What are the challenges and opportunities today around participatory research for action?

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What are the challenges and opportunities today around participatory research for action?

What are the challenges around participatory research for action?

  • Where do you see practitioners run into problems?
  • How have these challenges been overcome?

What are the opportunities today around participatory research for action?

  • What new opportunities exist today for practitioners interested in participatory research for action?
  • How is social media and new technology being incorporated into participatory research for action?

Share your thoughts, ideas, questions and stories below by adding a new comment to this thread or replying to existing comments.

Skills transfer and participatory research

In my projects, I try to work in a participatory manner, which often involves transfer of skills to community members.  For example, if I'm running a random sample survey, members of the community might learn best practices for questionnaire design, interviewing, or field logistics.  In one current project in which I'm involved, I've set up training for several individuals via the Internet. So one can consider skills transfer an opportunity afforded by the participatory research model, in both directions.



I don't have a lot of personal experience with participatory research, but it seems to me that it's necessary if a project is going to be successful in the long term.  In development efforts, the involvement of local communities is crucial to understanding the area's needs as well as how to meet those needs most effectively.  I can only assume that this is also the case from a human rights standpoint. 

OK, so here's the challenge to participatory research that I propose:

In some communities, I'm assuming that the human rights issue is that a certain group is oppressed, whether it be due to their race, gender, etc.  These people may be punished for speaking to researchers about existing circumstances in their communities, and may be discouraged from coming forward because of this.  How do researchers ensure that they are speaking to the right people if these people are afraid to come forward?  Or, if they do come forward, how do you protect them from the repercussions?  Perhaps this research can be done privately or anonymously?  It seems that that would make the process much more difficult. 

Perhaps this isn't a problem participatory researchers come across a lot, but I'm interested in hearing what people's experiences have been in regard to this issue.

Thank you!

Responding to the Challenges


I think you have touched on a core concern, here. Naturally, we want to ensure that we "do no harm" before engaging in any kind of activity meant to help meet people their needs at the local level. Sometimes, it is a matter of erring on the side of caution. Other times, it might be possible to look for "intermediaries" who could serve as a gateway to speaking with or interviewing those who are vulnerable to retaliation. That might require, for example, speaking to a local figure of authority who garners enough respect such that he or she is considered "off limits" by those who might be in a position of power--a village chief, perhaps. Or a spiritual leader.

Those are not foolproof techniques, of course, but they are considerations. It might well be that one never truly can be certain that he/she is speaking to the most appropriate people. It's also possible that the converse is true: that individuals who are "at risk" are very willing to come forward to share their stories or experiences, because they are seeking a voicce. All of the above must be taken into consideration, if researchers wish to accomplish their goals while serving those who are the intended beneficiaries.

In the world of survey administration, for example, the questions you have raised are incredibly important, so I would urge others to share their ideas about how to address this concern.

Maybe (not) challenging if the need is defined by ... ?

I have asked elsewhere whether the initial interest to conduct participatory research is driven by the researcher (top-down) or the participating community (bottom-up). I think when it comes to the challenge you raise, Amanda, this differentiation might actually be quite interesting.

As a researcher i am interested in the dynamics of violence during armed conflict and state repression. If there was a community i was interested to study because it was being oppressed, my plan to conduct participatory research with that population might put these people at risk (and potentially also myself). And, i might have trouble to find people i can trust and who are willing to cooperate with me, because they do not want to put themselves at risk. The next question in this context would be if such a research project could have any impact (action!) at actually relieving oppression from that population. I think an important question one should ask--when one has a vision--is what the best strategies and appropriate tactics are to achieve a specific mission. Maybe, in a very violent/oppressive situation, research is not the best way to go. (Please contradict me if you think i am wrong.)

In contrast, if it were the case that representatives of a community turned to a practitioner and asked for assistance in conducting a research project, for instance, because they wanted to document incidents of violence/repression to then strategically use that information to show that they were being targeted or oppressed. Well, then i would imagine that the community felt such a project was feasible and that they were safe enough to do it. Plus, they are apparently convinced that such endeavor would effectively bring them closer to achieving their goal. In this case, assisting the community in designing a monitoring and documentation mission might be quite promising.

What do you think?

Researching real-time conflict (and case selection)

Michael_Kis wrote:

I am also curious as to situations in which violence is widespread but has not completely engulfed an entire country, for example. Is it possible, safe, and ethical to conduct a participatory research project in that context?

Yes, that indeed is an interesting question. It probably depends a lot on the political context. I imagine in cases of conflict around issues of autonomy or secession with a high level of political repression a researcher might have trouble to gain access to the area. And interacting with the local population will put these people at risk, violating the "do no harm rule". The more i think about this i feel inclined to say that i doubt real-time research of conflict can be valid and reliable. There are just too many obstacles. And other action might be much more important like humanitarian action or political pressure on the combating parties to stop the violence etc. I noted before that PAR is one tactic among many to choose from and tactics should be weighed against each other in order to identify those that seem the most promising to effectively benefit the population at risk at a given moment.

