Participatory Action Research

PAR – The diagram shows how the lived experiences of participants and the ability to empower can ultimately lead to new knowledge and empirical research.

Participatory Action Research (PAR) is a powerful path to research and encompasses a secure directive – Research with participants, rather than on participants.  The concept is difficult to define, but the principles are aligned towards breaking down the barriers between the researcher and the researched. As a newcomer to the world of research, I am confident that I would have entered this field with my own agenda; my set of issues and a list of questions which I perceived to be important to others.  Is this the kind of researcher I want to be?  I think not.

I want to make a difference to those who feel that a change is not just needed, but necessary.  A change for members of a community or workplace, whereby they formulate the problem and interpret the findings, with me as the facilitator (Tandon, 2005).  By enabling participants to become part of the research process, there is an opportunity for them to gain that vital tool… knowledge.  Which in turn equals power.

I want my research to be about the oppressed, the impoverished and those who feel disempowered.  I have an emancipatory interest, which I discovered when I completed my first EdD assessment which was to write a Position Paper – A short excerptHabermas’s early work (1971) acknowledged that emancipatory learning can also lead to powerful ideologies been questioned and scrutinized.  These ideologies, on the surface, may appear benevolent and considerate, yet they drive authority and control. Emancipation aims to bring to light the action of power and to generate social justice.  

PAR is greatly influenced by the work of Kurt Lewin (1890-1947) and more recently has evolved to encompass a ‘bottom up approach’, which gives participants the power and knowledge to make changes to their community.

quote-if-you-want-to-truly-understand-something-try-to-change-it-kurt-lewin-111460 – this quote from Kurt Lewin instructs researchers who want to make a change, to immerse themselves within the lives of those they want to empower. By doing so the researcher will begin to fully understand the participants lived experiences, and therefore be more able to make a change for the benefit of the participant, rather than for the sake of research.

However, consider this for a moment.

Scenario: I conduct PAR within a community of nursing students who have specific learning difficulties (SpLD’s).  The participants identify a multitude of incredibly diverse issues, based upon personal perspectives and opinions, resulting in a lack of agreement of the key issue(s) for consideration.  Then add to the mix ‘me’ a senior lecturer at their university, immersing myself within their community.

I can do that, I was, and still am a student… Or can I?

However, who has the power?  I approach PAR with the intentions of an egalitarian relationship, what do the students believe the case to be?  Can PAR within this scenario truly be achieved and produce legitimate research?

Changing a situation requires reflexivity and to conduct this type of research, the research process itself becomes a focus of inspection.

My next blog will attempt to address some of the issues raised.  You’re views are appreciated.


Redmond, B. (2004) Reflection in Action: Developing Reflective Practice in Health and Social Services. Hampshire: Ashgate Publishing Ltd.

Tandon, R (2005) Participatory research: Main Concepts and Issues. In R. Tandon (ed.) Participatory Research: Revisiting the Roots. New Delhi: Mosaic Books.














7 thoughts on “Participatory Action Research

  1. Jaye

    I hope any contribution I make helps, rather than hinders, your work. I very much like PAR, as I like Lewins’ work. My question therefore is this, where is the barrier to the participation? If you immerse yourself in the student group, as you suggest above, they and you are influenced by others outside the group, service users, carers, friends, relatives, colleagues etc. So where does the bottom up approach start from?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ok, first let me consider the barrier(s) to participation.

    There will, no doubt be barriers created by perceived expertise and my identity, which I mentioned in a previous post. I consider there to be several barriers to participation, these would all need to be considered or at least acknowledged. Barriers may pertain to attitude, economy and possibly even policy driven from within an institution. The perspective of the researcher, and the participants’ perspective would both equally need to be considered, along with deliberation of intrapersonal issues, such as how a participant may feel about openly discussing their SpLD? The possible emotional feelings of vulnerability, which may materialise as part of discussions. These are also some of the issues recognised I a research study by Gustafson and Brunger (2014), they thematically organised their ideas about boundaries in relation to identities, power, vulnerability and partnership. There may be a barrier relating to an aspect of skills and competence, or a difficulty in the use of and/or interpreting terminology. Interpersonal group dynamics and tensions could also pose as a barrier and can arise when a new group come together to work collaboratively. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but hopefully gives you an insight into some of the barriers relating to this particular type of research.
    To immerse myself within a community may require consideration regarding ‘self-disclosure’ of my own SpLD, in order to make the relationship between the researcher and the participants more equal. The aim of self-disclosure would be to create a post-structural view of power, as post structuralism acknowledges the power of discourse and its ability to shape reality. Regarding, where does the ‘bottom up’ approach begin? It needs to begin by considering all participants to be ‘experts’ of their own important knowledge and perspective. Participants will be entering into a community whereby they have a voice, and in some instances this voice may not have been heard before. However, in order for this to materialise they will need to be courageous and/or possess good communication and leadership skills.

