving “impetus to the action research movements in many
different disciplines” (p. 272). The second generation built on a British approach to action
research in organizational development conducted by researchers such as John Elliott and Clem
Adelman. The third generation was initiated by researchers from Australia and parts of Europe
who advocated for more critical emancipatory approaches. Meanwhile a fourth generation,
participatory action research, evolved in developing countries advocated by researchers such as
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Paolo Freire who demanded a more “actionist” approach, and that participatory action
researchers should connect their research to broad social movements (Kemmis and McTaggart,
2005).
Conversely, Glassman and Erdem (2014) posit the development of two separate versions of
PAR. One reactionary version evolving in developed industrialized countries following World
War Two: Action research traced to Kurt Lewin sought to undermine "prejudice and
discrimination against religious and ethnic minorities" (p. 207) and PAR developed by Whyte to
examine and recalibrate organizational structure. Glassman and Erdem argue that since both
Lewin and Whyte sought "democratic participation and civic engagement, but the goal of action
was to resolve conflict between the majority and the minority in order to maintain the status quo
and social order", their research approaches were linear with centralized lines of development (p.
207). They trace the emergence of the more revolutionary second version of PAR during the
1960's and 1970's to developing societies, from Tanzania to India and South America, eager to
"throw off the intellectual, social, and material shackles of colonialism" (p. 207). Methodologies
such as Tanzania's participatory research, Brazil and Chile's Popular Research, and Columbia's
Action Research seemed to develop concurrently. All agree on the influence of Freire on the
development of PAR (Glassman and Erdem, 2014). Friere’s brand of PAR focused on
empowering the poor, disenfranchised and marginalized in society through championing such
issues as literacy, land reform and community. He “believed that critical reflection was crucial
for personal and social change” (p. 37). Given its varied strands from Asia, Africa, Europe and
the Americas, Williams (2007) describes PAR as a synthesis/fusion of two approaches –action
research sometimes referred to as the “Northern Tradition” and participatory research referred to
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as the “Southern Tradition” (p. 314). Williams also sees PAR evolving as “a research method
and an intervention for self-determination” (p. 314).
What then is PAR?
Depending on their focus and their different “birth disciplines”, writers offer different
definitions of PAR. PAR is not necessarily distinguishable from other methodologies by the
theories or methodological or conceptual frameworks that inform them, rather, it differentiates
itself because of “who defines research problems and who generates, analyses, represents, owns
and acts on the information which is sought” (Cornwall & Jewkes, 1995, p. 1968). Cornwall and
Jewkes (1991) suggest that it is in asking “who?” that we facilitate a close examination of the
meaning of PAR. Reason and Bradbury (2008) see PAR as active “living inquiry that aims, in a
great variety of ways, to link practice and ideas in the service of human flourishing” (p. 1). They
further describe PAR as,
A participatory process concerned with developing practical knowing in the
pursuit of worthwhile human purposes. It seeks to bring together action and
reflection, theory and practice, in participation with others, in the pursuit of
practical solutions to issues of pressing concern to people, and more generally the
flourishing of individual persons and their communities (p. 3).
This definition captures several important attributes of PAR –the concern for collaboration while
tackling social issues, Freire’s action, and reflection, but it is the result of PAR, that is, the
flourishing of the individual that I find most striking. PAR is a qualitative approach to inquiry
that builds capacity, focuses on community development, empowerment, access, social justice,
and participation; is democratic, equitable, liberating and life-enhancing, providing agency and
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giving voice to those in society who are marginalized from power and resources. PAR aims to
contribute to knowledge construction and to bring about social change and or transformation
(Kemmis, Stephen, and McTaggart, Robin, 2005, Lykes, Hershberg and Brabeck, 2011,
MacDonald, 2012, and Stoudt, B. G., 2009). One example of its use for knowledge construction
is that suggested by Sappington, Baker, Gardner and Pacha (2010), who propose action research
as a signature pedagogy in education. Action research is therefore seen in their study as a
teaching method. They suggest that PAR can be "a teaching-learning strategy that sharpens the
students’ awareness of the gap between existing conditions in schools and prospects for
significant improvement" (p. 250).
Reason and Bradbury (2008) derive five interdependent characteristics of action research
illustrated in figure one below. They posit that these characteristics while building on the
“language turn”, in which research focused on the social construction of knowledge, at the same
time suggest a move beyond it to a “participatory turn” and an “action turn” which challenges the
researcher to “consider how we can act in intelligent and informed ways in a socially constructed
world” (p. 5).
