Participatory Action Research

What is participatory action research and why is it useful?

(You can download a Word version of this information from here).

Action research typically follows a cyclical process of planning changes to practice, often in small steps, acting on these and observing their influence, then reflecting on the evidence, process and outcomes (Kemmis and McTaggart in Hopkins, 2008, p.51[1]).

The cycle becomes a spiral as more sequences of planning, acting, observing and reflecting are carried out, with each feeding into the next. In participatory action research, each stage in the process is carried out collaboratively by those involved (Kemmis and McTaggart, 2005), with ‘meanings constructed from shared experience’ (Phelps and Hase, 2002, p.514[2]). Conversation between participants plays a key role in guiding the process, acknowledging that ‘the outcome is never pre-specified’ and ‘is sensitive to contingencies’ (Davis and Sumara, 2005, p.462). Most importantly participatory action research focuses on a joint process of knowledge production that stimulates thinking and provides new insights for everyone involved in the process. Successful participatory action research is underpinned by a number of key principles:

Safe spaces – the creation of safe spaces in which everyone involved in the process feels they can share and express their views safely and confidentially. However the safe space must also be a dynamic one in which “openness, difference of opinion and conflicts are permitted” (Bergold and Thomas, 2012)

Inclusivity – careful thought needs to be given to how participation is defined so that so that participation feels inclusive and all key stake-holders have the opportunity to contribute to equally, fairly and transparently to the process.

Roles and responsibilities need to be clear – all participants in the process need to be actively involved in decision making related to the project so that they are not objects in the process but partners in the process of discovery and change

Resources to facilitate participation – careful thought needs to be given to potential barriers to participation and resources provided where possible to support accessibility and inclusivity for example childcare, travel expenses, food or refreshments

Opportunities for reflection should be intrinsic to the project so that personal biographies, social relationships and the social, cultural and political conditions that frame the work are key considerations of the project and explicitly inform the research and inquiry process.

Co-analysis of outcomes – analysis of empirical material emerging from the project needs to be explored and analysed collaboratively

Shared dissemination to a wider audience – all participants should contribute to and take responsibility for sharing the work with a wider audience so that project outcomes are visibly understood by others as a shared endeavour

For a more detailed discussion of the principles of participatory action research try this article from Bergold and Thomas http://www.qualitative-research.net/index.php/fqs/article/view/1801/3334.

[1] Kemmis, S. & McTaggart, R. (2005) Participatory Action Research – Communicative Action and the Public Sphere. In Denzin, N. K., & Lincoln, Y. S. (Eds.), The SAGE handbook of qualitative research (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

[2] Phelps, R., & Hase, S. (2005) Complexity and action research: exploring the theoretical and methodological connections. Educational Action Research, 10(3), 507–524.