    Phew … Does that answer the question?

    Gustafson, D. L. and Brunger, F. (2014) Ethics, “Vulnerability,” and Feminist Participatory Action Research With a Disability Community. Qualitative Health Research, 24(7), pp. 997-1005.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Jaye
      that all sounds good and understandable and the bottom up approach is in effect anything that has happened in a persons past, as we are all a result of what went on before. Barriers are, I believe only there because we allow them to be. And as PAR is based on Lewin we should all be able to identify what the barrier is and whether they have major or minor impact and set something up to counter it. With regards disclosure, something very familiar to those working with service users with mental health problems, be they mental health nurses, psychologist or counsellors etc., it is acknowledged that disclosure helps build rapport and as a result there is a better therapeutic relationship. In principle the same concept for your research. The issue is what to disclose and to what extent, the wrong thing and too much detail may have the opposite effect, in that it may prevent others disclosing or they may have less confidence in the person (Counsellor etc from a therapeutic perspective or researcher when undertaking PAR).
      These may be useful or at least thought provoking


      Liked by 1 person

  3. The issue of what to disclose needs to be given a great deal of consideration. Some disclosure may endear the participant to the researcher, helping them to feel that they can trust them and be open and honest, however to disclose ‘too much’ or the ‘wrong information’ can have the opposite effect and the researcher may lose insight of the personal experience of the participant.

    Is the researcher a friend? I think not, well not a friend in the true sense, Haigh (2005) in her findings discovered an ‘unequal power relationship between researcher and participant’, and the friendly relationship which can materialise maybe a way to instinctively address the imbalance. Conversely, self-disclosure may inadvertently enhance power issues, resulting in the disempowerment of the participant.

    Haigh C and Duncan F (2005) Balance of power – do patients use researchers to survive hospital? Nurse Researcher 12, 4 pp 71-80.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. that is the crux of therapeutic relationships, you need to disclose a certain amount but not too much and remain professional.I think from a therapist perspective there is always a power issue no matter what one tries to do to achieve a greater balance. The therapist is the ‘knowledgeable person’ helping the other to work through their issue and thereby eventually empowering them to achieve control.
      To some extent I personally think there are similarities in participatory research, the researcher is seen as the ‘knowledgeable person’ from the research process perspective. However, the purely participants in the research are the ‘knowledgeable participant’ of the subject being researched. There inevitably remains a power imbalance as the researcher has ultimate control of what is eventually written up and published

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Louise Hunt says:
    June 9, 2016 at 2:16 PM

    Hi Jaye
    I’m just leaving you a comment based on our chat yesterday. It was an observation that researchers need to be cautious that they do not become paternalistic towards participants when using some methods of investigation i.e. Participatory Action Research.
    I think it is particularly important for nurses to remain mindful of this, as we can have tendency to try to rescue people.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Participatory Action Research (PAR), by definition aims to involve the researched as a participant within the research. This requires the researcher to be mindful, as well as cautious in order to avoid ‘interference’ of the participant’s autonomy. There needs to be a shared, honest and transparent agenda between the researcher and the participant. Interference from the researcher, may not be a considered thought and may purely stem from the feeling of knowing ‘what is best for the participant’. Alternatively, the researcher may fall into the ‘paternalistic’ trap and find themselves in the position of attempting to obtain power over the participant, by controlling an element of the research for the participants ‘own good’.

    As a children’s nurse, I am all too aware of the ‘gut feeling’ which is derived from knowledge and critical understanding (Hams, 2000; Benner, 1984), and that feeling of knowing what is best for a child and/or their family, which must not be confused with the legislation within the Children Act (1989) and (2004), regarding the ‘best interest of the child’. Within the research I plan to conduct, the participants will be adults, which means I will need to remain mindful that my style and approach does not appear to be that of a person with a position of superiority. My earlier blog Who Am I… What Do You See? discusses my ontology and positionality with reference to power as a lecturer and as a nurse.

    As a researcher I need to be remain conscious and alert to the welfare of the participant, alongside respecting their right to make their own decisions, as a partnership approach increases involvement, which will ultimately leave the participant feeling nurtured and empowered.

    Department of Health (1989) Children Act. London: The Stationery Office
    Department of Health (2004) Children Act. London: The Stationery Office.
    Benner, P. (1982) From Novice to Expert. American Journal of Nursing, 82, pp. 402-407.
    Hams, S. P. (2000) A gut feeling? Intuition and critical care nursing. Intensive and Critical Care Nursing. 16(5), pp. 310-318.


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