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Chapter 21

Participatory Action Research
Maggie Walter

Participatory action research (PAR) or action research, as it is sometimes known, has in
its implementation and underpinning philosophies an action purpose. This action purpose
differentiates PAR from methods whose primary aim is to research or investigate. Although
nearly all social research has some form of social change as motivation, only PAR has change
and action as an embedded and critical element of its approach. Participatory action research
has therefore been defined as having a double objective:
One aim is to produce knowledge and action directly useful to a group of people through
research, adult education or sociopolitical action. The second aim is to empower people at a
second and deeper level through the process of constructing and using their own knowledge …
(Reason 1998:71)

The term ‘action research’ was coined in 1946 by Kurt Lewin to describe a spiral action
of research aimed at problem solving. Community involvement was important for Lewin,
writing and working after World War II, and he saw participatory action research as a
tool for bringing about democracy in postwar countries (Robson 1993). Lewin, as a social
psychologist, felt ‘that the best way to move people forward was to engage them in their own
enquiries into their own lives’. He stressed the fundamental role of democratic collaboration
and participation within this project (McNiff 1988:22).
The key to PAR is in its name. The concepts of participation and action form the basics
of the method.

Action: Research should be more than just finding out; research should also involve an
action component that seeks to engender positive change.
Participation: Research is a participatory process that requires the equal and collaborative
involvement of the ‘community of research interest’.


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a local community welfare agency uses PAR at their regular staff Social Research Methods WAL_SRM2_ORC_21_3pp. the researcher has the role of research coach (1991:40). PAR is: •฀ •฀ •฀ a form of applied research: the research is intended to have some real world effect increasingly popular: at the trendy end of the research method spectrum guided by a research topic/question that emerges from the community of interest. Within participatory action research the researcher is the tool for facilitating change. They also delineate PAR as more of a methodology rather than a method (see chapter 1). of power from the researcher to the community of interest is a central element of the research method. director and expert in the research project. PAR: A methodology rather than a method The components of participatory action research make it different from other social research methods. The requirement for equal and open collaboration between researcher and research community is central to participatory action research. More particularly. As such. For example. PAR comes with its own in-built value system (axiology) and way of perceiving the reality of an issue or problem (ontology) and values the knowledges and knowledge systems of the community of research interest above others.2 Part 5: Other Social Research Methods In other words. thereby exhibiting a specific epistemology. within this collaboration it is the researched. Its qualities of being both an active research practice and one based on the principles of democracy are what draw many social science researchers to PAR. rather than the owner. particularly those coming from more qualitative paradigms. it is particularly suited to practitioner based research. theorise and propose solutions. by its collaborative and participatory nature. Using participatory action research The use of participatory action research for social research in Australia is rapidly rising. Or as Whyte puts it. As such. who are the owners and instigators of the research rather than the researcher. Because of its focus on problem solving. or even relocation. The diffusion.indd 2 8/9/09 9:06:22 AM . PAR moves right away from the idea of the ‘outside expert’ coming into a community to examine. participatory action research as a research method/methodology is characterised by the strong and active involvement and high degree of participation of those with the research objective (Whyte 1991). or the subject group. In the words of Rapoport (1970:1 cited in Robson 1993:438): ‘Action research aims to contribute to both the practical concerns of people in an immediate problematic situation and to the goals of social science by joint collaboration within a mutually acceptable framework’.

makes participatory action research a social research method far more amenable to Indigenous research paradigms and Indigenous research agendas. The internal development and ownership of the research. it is those who have the problem or desire the objective that must decide what the problem or objective is and that they want to achieve some change. especially around improving teaching and learning practice. It cannot be imposed or diagnosed from outside. Starting with the PAR problem An essential element of PAR is that the problem that needs solving or the objective that needs reaching must arise from the community of interest. Because of its problem solving aims and its community locus of control. especially by the researcher. acting.1: The iterative cycle of participatory action research (PAR) Maggie Walter WAL_SRM2_ORC_21_3pp. The following diagram summarises how PAR operates in an iterative.Chapter 21: Participatory Action Research 3 meetings as the base for working through work-related problems. rather than diagnosis and imposition from outside. cyclical mode. The cyclical nature of PAR is its fundamental process feature (Wadsworth 1998). Putting PAR into place Although theoretical insights are gained through research practice. The action part of PAR is situational in that attempts to resolve the problem or achieve the objectives are also located within and with the community of interest. participatory action research is cyclic. working its way through various iterations of planning. Observation Action Observation Action Initial planning Reflection– informed planning Observation Action Reflection– informed planning Cycle continues until issue is resolved or agreed by all parties Issue Figure 21. observing and reflecting. Rather than taking a standard linear model of research. PAR is essentially applied research. participatory action research is a primary method in much contemporary Indigenous research focused on solving problems at the community level. That is.indd 3 8/9/09 9:06:22 AM . Participatory action research is also widely used in educational research.

