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Participatory Action Research

Participatory methods are used in a wide range of fields, from product design through epidemiology to software engineering. Specific methods may be diverse, however meaningful participatory research always involves users or research subjects in setting research agendas, fine-tuning objectives, gathering and processing data, interpreting or reflecting on results. In a participatory setting, interests are balanced, and responsibilities between involved users, subjects, beneficiaries, and experts are shared in a transparent and accessible manner.

Those who have the most to lose often have the least power to influence research and policy processes. Literature on policy analysis increasingly shows that by bringing in the public through participatory and deliberative approaches, policy-making can be successfully influenced even by those who are living in extreme poverty, marginalised or excluded. Approaches such as Participatory Assessments (PA), Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA), Rapid Rural Appraisal (RRA) and Participatory Action Research (PAR) have become, according to Chambers, a growing family of methods that enable local people to share, enhance and analyse their knowledge, and to plan and act together.

Local realities are captured through local people’s perspectives, and are debated in constructive dialogue among stakeholders on issues of common concern. This requires a complete reversal in attitude by the experts, moving away from the ‘cult of expertise’ that in these circumstances only reproduces social inequalities. According to Chambers, “self-critical epistemological awareness” is needed in order for experts to act as facilitators in local knowledge settings.

The emphasis in participatory arrangements is on how to create communicative arenas open to all stakeholders, and particularly to powerless lay-members of local communities, in order to arrive at collective and mutual understanding. Collaborative actions are generated through engagement with all aspects, from problem structuring to reporting.

Transdisciplinary research, such as participatory research, brings disciplinary researchers and local actors together in a collaborative process. Meaningful cooperation requires strong social and communication skills to integrate different perspectives and action domains.

According to Pohl and Hirsch Hadorn, transdisciplinary research is defined by the need to grasp the complexity of problems, to take into account the diversity of life-world and scientific perceptions of problems, to link abstract and case-specific knowledge, and to develop knowledge and practices that promote what is perceived to be the common good. In this context, transdisciplinary research proves to be useful in producing normative and practice-oriented knowledge to solve complex life-world problems.

Most participatory research focuses on public health, education, food security and poverty reduction, offering effective and acceptable policy instruments for national and local contexts. Such participatory policy-focused research helps to uncover how social reality is lived and resisted on the grassroots level, therefore policies are considered more transformative than are simple technocratic interventions. Criticisms of participatory arrangements most often point to the lack of principled theory, which implies that practitioners do what they believe will work in various contexts. Structural inequalities and existing institutional and power relations are often blamed, because local realities cannot be readily reconciled with the ideal of broad and equal participation. Binary opposites such as local/global and state/civil society need to be overcome in order for participatory arrangements to be relevant.

According to Pretty, in such arrangements participation must be considered a right – not a tool to achieve goals. Participation in interactive forms builds on self-mobilisation, and results in participatory learning processes where groups take control over local decisions, determining how resources are used or how they can have a stake in maintaining practices. A central criticism of participatory arrangements relates to the role of research itself, and to the defined role of researcher, who at some point must inevitably implement the value-laden process of problem structuration and synthesis of the research.

Another potential problem is the influence of local representation that shapes participatory research, in other words, how to break away from prevailing local structural inequalities through a participatory process which is designed around consensus-building. According to Bodorkós and Pataki, hindrances in creating communicative spaces equally open to all can be traced back to the difficulties of changing historically-rooted, paternalistic relationships between local people and local establishments, and the lack of a sense of self-efficacy and self-confidence of marginalised people in expressing their wants.

The application of Participatory Action Research (PAR) methods implies that the research should be conceptualised as a process of mutual learning as well as co-construction. On one hand, self-reflexive researchers are needed who are aware that they are part of the system that they are trying to understand (Norgaard, 1994). On the other hand, scientifically trained researchers and local people are knowledgeable, self-reflective and creative subjects and should have an equal standing in the research process. Moreover, this self-critical epistemological awareness (Chambers, 2000) embodied in doing participatory research should be extended to power relations both within the local communities in question and between researchers representing academic institutes and local lay people.

Participatory approaches emphasise the importance of experiential knowledge. The research component of PAR is a tool for action, not an end in itself. For the knowledge generation, participatory processes are required to involve and evolve stakeholders’ perceptions and values through learning. The PAR approach puts an emphasis on the systematic testing of theories in live-action contexts and contributes to the development of deliberative institutional arrangements; therefore it may offer valuable methodological tools and theoretical insights. Epistemologically, the PAR approach is in line with a hermeneutic, constructivist research process.

SciCafe2.0 will provide a platform, Citizens’ Say, for interaction which facilitates knowledge-ful debates around controversial issues to reach common understanding among contending parties. Through SciCafe2.0, the associated role of the Observatory Support Agency helps build up the capacity to handle controversial issues in a productive way.

See also
Rogers, D and Balázs, B. 2013 (forthcoming). The View from Deprivation: Poverty, Inequality, and the Distribution of Wealth. In: Pogge, T., Köhler, G., Cimadamore, A.D. (eds). Poverty & the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs): A critical assessment and a look forward. London: Zed Books.

Balázs, B., Bela, G., Bodorkós, B., Milánkovics, K. & Pataki, G. Preserving Bio- and Sociodiversity through Participatory Action Research. Living Knowledge, International Journal of Community Based Research 5, 11-13 (2005).

Bodorkós, B. & Pataki, G. Local communities empowered to plan?: Applying PAR to establish democratic communicative spaces for sustainable rural development. Action Research 7, 313-334 (2009).

Pohl, C. & Hadorn, G. H. Methodological challenges of transdisciplinary research. Natures Sciences Sociétés 16, 111-121 (2008).

Chambers, R: 2000. Us and them: finding a new paradigm for professionals in sustainable development. In: Warburton, D. (Ed.) Community and Sustainable Development. Earthscan, London 116–147.

Norgaard, R.B. 1994. Development Betrayed. Routledge, London
Reason, P., Bradbury, H. 2001. (Eds.) Handbook of Action Research. Participatory Inquiry & Practice. Sage, London,

Chambers, R. Whose reality counts? Putting the first last. (Intermediate Technology Publications, 1997).

Mohan, G. & Stokke, K. Participatory development and empowerment: The dangers of localism. Third World Quarterly 21, 247–268 (2000).
Pretty, J. Participatory learning for sustainable agriculture. World Development 23, 1247-1263 (1995).

Greenwood, D. J. "Participatory Action Research." Encyclopaedia of Social Science Research Methods. 2003. SAGE Publications. URL: