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The A-Z of Social Research

Participatory action research

Contributors: Robert L. Miller & John D. Brewer
Print Pub. Date: 2003
Online Pub. Date:
Print ISBN: 9780761971320
Online ISBN: 9780857020024
DOI: 10.4135/9780857020024
Print pages: 225-228
This PDF has been generated from SAGE Research Methods. Please note that the
pagination of the online version will vary from the pagination of the print book.
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Participatory action research considers itself to be a radical alternative to mainstream
research. Its objective is to transcend the distinctions between activism and research,
common sense understanding and academic expertise. Participatory action research
has a double objective; it aims to produce knowledge and action directly useful to
people, and also to empower people through the process of constructing and using
their own knowledge. Participatory action research is reminiscent of liberation theology
in the way that it addresses issues of power and powerlessness. While it is used in
the western world, it is an approach to research that identifies itself primarily with the
developing world. It views itself as a more holistic, pluralist and egalitarian approach to
research, based upon the active involvement of participants rather than the exploitation
of research subjects. The commitment to participation means that considerable
emphasis is given to the process of research as well as to its outcomes. Participants
are engaged in the research process actively, and the research aims to provide tools for
the improvement of the lives of participants. Participatory action research is committed
to honouring and valuing the knowledge and experience of people, usually oppressed
people (Reason, 1994). It is believed that attending to and valuing popular knowledge
advances scientific knowledge.
Participatory action research identifies itself with Habermas (1972) articulation of
the need for a critical science which serves emancipatory interests. It represents a
rejection of positivism and holds a deep-seated aversion to empiricism, which suggests
only neutral experience can provide an acceptable foundation for valid knowledge.
In addition, it rejects what Habermas calls the objectivist illusion of pure theory.
Habermas argues that knowledge, methodology and human interests are inextricably
linked (1972); a position taken by participatory action researchers (Carr, 1994). They
also utilise Habermas argument that empirical-analytic research and interpretative
research unintentionally establish a hierarchical relationship between researcher and
researched because they do not have an explicit politics. Instead, participatory action
research aims to dismantle an academic monopoly on the definition and employment
of knowledge, arguing that democracy in knowledge production gives the participants
a stake in the quality of the results, increasing the reliability of information and the
likelihood that results will be put into practice (Greenwood et al., 1993). Dialogue and
reflexivity are central to participatory action research. Through dialogue the subject-
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object relationship of traditional science gives way to a subject-subject one, in which
the academic knowledge of formally educated people works in a dialectical tension
with the popular knowledge of the people to produce a more profound understanding
of the situation. Reflexivity furthers the reunification of theory and practice as, on the
one hand, researchers reflect on and examine their assumptions and methods following
dialogue with popular knowledge and, on the other hand, participants reflect on and
examine the value of knowledge generated for their everyday lives.
[p. 226

] Reason, a prominent participatory action researcher, has noted that it is far

easier to discover the ideology of this approach rather than a detailed description of how
it actually works (Reason, 1994). He suggests that participatory action research is a
methodology for an alternative system of knowledge production based on the people's
role in setting agendas, participating in data gathering and analysis, and controlling the
use of outcomes (1994: 329). In theory, participatory action research can use diverse
methods, both quantitative and qualitative, but in practice, it is primarily qualitative
research methods that are used. Information is usually collected by participant
observation, interviews, compilation of field notes and document analysis. In keeping
with the commitment to value popular knowledge, vernacular, usually oral, traditions of
communication and dissemination of knowledge are used. The emphasis on inquiry as
empowerment means that for participatory action researchers; the methodologies that
in orthodox research would be called research design, data gathering, data analysis
and so on are secondary to the emergent processes of collaboration and dialogue that
empower, motivate, increase self-esteem and develop community solidarity (Reason,
1994: 329). Community meetings and events are an important part of participatory
action research. These events are seen as a way of reclaiming a sense of solidarity,
making sense of information collected, and developing the skills of the community.
Storytelling, sociodrama, plays and songs are used to encourage communities to
engage with and contribute to the research.
The literature on participatory action research tends to be written in an ideological and
romantic tone. So, for example, it is claimed that: Those who adopt participatory action
research have tried to practice with a radical commitment that has gone beyond usual
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institutional boundaries, reminiscent of the challenging tradition of Chartists, utopians,
and other social movements of the nineteenth century (Fals-Borda and Rahman, 1991:
vii). Unfortunately, while participatory action research provides an attractive ideological
alternative to traditional research approaches that tend to objectify their research
subjects, it has yet to develop a concomitant epistemological basis. Its tendency to
focus almost exclusively on specific cases has left it open to the claim that its findings
are specific and do not lead to defensible generalisation. Participatory action research
raises pivotal questions about the relationship between theory and action. However,
as a form of research, it is argued that it relies more on ideological justification than
theoretical and methodological sophistication.
[p. 227

Does this assume that all problems of society can be solved by applied
social research, without major changes in the macro-economic and
social structure of society? Not at all. In principle, I am not opposed to
such major changes including revolutions but I can only imagine
how changes of so drastic a nature may come about. Meanwhile, I find
it useful scientifically and practically to study what can be done here and
now under the existing social and economic conditions. (Whyte, 1986:
See also
Suggested further reading
Truman, Carole, ed. , Mertens, Donna M., ed. and Humphries, Beth (eds) (2000)
Research and Inequality . London: UCL Press.
CarrW. Whatever Happened to Action Research? Educational Action Research vol. 2
no. (3)1994 pp. 42737
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Fals-Borda, O., ed. and Rahman, M. (eds) (1991) Action and Knowledge: Breaking the
Monopoly with Participatory Action Research . New York: Intermediate Technology/
GreenwoodD., WhyteW.F., and HarkavyI. Participatory Action Research as a Process
and as a Goal. Special Issue on Action Research Human Relations vol. 46 no. (2)1993
pp. 17789
Habermas, J. (1972) Knowledge and Human Interests: Theory and Practice;
Communication and the Evolution of Society, J.J. Shapiro, trans . London: Heinemann.
Reason, P. (1994) Three Approaches to Participative Inquiry, in N. Denzin, ed. and
Y. Lincoln (eds), Handbook of Qualitative Research . Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage
Publications. pp. pp. 324-40.
WhyteW.F. On the Uses of Social Science Research American Sociological Review
vol. 511986 pp. 55563