In the real world of social research practice. observing and reflecting starts again. observing and reflecting of the previous cycle inform and shape the next cycle. Initial collaboration takes place between the community of research interest and the researcher and planning how to tackle the problem then begins. the new cycle of the PAR process does not repeat the old cycle. The cycle continues in as many iterations as needed to resolve the problem or reach the objective. such as classrooms. or desire for change is identified by the community of research interest. acting. issue. It is much easier to locate literature that discusses how to undertake PAR or the principles of PAR than it is to ind literature reporting a completed PAR project. that the research is fully collaborative at all stages with the community and that the cyclical process of PAR does not inish until the problem is resolved. For broader community social research. The PAR process is therefore self-evaluative. The researcher is being recruited to work on a cooperative project between the Yorta Yorta National Aboriginal Corporation and the Friends of the Earth Melbourne–Barmah Social Research Methods WAL_SRM2_ORC_21_3pp. These requirements are problematic and often unfeasible. If the reflection deems the first action unsuccessful or not as successful as anticipated. The following example of PAR in action summarises a position description for a PAR coordinator.indd 4 8/9/09 9:06:23 AM . involving a constant evaluation of its process and modifications to adjust the research problem articulation and research practice. Rather the planning. then these outcomes are taken into consideration in the planning of new or different action in the next cycle of planning action.4 Part 5: Other Social Research Methods The cycle takes the following steps: •฀ •฀ •฀ •฀ •฀ •฀ •฀ •฀ A problem. The developed plan is then put into action. From method to practice As demonstrated in the model. If this reflection leads to an assessment that the first action step was effective. the deeming of a problem as solved or an objective as reached is a collaborative one. PAR demands that the problem or issue must emerge from the community of research interest. As with all aspects of PAR. observation and reflection. action. then the process of planning. much research involving PAR takes place with discrete and limited communities. The action and its outcomes are then observed again by the community of research interest and the researcher. The final stage in the first cycle is to reflect on the action and its outcomes. The methodological nature of participatory action research limits its full applicability in broad social research. building on this initial success.

by organising workshops and facilitating Yorta Yorta nation members to illustrate their interests and capacity to work on country. meeting minutes.Chapter 21: Participatory Action Research 5 problem—developing a partnership model for joint management of traditional Yorta Yorta lands and waters by Yorta Yorta people and the Victorian State Government—has emerged from the Yorta Yorta people via the Yorta Yorta National Aboriginal Corporation. These benefits accrue at both a practical expertise and theoretical level. conduct and facilitate workshops with Yorta Yorta family group and other Yorta Yorta groups. task list > develop and implement monitoring and evaluation methods and activities. As can be seen from this example.indd 5 8/9/09 9:06:23 AM . and it claims to reconstruct both practical expertise and theoretical insights on the different basis of its own inquiry procedures (Winter 1989:2). Evaluating participatory action research As a methodology. participatory action research critiques the theoretical and methodological bases of conventional social research. utilising PAR techniques and tools > coordinate meeting logistics: travel and accommodation. It is only after the objective has been developed that the researcher is brought in. Winter frames it this way: it challenges a scientific method of inquiry based on the authority of the outside ‘observer’ and the ‘independent’ experimenter. Its proponents see this radical shift away from ‘standard’ research practice as providing huge research benefits. Participatory action research position roles > Ensure project objectives are met by clearly communicating community engagement principles and practice (including PAR) > develop and maintain relationships with Yorta Yorta family group and other Yorta Yorta groups > organise. It is argued that when the researcher and community of interest work together in a Maggie Walter WAL_SRM2_ORC_21_3pp. Position objective From method to practice Millewa Campaign (Melbourne Friends of the Earth 2008). Project description To develop a partnership model with the Victorian State Government to facilitate the active involvement of the Yorta Yorta people in the management of traditional lands and waters in ways that utilise Yorta Yorta knowledge and perspectives. the The PAR coordinator will assist the Yorta Yorta people to deine their aspirations for ‘working on country’ and an ideal ‘joint management’ model to achieve these aspirations.

