Participatory Research

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Participatory research integrates scientific investigation with education and political action. Researchers work with members of a community to understand and resolve community problems, to empower community members, and to democratize research. The methods of participatory research include group discussions of personal experience, interviews, surveys, and analysis of public documents. Topics that have been investigated with this approach include community issues such as polluted water supplies and the school curriculum, employment issues such as working conditions and unionization, and theoretical issues about consent and resistance to domination. For social scientists who question the traditions of being detached and value-free, and who seek an approach that is less hierarchical and that serves the interests of those with little power, participatory research is a valuable alternative.

Participatory research can be identified by five characteristics: (1) participation by the people being studied; (2) inclusion of popular knowledge; (3) a focus on power and empowerment; (4) consciousness raising and education of the participants; and (5) political action. A precise definition should be avoided so that each group that does participatory research can be free to develop some of its own methods.

Participation in the research process by the people being studied is best viewed as a continuum that includes low levels of participation, such as asking people who are interviewed to read and comment on the transcripts of their interviews, as well as high levels of participation. Ideally, community members have a significant degree of participation and control, and help to determine the major questions and overall design of the study. Second, participatory research validates popular knowledge, personal experience and feelings, and artistic and spiritual expressions as useful ways of knowing. If researchers are to work with community members as co-investigators, they must respect people's knowledge. Moreover, one of the rationales for community participation in research is the assumption that people understand many aspects of their situation better than outsiders do. Practitioners have used group discussions, photography, theater, and traditional tales to draw on popular knowledge (Barndt 1980; Luttrell 1988).

A focus on power and empowerment also distinguishes most participatory research. "The core issue in participatory research is power. . . the transformation of power structures and relationships as well as the empowerment of oppressed people," states Patricia Maguire in her excellent analysis of the field (1987, p. 37). Participatory researchers differ widely in their positions on empowerment, and include radicals who try to transform the power structure by mobilizing peasants to wrest land from the ruling class, as well as conservatives who ignore power relations and focus on limited improvements such as building a clinic or a collective irrigation system.

The fourth characteristic of participatory research—consciousness raising and education—is closely related to power. Group discussions and projects typically attempt to reduce participants' feelings of self-blame and incompetence, and try to relate personal problems to unequal distributions of power in the community and the society. Participants often become visibly more confident and effective as they speak out in discussions, learn that others share some of their experiences, and learn research skills and relevant technical information.

Finally, participatory research includes political action, especially action that cultivates "critical consciousness" and is oriented toward structural change, not toward adjusting people to oppressive environments (Brown and Tandon 1983). Some scholars argue that "real" participatory research must include actions that radically reduce inequality and produce "social transformation." Research and action, from this perspective, should be guided by a general theory like Marxism to help identify the underlying causes of inequality and the best strategies for changing society. Others caution against expecting to achieve radical changes because "social transformation requires . . . organizing, mobilizing, struggle" as well as knowledge (Tandon 1988, p. 12). These researchers point to the value of small collective actions in educating people about the local power structure, creating greater solidarity and feelings of power, and providing new knowledge about how power is maintained and challenged. Many projects include little or no collective action and are limited to changing the behavior of individual participants, strengthening or "creating a community network" and "fostering critical knowledge" (Park 1978, p. 20).

In some cases, participatory research produces major changes, as exemplified by a project with residents of a small town in the state of Washington. The town was going to be destroyed by the expansion of a dam, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was planning to disperse the community. But with the assistance of Professor Russell Fox and numerous undergraduates from Evergreen State College, residents clarified their own goals for a new community, learned about the planning process, and produced a town-sponsored plan for a new town. Their plan was accepted by the Corps of Engineers after prolonged struggle involving the courts and the U.S. Congress. The new town thrived and continued to involve the entire community in planning decisions (Comstock and Fox 1982).

