Participatory Research

Background and outlook

the shift in relationship between researcher and researched ... is so pronounced as to make ‘researcher’ and ‘researched’ nearly archaic terminology ... a blurring of boundaries between the two ... ruptures the old hierarchy

Lincoln, Y. (2001) in Reason, P. and H. Bradbury, eds.
Handbook of Action Research: Participative inquiry and practice, p.126

Participatory Research provides a unique framework within which to conduct research since it is based upon notions of conducting research with and for research subjects. The imbalance of power relationships which occurs where research is conducted on or about research subjects is therefore challenged. Where the participatory research situation involves an explicit intention to co-produce change, it can be termed participatory action research (PAR).

The participatory research paradigm – which may be traced to such figures as the Columbian sociologist Orlando Fals Border and the Brazilian educationalist Paulo Freire – can be seen as challenging the traditional ‘researcher-researched’ dichotomy on two fronts:

  • Participants are not just recipients of social change, but are integral to change processes.
  • There are no universal laws of human behaviour which can be measured, apprehended and manipulated.

Thus the participatory research relationship is collaborative, such that research is with, for, or even by the community. The researcher is simply one partner in the research process. The ideal is one of empowerment of communities. Researchers develop awareness of indigenous understandings and aspirations such that these are primary determinants of the research work and its potential outcomes.

Clearly to do this with authenticity requires cultivation of deep respect for, and openness to, the community in which the research is taking place. Such cultivation can be seen as a challenging ethical imperative. The affirming ethical position, which can be seen as inherent to authentic participatory research, is explored under the 'Inherent Ethics' tab. Here, it is necessary to point out that researchers have an ethical obligation not to mislead people about the degree of influence that they have in the research process. In this context it may be helpful to distinguish six modes of participation, ranging from minor modification of the traditional researcher-researched relationship to thoroughgoing communities of learning and situations where there is no ‘researcher’ at all as a distinct actor:


Mode of Participation

Nature of User Involvement

Relationship between research and users


Token; representatives are chosen, but no real action


higher up table is more traditional; lower down table is more radical


Tasks are assigned, with incentives; researchers decide agenda and direct the process



Users’ opinions asked, researchers analyse and decide on a course of action



Users work together with researchers to determine priorities; responsibility remains with researchers for directing the process



Users and researchers share their knowledge to create new understanding and work together to form action plans with research facilitation


Collective Action

Users set their own agenda and mobilize to carry it out, in the absence of outside researchers or facilitators


Adapted from Cornwall (1996) and Truman and Raine (2001)

A researcher aspiring to participatory research ideals should maintain realistic awareness of the actual methodology (mode of participation) which is being employed in the particular situation. There may be constraints – arising from such things as requirements of sponsors, restrictions on time or resources, or dissonant perspectives and understanding of co-workers which could lead to disparity between participatory ideals and what can be achieved in actual practice. In such circumstances particular care should be taken not to mislead people about their degree of involvement at any of the stages of the research process, from initial planning through to implementing changes.

For instance, in a situation where the mode of participation is consultation – such that the researcher reports to a sponsor who will decide the outcomes – it is important not to give highly engaged participants an unrealistic impression about the degree of influence that they can have. While it may be helpful to cultivate a co-learning atmosphere at specific events, inbuilt constraints on influence should not be glossed over.

There is a distinction to be made between participatory methods and participatory approaches. Participatory methods can make research more accessible, engaging, emergent and fun, and can take a wide variety of forms, such as:

  • diagramming, mapping, social surveys
  • peer research
  • video, drama, art
  • interactive workshops
  • geographical information systems

Traditional research may include participatory methods but this does not make it participatory (action) research in a strong sense. However, the distinction may not be absolute – arguably, the use of participatory methods can alter the character of otherwise more traditional research.

Whilst bearing in mind the modes, or degrees, of participatory research set out above, it is possible to identify some general characteristics of the true participatory approach:

  • Research and other activities are pursued with communities (or traditional research ‘subjects’) as collaborating partners with the primary goal of working towards positive changes on issues identified by the collective.
  • There is an effort to engage in all aspects of the research as a collaborative project that requires negotiation between the different parties.
  • Hence the ‘relational ethic’ of participatory research is about sharing – developing aims, research process, analysis, dissemination, action control, benefits and problems.
  • The complex challenge of negotiating ‘ethics’ is central to the research process and inquiry.


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