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Participatory Approaches to Making Knowledge

The social sciences were founded on the premise that we could understand "social facts" through rigorous empirical research, following the steps of the scientific method. While many important studies and theories have emerged in the last two centuries, this approach to research has a number of problems:

1. No research is unbiased. The questions we ask, the methods we employ to study them, the analyses we bring to our findings, and even what we decide to do with the data are shaped by our positionality, or our locations within larger fields of power, such as our gender, race, or socioeconomic status. The historic domination of wealthy white men from the US and Europe in academia has produced legacies of racism, colonialism, patriarchy, and other forms of inequality in the "legitimate" ways of seeing and explaining the world.

2. Research can be extractive. Research subjects are often used as the "raw material" (Connell 2007) for studies, sharing their time and stories with researchers without receiving much in return. While this information contributes to advancing social theory and (sometimes) promoting more just public policies, the immediate benefits of research accrue more directly to scholars than subjects. 

 

3. Western knowledge is limited. The dominant research model, which requires that research and publications be conducted by those with formal degrees, denies those who lack access to universities the opportunity to become legitimate producers of knowledge. This exclusion is especially acute among people who are poor, do not speak English, are racial or ethnic minorities, and/or are from the Global South. This is an enormous loss to society, and academia in particular, because it deprives all of us of the many "ways of knowing" that those excluded from academia could contribute if given the chance.

 

One way to address address these inequities is through Participatory Action Research (PAR).

PAR is based on several principles:

Leveling Power

Researchers share control over the research project by being aware of their own positionality and by engaging in dialogic reflection with their participants about how inequalities might shape the research process.

Participatory methods

Researchers and participants work collaboratively throughout the research process. This means including participants in determining research questions, collecting the data, analyzing findings, and disseminating the results.

Co-production of theory

Researchers and participants engage in open, but critical reflections about the research study and questions in order to develop concepts, hypotheses, and social theories together. Credit for these ideas is shared through co-authorship or written recognition of how ideas were created.

Advancing social change

Researchers, in collaboration with participants, determine concrete ways in which the research process and findings can be used to contribute towards positive social change that addresses various forms of social inequality. 

A Pragmatist's Guide to PAR

Want to get started with Participatory Action Research but don't know how?

Find some good ideas here.