A study of the working conditions of bus drivers in Leeds, England, illustrates the mixed results that are more typical of participatory research. As a result of greater pressure at work accompanying Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's program of deregulation, bus drivers were experiencing increasing stress, accidents, and conflicts at home (Forrester and Ward 1989). With the help of professors from the University of Leeds who were running an adult education program for workers, a group of eight bus drivers, selected by their local union, decided to do research that would investigate stress at work and motivate the drivers' union to take action. They designed and carried out a survey of a sample of drivers and their families, studied accident records, and measured physical signs of stress. Although the report presenting their findings failed to produce the desired action by the union, the project was successful in many other ways—workers' stress became part of the agenda for the union and the national government, and the report was used by workers in other countries to document the need for improved working conditions. The participants in the research gained research skills and knowledge about work stress, and the professors produced academic papers on work stress and participatory research. The professors had a dual accountability (as they put it) both to the bus workers and to the university; their projects produced results that were valuable to both groups.


Participatory research was developed primarily by Third World researchers, and most projects have been in Third World communities. In the 1970s it became clear that mainstream economic development projects were failing to reduce poverty and inequality. In response, researchers began to develop alternative approaches that increased the participation of the poor in development programs and aimed at empowering poor rural and urban communities as well as improving their standard of living (Huizer 1979; Tandon 1981, 1988). For example, in the Jipemoyo Project in Tanzania, researchers and villagers investigated traditional music and dance practices and developed cooperative, small-scale industries based on these traditions, such as the production of "selo drums" for sale in urban areas (Kassam and Mustafa 1982). In other projects, peasants and farmers participated with agricultural and social scientists to determine the most appropriate and productive farming methods. Several projects in Latin America, led by Orlando Fals Borda and labeled "participatory action research," integrated the knowledge of peasant activists and academics to build rural organizations and social movements.

Participatory researchers in the Third World are closely associated with Paulo Freire, an exiled Brazilian educator with roots in Marxism and critical theory. His book Pedagogy of the Oppressed is the most influential work in participatory research. Freire argues that teaching and research should not be dominated by experts but should be based on dialogue with a community of oppressed people. Through dialogue and collective action, people can develop critical consciousness, learn the skills they need to improve their situation, and liberate themselves. A similar approach has been developed by the influential Highlander Research and Education Center in the southern United States. Organized by Myles Horton and others in the 1930s, Highlander has inspired many participatory researchers with its success in educating and empowering poor rural people (Gaventa and Horton 1981; Gaventa et al. 1990). Another important center of participatory research has been the Participatory Research Network in Toronto, focusing on adult education (Hall 1975, 1981).

The development of participatory research in the 1970s was also fostered by challenges to positivist social science by feminists, Marxists, critical theorists, and others (Bernstein 1983; Harding 1986). The critics emphasized the links between knowledge and power. They argued that the positivists' emphasis on objectivity, detachment, and valuefree inquiry often masked a hidden conservative political agenda, and encouraged research that justified domination by experts and elites and devalued oppressed people. The critics proposed alternative paradigms that integrated research and theory with political action, and gave the people being studied more power over the research (Carr and Kemmis 1986; Lather 1986; Rose 1983).

The development of alternative paradigms, together with the emergence of participatory research in the Third World and the politicial activism accompanying social movements of the 1960s and 1970s, sparked a variety of participatory research projects by North American social scientists. John Gaventa investigated political and economic oppression in Appalachian communities, and grass-roots efforts to challenge the status quo, and Peter Park criticized mainstream sociology from the perspective of participatory research and critical theory. Health-related issues such as wife-battering, health collectives, and toxic wastes were studied by Patricia Maguire and others, while researchers in education examined community efforts to improve public schools and participatory methods of teaching (Luttrell 1988). Issues at the workplace such as struggles for unionization have been investigated by many participatory researchers; they have documented the impact of factors such as ethnic divisions and women's work culture on the success of unionization (Bookman and Morgen 1988). Participatory research is closely related to several other fields. Feminist approaches to research and teaching often closely resemble participatory research and emphasize nonhierarchical relations between researcher and researched, raising consciousness, taking action against sexism and other forms of domination, and valuing expressive forms of knowledge (see Smith 1987; Stanley and Wise 1983). Feminists have done the majority of the participatory research projects in North America, but they do not use the label, and feminists and participatory researchers rarely consult each other's work.