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Figure 1. Characteristics of Action Research (Reason and Bradbury, 2008)
Since conventional research methods can demand high levels of participant involvement
and not be considered participatory (Cornwall & Jewkes, 1995) it is necessary to delineate the
characteristics, principles, and practices that distinguish PAR from other methodologies.
Although expressing a hesitancy to use mechanistic descriptions of PAR, Kemmis and
McTaggart (2005) describe this research process in five sequential steps that spiral in self-
reflective cycles (See figure two below). First a change is planned, acted upon, and the process
and its consequences observed. This is followed by reflection on the process and its
consequences. Conclusions from the reflection inform re-planning, then the acting, observing
process occurs again, followed by reflection and so on, spiralling onwards. However, the writers
caution that in actuality the stages are not as discreet as the spiral indicates. Rather they overlap
and as the research progresses and lessons are learned through the collaborative evolving process
initial plans sometimes become obsolete (Kemmis & McTaggart, 2005).
Figure 2. The Action Research Spiral (Kemmis & McTaggart, 2005)
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Kemmis and McTaggart (2005) then go on to describe an additional seven distinctive
features of PAR as follows: 1) PAR is a social process deliberately exploring the relationship
between the individual and the social realms. 2) PAR is a participatory process through which
individuals explore and reflect on their knowledge and interpretations of themselves and their
actions. It is research done with participants on themselves, not research conducted by others on
participants. 3) PAR is a practical and collaborative process through which individuals examine
their social interactions with others with a goal of improving actions/interactions that are
irrational, unproductive, inefficient, unjust or alienating. 4) PAR is emancipatory encouraging
individuals to examine how social structures –cultural, economic and political, converge to limit
their self-development and self-determination with the goal of individuals working to either
release themselves from these constraints, or to develop ways of working successfully within
these structures while mitigating adverse effects. 6) PAR is a reflexive process through which
individuals “transform their practices through a spiral of cycles of critical and self-critical action
and reflection” (p. 282) on their practices, what they know about their practices, and the social
structures that change and/or inhibit their practices. 7) PAR aims to transform both theory and
practice. PAR does not recognize any superior subordinate relationship between theory and
practice, “rather, it aims to articulate and develop each in relation to the other through critical
reasoning about both theory and practice and their consequences” (p. 283).
McTaggart (1991) while admitting that establishing principles can be problematic, in an
attempt to theorize PAR proposes nine descriptive/prescriptive principles for PAR to distil
knowledge and to educate. These principles encapsulate the purpose and practice of PAR as
described above. They are as follows: 1) identification of the individual and collective project,
2) changing and studying discourse, practice, and social organization: the distribution of power,
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3) changing the culture of working groups, institutions, and society, 4) Action and reflection, 5)
unifying the intellectual and practical project, 6) knowledge production. 7) engaging the politics
of research action, 8) methodological resources, and 9) creating theory of the work (pp. 172-
179).
Critiques and Challenges of PAR
In spite of, or in rebuttal to PAR’s seemingly Utopian goals, this research methodology
faces several challenges and critiques ranging from problems with the goals of PAR, the
participants, to ethical issues particularly those related to university’s Institutional Review
Boards. These will be explored in this section of the essay.
Each researcher brings some uniquely different perspectives on the challenges they
experience, or observe others experience, when conducting PAR. McDonald (2012) highlights
several of these issues. The diversity of meanings resulting from the differing disciplinary
perspectives of researchers and the “interchangeable use of terms such as ‘action research,’
‘PAR,’ and ‘participatory research’” (p. 39). This, McDonald suggests, can be confusing for
novice researchers and those beginning to learn about PAR. The inclusion of community
members in the research process poses a challenge as well, since they might not share the values,
perspectives, and abilities of the researchers. There is also the question of the balance of power
and parity between researcher and participant/co-researchers. There might be disagreements
about what exactly is being studied and the trajectory of the study. Sometimes researchers
especially those new to the community experience problems accessing the community. Finally,
McDonald notes that researchers who choose this methodology might be called upon to prove
their legitimacy to colleagues who consider it a ‘soft’ method (McDonald, 2012).
