Participatory Action Research (PAR)

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Participatory Action Research (PAR)

Participatory Action Research (PAR) has been defined as a collaborative process of research, education and action (Hall 1981) explicitly oriented towards social transformation (McTaggart 1997). It represents a major epistemological challenge to mainstream research traditions in the social and environmental sciences. The latter assume knowledge to reside in the formal institutions of academia and policy, and often presuppose an objective reality that can be measured, analysed and predicted by suitably qualified individuals.

Participatory Action Researchers recognise the existence of a plurality of knowledges in a variety of institutions and locations. In particular, they assume that ‘those who have been most systematically excluded, oppressed or denied carry specifically revealing wisdom about the history, structure, consequences and the fracture points in unjust social arrangements’ (Fine forthcoming). PAR therefore represents a counterhegemonic approach to knowledge production.

Various strands of Participatory and Action Research approaches have been practised since the mid-1940s. Worldwide, there exists a strong network of individuals and organisations involved in the theoretical and methodological subtleties of affecting constructive change through research, learning and action. They provide a dynamic and vibrant context for the work reflected in this book.

In this chapter, we provide a history of Participatory Action Research’s origins and definitions, drawing attention to the heterogeneity of forms, epistemological stances and politics in action in different parts of the world. We also outline the action– reflection cycle typical of participatory and action research processes before briefly discussing frequently used methods.

Spatialising Participatory Action Research

In addition to the points already made, as geographers we believe that PAR can
better fulfil its potential to effect empowerment if it is understood as a spatial practice. Interest in the spatiality of participation is growing, but careful thought is needed if a spatial turn is to remain consistent with a poststructuralist critique of participation.
In development studies, the work of Cornwall (2002; 2004a; 2004b) has generated interest in spatial perspectives on participation. She suggests an innovative descriptive taxonomy of ‘invited’ versus ‘popular’ the spaces in which participation may take place. However, for us, this framework lacks analytical utility because it is too polarised, harbours conventional views of power and empowerment, and leaves advocates confused about exactly where PAR is located in its imagined landscape of participation.

We agree that there are many instances where supranational agencies, governments and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) ‘invite’ people into predesigned participatory spaces configured in ways that domesticate their initiative and co-opt them into supporting the status quo. Certainly, these arenas require reform and redesign if PAR is to have any chance of producing empowering effects. However, we disagree that it is the ‘invitedness’ of a space that makes social interactions within it conservative and/or reactionary.

Re-theorising empowerment and spatialising Participatory Action Research


The theoretical tiredness of the term empowerment stems not only from attempts to distance and distinguish it from power, but also from the tendency to conceive of it in temporal rather than spatial terms. When defined at all, empowerment is imagined as a more or less linear process of ‘enlightenment’ (for example see Crawley 1998; Friedmann 1992). However, this formulation does not recognise that agency itself is constituted from available resources or that empowerment is often experienced as hard to maintain over time and/or space.

In contrast, by embracing a  poststructuralist critique, the concept of empowerment can be theoretically revitalised through an exploration of its spatialities and its similarities with power. Re-conceptualising empowerment as an effect that results from the deployment of certain resources (such as participatory techniques) means that we might expect it to be unstable. Judith Butler’s (1993) notion of performance suggests that identity and behaviour are brought into being only through repetitive citation of
established norms. The epistemologies and methodologies of PAR present useful citational resources upon which participants and researchers can draw to achieve new forms of agency (see Clegg 1989). However, these will need to be constantly redeployed and normalised if empowered performances are to become sustainable.

Similarly, if power effects are always already spatial (Allen 2003; Foucault 1984) then so surely are empowerment effects. Conceiving of PAR as a spatial practice, we see that wherever initiatives occur (in a community centre or under a shady tree) and whether they are ‘invited’ or ‘popular’ in origin, they constitute special socio-spatial arenas governed by the discourses and practices of participation (such as ‘peer equality’and ‘facilitation’). Even in meritocratic societies these resources are often significantly different to those normally regulating everyday spaces.

In communities sharply structured by  social hierarchies they represent radically alternative modes of social interaction and can provide a ‘safe space’ in which marginal groups can speak and critique
everyday society (see also Cahill, Chapter 21 in this volume). So rather than condemning PAR as a form of power, or seeking to quarantine it from power, we argue for the deployment of poststructuralism in the service of PAR (see also Cameron and Gibson 2005). We suggest that because PAR effects
governance it can effect empowerment and catalyse radical transformation. The unavoidable paradox is that the governance of participatory spaces can enable the emergence of associational modes of interaction.

For example, the authority of those ‘inviting’ participation, the ground rules that govern behaviour, the manipulations and seductions of researchers and so on, can simultaneously facilitate minority voices, enable negotiation and persuasion rather than domination and submission, and help facilitators to listen to participants. PAR is not the only resource that might produce empowering effects, but more than most, its epistemological orientations and practical techniques can provide mechanisms
with which to reflect on its own situatedness and potentially domineering effects.

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