A similar approach has been developed by William F. Whyte, who works with representatives of managment and workers to study organizational problems such as reducing production costs, or redesigning training programs. His approach differs from participatory research in that it gives little attention to power and empowerment, or to consciousness raising and education, and the action component of the projects is coordinated with management and does not directly challenge the existing power structure. Whyte labels his approach "participatory action research," which will cause confusion since the same term is used to describe Orlando Fals Borda's very different, more radical approach.

Participatory research also overlaps with several traditional social science methods, especially participant observation, ethnography, and intensive interviews, all of which rely on empathic interpretation of popular knowledge and everyday experience and that lead researchers to be engaged with the people being studied, not detached from them. Applied research also focuses on social action, but usually for the privileged—those with the money and sophistication to employ researchers or consultants.


Two issues underlie many of the problems confronted by academic participatory researchers: the relations between researchers and the researched; and the tensions between being politically active and producing objective, academic studies.

Relations between researchers and researched are problematic at each stage of a participatory research project (on stages, see Maguire 1987; Vio Grossi 1981; Hall 1981). At the beginning of the project the researchers must consider what segments of the community will participate. Although some participatory researchers talk about "the oppressed" people in a community or "the poor" as if they were a homogeneous group, most communities are complex and internally stratified, and the more powerless people usually are more difficult to include.

The power of the researcher versus the researched also is problematic in the next stage of a project, when participants identify and discuss community problems. Researchers have specific skills in facilitating the group and obtaining information, and typically have more time, money, and other resources. Therefore, they can take more responsibility (and power) in the project, and community members often want a researcher to take charge in some areas. There are also conflicts during group discussions between validating participants' knowledge and power versus educating for critical consciousness and validating the researchers' power (Vio Grossi 1981).

When the project moves to the stage of designing research on community problems, researchers are especially likely to have a power advantage, since community members typically lack the skills and the interest to carry out this task. If community members are to be equal participants in designing a complex research project, they first need an extended educational program like the adult education classes for the Leeds bus drivers. Otherwise, the research probably will have to be fairly limited, or the researchers will control the research design, while community members participate as consultants and trained research assistants. In this case it becomes especially important that community members have substantial power in setting the research agenda (e.g., Merrifield 1989).

Conflicts between activism and involvement versus academic objectivity and detachment are another source of problems. However, many of the problems can be resolved by questioning the assumed incompatibility between being involved with the people one is studying and producing objective or valid evidence. On the one hand, involved researchers often produce valid knowledge. Sociology and anthropology include many examples of systematic, highly regarded ethnographies and interview studies by researchers who were very involved with the community. Moreover, participating as an activist probably yields just as valid an account as being a traditional participant observer. On the other hand, research methods associated with being detached, such as surveys and quantitative analysis, often contribute to effective political action. For example, a research group in Bombay organized a participatory census of pavement dwellers in a large slum. Their results documented that slum dwellers had been underenumerated by the official census and had been unjustly denied census-dependent services. Participants also created strong community organizations and learned how to use existing services (Patel 1988). In this project, community involvement and academic standards were compatible. In other projects, participatory researchers have experienced many conflicts between serving the interests of the community being researched, and producing knowledge that is valuable to the academic community.


Participatory research methods have gradually spread through the social sciences and related fields in recent years. Researchers in health (Cornwall and Jewkes 1995; Mishra et. al. 1998), family sociology (Small 1995), community psychology (Stoecker and Beckwith 1992; Yeich and Levine 1992), and other fields are using participatory research methods. Several journals have devoted special issues to participatory research, including American Sociologist (Stoecker and Bonacich 1992, 1993), The Journal of Social Issues (Bryden-Miller 1997) and Human Relations (Chisholm and Elden 1993). New books on participatory research also have appeared (De Koning and Martin 1996; Fals-Borda and Roshman 1991; Park et al. 1993).

The growing numbers of studies using participatory research methods vary widely in the degree to which they depart from traditional social science methods. In most studies, control over the research design remains with the researcher, although the researched may have power over a limited component of the project. In addition, many studies do not include social action as part of the project. As participatory research continues to develop, researchers will continue to struggle with balancing the power of the researcher and the researched, and with the conflicting demands of activism and academic standards.

(see also: Field Research Methods; Qualitative Methods; Social Movements)


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Francesca M. Cancian>

Cathleen Armstead