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Stoudt, Fox and Fine (2012) in their PAR explored privilege on the assumption that it has
been under-theorized in the field of psychology, since researchers have focused on the
disenfranchised, the marginalized and those who have been discriminated against. They argue
that if researchers are to deal with social issues they should also focus on questions of power and
privilege.
Cornwall and Jewkes (1995) caution that participatory research approaches can be used for
negative purposes. They problematize participation and bring several issues to the fore. First
there is the issue of control. PAR is portrayed as an egalitarian methodology in which researcher
and participant are equal co-researchers. However, Cornwall and Jewkes suggest that the
community seldom shares and sometimes do not want control devolved to them. There are other
issues such as community skepticism about the benefits of participation, lack of interest,
difficulty finding people willing to participate –again because of lack of interest, demotivation,
or simply a lack of time; Lack of commitment to the process; the structure of the community
including factors such as wealth, gender, age, religion, ethnicity and power. Sometimes too,
PAR can have an unforeseen negative impact on the individual and society in general. Also,
researchers, particularly those trained in conventional methodologies, might experience difficulty
devolving control or sharing authority with the community. Because of the dichotomy created
between qualitative and quantitative methodologies researchers choosing PAR might find their
research is not regarded as a priority when seeking funding. Lastly, the researchers, even those
from within the community, can negatively influence the research because of their biases,
prejudices and beliefs (cornwall & Jewkes, 1995).
Other critiques of PAR include its Western slant. Williams (2007) argues that PAR has
lost its critical edge and that the literature regarding PAR is still “predominantly grounded in
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Western assumptions and cultural values” (p. 626) that can sometimes be at odds with the
assumptions and values of the community being studied. Simonds and Christopher (2013)
express a concern for the decolonization of research. Their research provide examples of the
tension between indigenous and Western forms of research. They explain that while Western
research principles value the anonymity of participants, in tribal communities telling an
individual’s story without including their names can be considered unethical within the
community in which they conducted their research. These ethical gaps need to be bridged. They
conclude with a call “for exploring, valuing, and using Indigenous knowledge and methods on an
equal footing with Western knowledge and methods, and for integrating Indigenous and Western
methods when appropriate” (Simonds & Christopher, 2013, p. 2119).
On the other hand Kemmis (2006) speaks to the importance of speaking truth to power and
pinpoints approaches to PAR that are inadequate and so inhibits the researcher’s ability to do so.
1. “Action research that aims only at improving techniques of teaching but does
not explore the broader underlying issues
2. Action research aimed at improving the efficiency of practices rather than their
efficacy and effectiveness evaluated in terms of the social, cultural, discursive
and material–economic historical consequences of practices.
3. Action research conducted solely to implement government policies or
programmes, in order to achieve conformity with what the policies or
programmes intend, without subjecting those intentions, their presuppositions,
and their frameworks of justification to critical examination
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4. Action research that understands the improvement of practice only from the
perspectives of professional practitioners (like teachers, nurses or managers),
without genuinely engaging the voices and perspectives of others
5. Action research conducted by people acting alone rather than in open
communication with other participants” (Kemmis, 2007, p. 460)
Yet another challenge faced by PAR researchers is problems regarding ethics and
universities’ Institutional Review Boards (IRB). In the article “Addressing the Ethical
Challenges of Community-based Research” Brydon-Miller (2012) addresses several challenges
faced by researchers in relation to IRB’s. She references the following comment made by
Brydon-Miller, Greenwood, and Maguire, “a respect for people and for the knowledge and
experience they bring to the research process, a belief in the ability of democratic processes to
achieve positive social change, and a commitment to action” (as cited in Brydon-Miller, 2012, p.
157) and notes that those values are at the core of action research. She suggests that it is from
these values that certain basic guiding principles can be derived for the conduct of the research
process. These basic principles include autonomy, sovereignty, beneficence, justice, caring,
respect, commitment, transparency and democratic practice (Brydon-Miller, 2012, p. 157).
In addition to the above, researchers deal with challenges with their university’s Review
Boards. Lykes, Hershberg, and Brabeck (2011) noted that during their study "restrictions... have
arisen at multiple points in the project, significantly slowing the process" (p. 29). They further
note the apprehensions of IRB's in relation to "community-based participatory approaches,
including PAR, which require open-ended, collaborative, and iterative research designs and
methodologies, incite concern in IRBs" (p. 29). The researcher then navigates relations between
two audiences, the local community and the "community of scholars who set many of the
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standards for what constitutes rigorous, ethical and/or publishable work" (p. 29). This can
sometimes lead to the researcher (in this case the PhD student) having to manage and negotiate
what might be the conflicting goals of obtaining a PhD and advocating for the voiceless.
