Participatory Research

What is the point of findings that are ‘true’ if they have been produced in circumstances that disempower people, that distort social relations, and add to the monopoly power of dominant groups? So validity or quality in action research is also about political relations, it is fundamentally about democratizing ways of creating practical knowing.
… If human inquiry is not exciting, life enhancing, even pleasurable, then what is it worth?

Peter Reason (2000) ‘Action Research as Spiritual Practice’

Three fundamental principles of general social research ethics can be expressed as:

  • Respect for persons
    Treating people as autonomous agents; protecting the vulnerable
  • Beneficence
    Doing no harm and maximising beneficial outcomes for society; balancing risks and benefits
  • Justice
    Treating human beings as equals: not being exploitative, distributing risks and benefits fairly

However, exponents of participatory action research (PAR) have argued that the democratic tone of these principles is rarely realised within a traditional ‘top down’ research model, where researchers control the process and have power over defining and distributing risks and benefits.

PR’s Ethical Stance

Participatory research (PR) aims to redefine and democratize relationships within the research process. Manzo and Brightbill (2007) suggest that, in the context of PR, the above three principles are enhanced by five further ethical issues that emphasise dimensions of mutual empowerment and co-responsibility:

  • Representation
    All knowledge is situated, not neutral. Researchers should not ‘represent’ participants alone; participants can self-represent themselves throughout the research process.
  • Accountability
    Participatory researchers are accountable to institutions and peers, but also to participants, partners and the communities they work with. These stakeholders decide whether the research is ethically sound and valid.
  • Social responsiveness
    Researchers are responsive to the needs of participants (not just their own agendas). This takes priority over institutional demands. This points to the need for phased ethical review. (See the 'Research Ethics Committees' tab.)
  • Agency
    Participatory research requires ethical behaviour, reflection and scrutiny from participants.
  • Reflexivity
    Ethical dilemmas are viewed not as ‘snapshot’ but in a process-oriented way: they occur, they go on and they change. Both researchers and participants are reflexive.

Adapted from Lynn Manzo and Nathan Brightbill (2007)
‘Towards a participatory ethics’ in Connecting People, Participation and Place:
Participatory Action Research Approaches and Methods, pp. 33-40

The socially responsive and reflexive practitioner maintains awareness that s/he is a human being first and a researcher second. Common humanity is the overarching context for social research work and compassion may be seen as fundamental. As Peter Reason notes:

there are two questions you can ask of your work: what joy does it bring to others? And what injustice and suffering does it address?

Peter Reason (2000) ‘Action Research as Spiritual Practice’ (citing Matthew Fox)

Emphasis on the principles of representation, accountability and agency, together with ongoing and rigorous reflexivity, will ensure that compassionate social responsiveness does not downgrade into an attitude which is subtly patronizing or in any way ‘colonial’. For instance, researchers should take care to utilize appropriate media for research activities and avoid inappropriate or elitist language codes; but by the same token researchers should be careful not to ‘dumb down’ issues.

Ethical Critiques of PR

It is important not to assume that the high ideals of PR automatically place the practitioner on the ethical high ground. Great caution should be exercised in this regard. Indeed, PR has been subject to critiques from late 1990s, first from the international development field where participatory research has a long history, e.g. Cooke and Kothari (2001) Participation: the New Tyranny? – and subsequently extended to western research and policy practice. This critique states that, rather than empowering communities, participatory approaches can have negative effects in that it can:

  • Produce participants as subjects requiring ‘research’/’development’.
  • Romanticise or marginalise local knowledge produced through participatory processes.
  • Produce suitably disciplined subjects as participants expected to perform appropriately within participatory processes.
  • Act to retain researchers’ control whilst presenting them as benign arbiters of neutral or benevolent processes.
  • Reinforce pre-existing power hierarchies among participating communities.
  • Usurp legitimate decision-making processes.
  • Legitimise neo-liberal programmes and institutions (such as universities and development agencies) that deploy participatory approaches and/or techniques.

It is, therefore, important for PR practitioners to recognise that the methodology could, albeit inadvertently, mask a ‘crypto-superior’ attitude with the potential to disempower, rather than empower, the community researched.

What can be done to counter these negative possibilities? It is incumbent on PR practitioners to remain reflexive and critical throughout the research process, with a sustained focus on understanding and negotiating different ethical frames. Intellectually, it may be appropriate to engage with critical theory to understand participation (e.g., at present, post structuralism). Practically, strategies may be engaged to deepen participation.

Emphasis on the ‘action’ element of participatory research (PAR) may be appropriate; but, as the above critique indicates, this can in itself be problematic. Activist voices are getting louder in academic social research; the call is for all research to lead to action that benefits marginalised and excluded people. However, the ethics of action often need careful thought and caution is necessary. The following issues may be borne in mind:

  • The question of pre-determining action: in open and bottom-up research processes people may conclude they don’t want to take action.
  • The question of critical reflection: taking action should be avoided until the consequences have been fully thought through, or until the research has reached ‘saturation’ point.
    Research programmes should, therefore, include time for reflection.
  • The question of the relationhip between theory and action.

Ethical Rigor in PR

Rigorous ethics for PR work can be seen as including three main dimensions:

  • Developing ethics iteratively
  • Developing ethics relationally
  • Negotiating competing ethical views

1. Developing ethics iteratively

  • Authentic engagement that requires that ethics are developed:
    • step by step, not all in one go; and
    • in response to changing research priorities and procedures.
  • Developing ethics iteratively may be difficult if ethical review boards do not accept phased review, or if they take a very long time (see the 'Research Ethics Committees' tab).

2. Developing ethics relationally

  • Ethical frameworks that are:
    • negotiated with research participants; and include
    • taking into account different feelings and beliefs about what is ethical, and how people would like to be treated.
  • Keeping in mind that ethics vary in different cultural, geographical, personal contexts (thereby avoiding ethical imperialism).
  • Relational ethics that also involve appropriate reciprocal assistance to communities and community members. Examples of such reciprocity include:
  • food
  • time – within and outside working week to provide activities
  • money – creative use of research grant to support organisation
  • advice on college/university entrance, and training for staff

Reciprocity can also be seen as including ‘opening up the academy’, such that participants are included in presenting and publishing research findings.

3. Negotiating competing ethical views

  • Encouraging full discussion and clarity about the research from the start.
  • Acknowledging different positions, aims, needs and aspirations.
  • Working out ways to reconcile these differences in ways that are acceptable to everyone.
  • A need to keep talking, discussing, working through problems.



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