Participatory Research

What is Participatory Action Research?

Participatory action research (PAR) is an approach to research in which a community or other group takes on the role of researcher or co-researcher i.e. they own the research and are responsible for putting the results of the research into action. If professional researchers are also involved, they are equal participants with the community or group doing the research. PAR requires that all research participants:

  • recognise the value of local knowledge
  • accept and own research results
  • are willing to be involved in all stages of the research
  • are willing to include a wide range of participants
  • choose research methods that suit the situation, and that communities or groups can learn to use without outside help

PAR is designed to break down the barriers between researchers and the users of their research. It makes the research immediately relevant and applicable to the local need. It is particularly useful when long-term change is needed and in situations where community groups can gradually apply the research methods to create change.

PAR is an iterative process with 4 phases:

  1. Reflection – participants decide what needs to be researched
  2. Planning – participants plan how to carry out the research
  3. Action – participants implement the plan
  4. Observation – participants collect information

After each of the 4 phases, it is important that participants reflect on what has happened and decide whether they can practically apply the collected information and/or whether more research is required. In this way, PAR is a continuing process of change.

Closely related terms

PAR resembles other types of research, such as action research, participant observation, participatory research, collaborative inquiry, emancipatory research, action learning, and contextual action research. But only PAR embraces all of the following five principles (Grundy 1982):

  • participation
  • collaboration
  • empowerment
  • knowledge
  • social change

Why use PAR?

When you use PAR, you gain access to the knowledge and expertise of the people who are most affected by your research problem. As a result, PAR:

  • gives you an increased depth and understanding of the issues, making your research more relevant
  • increases the chances of the community adopting practices and outcomes of your research
  • reduces logistical barriers to research, which can improve efficiency and reduce frustration for everyone
  • gives you access to observe behaviour as it is happening, increasing the efficiency of your data collection
  • minimises the risk of misinterpretation and misunderstanding because of the close relationship that you develop with the community

PAR also has some disadvantages compared to traditional research methods:

  • it can be more time consuming if participants get caught up in details
  • it can be susceptible to researcher bias because the researcher is involved
  • it is not as well recognised as quantitative research methods
  • it can produce large amounts of information that are difficult to manage

When is it appropriate to use PAR? PAR is particularly useful for:

  • building partnerships and trust
  • developing action plans for solving problems
  • empowering the community and developing community capacity
  • identifying community issues and relevant research
  • engaging the community
  • planning for, and increasing awareness of, upcoming change
  • accessing specialised local knowledge

PAR is not useful in the following situations (Whyte 1989):

  • where the community group is interested in the results, but not in developing the topic or design of the research
  • where the problem does not seem important to the community group
  • where the research methods and types of data being collected do not appear credible to the community group
  • where the research has had considerable theoretical development and needs testing

Who can participate?

Anyone who is connected to the research topic! Representatives of schools, organisations, businesses, industry, government agencies, farmers/landholders, community groups and research institutions can all participate. However, this does not mean that everyone who is connected to the topic needs to participate.

Where is PAR being used?

PAR is used extensively in health care and education research, and its popularity is increasing in other fields including rural research and development, on-farm client-oriented research, and urban community development.

Examples of PAR in research

Kimberley locals know their fish

Murdoch University’s David Morgan and Mark Allen embarked on a project to survey the fish of the Kimberley’s Fitzroy River. Consulting with the Kimberley Language Resource Centre and a large number of local people, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, they developed a series of brochures illustrating the fish of the river system.

In the brochures, they provided English common names for the fish, scientific names, and Indigenous names in 5 of the 6 language groups of the west Kimberley—Bunuba, Gooniyandi, Ngarinyin, Nyikina and Walmajarri.

Three of the freshwater fish species discovered had Indigenous names but had never been previously described or given English or scientific names.

The research inspired an LWA-funded project to look at the cultural significance of the fish of the Kimberley’s King Edward River. By using PAR, the researchers gained access to expert knowledge that they might otherwise have missed. Reflecting on their project gave them a new perspective on the significance of fish in other river systems.

I want to find out more: Centre for Fish and Fisheries Research

Estuarine health in Little Swanport

Oyster farmers in Little Swanport on the east coast of Tasmania are playing an integral role in research that is looking at how their estuary responds to changed freshwater inflows.

The project started when a concerned farmer organised a meeting between key representatives and funding agencies. Now, the project is funded by LWA and the Fisheries Research and Development Corporation, and is a joint effort of the community and local researchers.

Jeff Ross from the University of Tasmania says, ‘[the farmers] get directly involved in the science at all levels, including preparing chlorophyll samples and sorting phytoplankton samples’. But their participation includes much more than field support. They provide access to their boat ramp and storage facilities, and they donate oysters and water samples of different qualities for experiments, among other activities.

‘They have worked in the estuary on a daily basis for over 20 years and have an incredible wealth of knowledge and insight about how the estuary operates. This knowledge is invaluable to us as scientists given the short-term nature of our project.’

‘You could say that we are collecting quantitative data to help prove or disprove some of their anecdotal observations, such as how important freshwater inflow is to oyster production.’

The Little Swanport catchment has a history of involving various target groups, including the community, in developing catchment management plans.

‘Without their participation, much of what we are doing in Little Swanport would be difficult or impossible.’

I want to find out more: Rip Rap magazine no 29

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