democracy and external ownership aspects can greatly reduce the validity of the research and the rigour of the methods used. The commitment of the community of interest enables the research project to access community understanding. expertise and insights develop that would not otherwise be possible.6 Part 5: Other Social Research Methods collaborative and participatory way. such as developing a formula for unshatterable glass. reliable.2. The key question here is: when is a social problem solved? In the natural sciences. Involving the community of research interest with the research objective aids in producing practical outcomes that are workable. In turn. PAR has been strongly criticised by other social researchers. Box 21. usable research outcomes. cited in Robson 1993:440) argues that PAR’s claims. practical change arising from issues at the grass roots are overbearing’. of being an ‘alternative research paradigm. For example. a methodology or a paradigm—rather than a practical research method. scientific.1: Advantages and disadvantages of participatory action research (PAR) Advantages of PAR • PAR is applied research. as a democratising force and means of achieving informed. can often be clearcut. Another criticism centres on what is perceived as a moralising tone in PAR’s methodology. and question whether PAR methods lead to good. which tend to be timed undertakings with clear start and stop periods. knowledge and collective memory. The other difficult issue for PAR is the research end date. defining a problem is often difficult enough without also having to decide unequivocally that the problem is resolved. Social Research Methods WAL_SRM2_ORC_21_3pp. finding a resolution to a problem. The essential critique here is that PAR might be seen more as an ideology of how research should be undertaken— that is. however. The problem solving focus means that PAR is research with practical outcomes and positive change. However. Unlike most other research methods. The strengths and weaknesses of PAR are summarised in box 21. Adelman (1989. this process could repeat forever. the iterations of PAR continue until the problem is resolved.indd 6 8/9/09 9:06:23 AM . in the social world. These criticisms tend to focus on how its participation. valid. • PAR is committed research. these insights and access to broader expertise provide for more workable and innovative problem solutions. with all its complexities. Conceivably. • PAR is collaborative research.

indd 7 8/9/09 9:06:23 AM . not diagnosed from outside. • PAR usually has no timeline. Categorising a group with a shared interest or problem as a ‘community’ does not automatically result in a consensus on what the problem is and how it might best be addressed. has no set end date. Disadvantages of PAR • PAR has no research leader. • PAR may be impractical. or when has the process become inefectual? Maggie Walter WAL_SRM2_ORC_21_3pp. The process. The question then becomes: how do we know when a problem is resolved. by its nature. The community locus of control leads to the identiication of problems that are important to the community. The group involvement and democratic processes may lead to competing research agendas.Chapter 21: Participatory Action Research • 7 PAR originates with the researched.

(1993). and Lincoln. Principles and Practice. Reason. Y. Newbury Park: Sage. K. Social Research Methods WAL_SRM2_ORC_21_3pp. Paper 2. Y. ‘Three Approaches to Participative Inquiry’.foe. N. (1989). Strategies of Qualitative Research. London: Sage: 261–91. (1991). W. in Denzin. Participatory Action Research. ‘What is Participatory Action Research?’.melbourne. (1998). R. Whyte. Oxford: Blackwell. Robson. J. (1998). London: Falmer Press. Learning From Experience: Principles and Practice in Action-Research. London: MacMillan Education.8 Part 5: Other Social Research Methods References Coordinator_1. (eds). Wadsworth.indd 8 8/9/09 9:06:23 AM . (1988). Position Description: Participatory Action Research Coordinator <http://www. Action Research. Action Research International. Real World Enquiry: A Resource for Social Scientists and Practitioner-Researchers. Winter. F. C. Melbourne Friends of the Earth (2008).pdf>.