Brydon-Miller (2012) posits that action research can be used to respond to three critical
challenges faced by researchers. First there is the university's IRB’s concern that human subjects
are not "involved in control of the research process" (p. 159). Instead of the traditional
hierarchical structure that privileges the researcher's knowledge and experience, action research
offers a collaborative process. The participant's autonomy is normally limited to refusal or
agreement to participate in the research process, while in action research the participant is
actively involved in the decision-making process. In addition, the writer points to the
establishment of community IRB's or Community Advisory Board (CAB) in some indigenous
communities in response to this concern. However, although community IRB's facilitate a shift
in review power to the community, they also cause an ethical concern in that the CAB's are
based on the principle of community sovereignty and this assumption might undermine the
principle of individual autonomy as might occur if an individual wants to participate in research,
but it is not approved by the CAB. Researchers might be guilty of "overlooking power dynamics
within these communities themselves which may privilege some while silencing others.
Inequality based on gender, age, class and caste location can all influence who is allowed to
participate in these decision-making processes and who is excluded" (p. 160). Brydon-Miller
also expresses ethical concerns in reference to guidelines for the collection and dissemination of
digital or electronic media such as photovoice and digital storytelling when community
researchers are issued cameras to capture photographs relevant to the research. There is a
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tension between the ownership rights of the university, the photographers, and the right of
communities to use that work to advocate for change.
Another issue dealt with by the writer is that caused by the expectation that researchers be
"responsible members of society" (Brydon-Miller, 2012, p. 161). Most benefits seem to accrue
to the researcher who presents at conferences from which the participants are excluded, publish
in academic journals, have opportunities for promotion, tenure, and research funding while the
participants have limited access to the research. According to the writer
we can no longer support a system of knowledge feudalism in which a relatively
small number of people maintain control of the processes and products of knowledge
production. The principles of justice, transparency, respect, and democratic practice
demand a fundamental shift in the way research is carried out and the knowledge
created through the process is made available" (p. 161).
The ethical question of who benefits from research is also dealt with by Lykes, Hershberg, and
Brabeck (2011). They proffer that research should be mutually beneficial. They deem the idea
of the researcher/s alone conducting data analysis with participants only offering feedback
problematic; noting that participants had not acquired the skills to do similar research on their
own.
Reflection
Insight into challenges faced by those involved in PAR has forced me to consider the
challenges that I might face during the research process. These include fears of participants,
stresses of everyday life, tensions between commitment/involvement in the project and priorities
of participants and the workplace, geographical distance between researcher and participants and
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between participants, anything that might impinge on participants’ ability to collaborate and
engage meaningfully in the process. What is referred to by Lykes, Hershberg and Brabeck
(2011) as "the lines of inclusion and exclusion" (p. 28), which can be drawn for example along
organizational structure –supervisors versus library assistants. Other issues include restrictions
by Institutional Review Boards as examined by Brydon-Miller (2012).
The idea of giving voice and agency has particular resonance for me and my research since
the participants are not only absent from academic discourse but also from the discourses in the
workplace since because they lack formal training they either do not participate or have only
limited participation in decision-making processes/discourses, patron staff discourses, and staff
ministry discourses. The propositions for indigenizing research is relevant here. Underlying my
course design is the requirement that it be culturally sensitive. Like Simonds and Christopher
(2013) I now see this as a part of the decolonization process since I will be respecting my
cultural heritage through making it appear where appropriate in my research. I also had concerns
about whether designing and teaching a course can be considered emancipatory, but during my
research I found this issue addressed by Kemmis (2006), who while acknowledging that
education for emancipation might be considered utopian, argues that this view is “a counsel of
despair”, that “it is not utopian to hope for education that emancipates … from irrational forms
of thinking, unproductive ways of working, unsatisfying forms of life … or from unjust forms of
social relations” (p. 463). He indicates that if we do not educate to emancipate the result will be
“acceptance of social evils … docility and compliance with the-powers-that-be” (p. 463). I am
now more focused on research not only within the library setting but also within the social milieu
of Antigua and Barbuda and the wider Caribbean community. I hope that my research will
contribute to the ongoing conversation and evolution of PAR as it is conducted in a new context.
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Reference
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