Michael_Kis wrote:

Thus, it could be that survey takers are instructed to avoid known conflict areas or areas perceived to be too dangerous to enter. In that case, a well-designed sample with "alternate" locations to be surveyed can alleviate concerns about not covering an intended population.

This is a minor scientific 'side-question' regarding your suggestion on sampling design. What if the more violent areas differ systematically from the ones with less violence? The difference in local areas might correlate with the outcome variable, i.e. violence. How can scientific conclusions be made about an intended population that has actually not been studied?

Researching Real-time Conflict

Dear Jule:

I entirely agree that it likely is not practical to conduct research in real-time during active conflict--and certainly not if one seeks valid or generalizable results. When I wrote about how to handle situations where conflict continues but is not (completely) widespread, I was wondering how to approach situations where conflict is lingering but not prevailing. My experience here is limited, so I do not have many examples to draw upon.

With the study of health and mental health outcomes in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), which I referred to above, I know that the formal conflict had ended but bands of militias and even government forces continued to fight or attack civillians (this still is occurring), the target population was the people of all territories of eastern DRC, and sampling occurred at the level of the viillage. So, with regard to your question about sampling design, I empathize with your point about not being able to make valid or defensible conclusions when the intended population has not been studied (or completely covered).

Again, thinking back to the DRC study and similar studies conducted by our project partners in recent years (e.g., in Liberia), it seemed as if population coverage was less of a concern because, although violence continued after the brokering of peace agreements, the presence of violent actors (e.g., militias or rebels) at the village level generally meant that the villages had been destroyed and occupied by those forces. Thus, there were no persons to interview, and survey takers were instructed to visit an "alternate" village.  I think that is a bit different from the example/question you posed--so, yes, I would agree that wherever violence remains high and pervasive, it is difficult (if not impractical) to carry out a project whose results are representative of the phenomena being studied.

~Michael Kisielewski, StatAid

challenges at different phases of a PAR project

We encountered many challenges in doing our community-based participatory action research program with young mothers who had been former child soldiers in Liberia. Sierra Leone and northern Uganda. We have recently written about them in a handbook on PAR, downloadable from our website here: www.pargirlmothers.com. In particular, we found that leaders in the communities we worked in could both be champions and obstacles, often wanting to benefit from the program themselves. There were other difficulties related to helping participants themselves understand that this program was different from traditional aid programs - we wanted them to take full control of the program and they were still in the mindset of donor/beneficiary. Thirdly, as the program progressed and participants lives improved, there were significant issues managing jealousy.  And finally, we found that changing the mindset of staff of the child protection agencies that we partnered with was difficult.

While PAR is a very intuitive methodology, in post-conflict areas that are so used to the donor/beneficiary traditional development/aid model, it took a lot of work to get people to really understand PAR. Once they did, however, people embraced it!

Champions and Obstacles

Dear Miranda:

Your story about the role of local community leaders certainly is familiar.  I am glad that you reminded us of how challenging it can be to help beneficiaries realize the difference between that which is more participation-driven versus the common donor-recipient relationship.  I would add that doing work such as this requires tremendous patience with all parties involved.  Oftentimes, participatory research projects/programs whose end results are not immediate or are intended to help a specific sub-group of a population can frustrate the wider community--especially when suffering is widespread.

I am thinking of population-based surveys in which the objective is to gather information critical to identifying broader needs and understanding the prevalence of certain phenomena (e.g., post-conflict trauma, maternal health, child welfare).  It can be challenging for respondents to see the incentive to participate, and yet in my experience I have noticed that potential respondents are very much willing to share their stories.  That is where we must ensure that, as practitioners, we are clear about the objectives of our research projects.  And that inherently requires being transparent about what will and will not be provided as a result of participation in a project.

Post-conflict settings are incredibly difficult because almost every person has some form of a need--and services are limited.  I am convinced, though, that the prognosis for effective participation is good, although there always is room for improvement--especially through establishing a sound relationship of trust and open communication with local leaders and participants.

~Michael Kisielewski, StatAid

Participant Research for Action in wartorn Counrty

Over the past 10 years we have being using participant research for action in the most fragile region in the east Africa.  Through the process we have being able to brings together actors from local and international institutions, civil society groups, private sector, community leaders, local and international NGOs, and external assistance partners in a consensus-based process for the identification and prioritisation of reconstruction and development need, action-oriented research and problem solving, process.

 This methodology provided an opportunity for researchers and social actors join forces in collective research and analysis forming a true partnership. The social actors contribute their knowledge of the issues at stake and the researchers help systematize this knowledge, carry out targeted investigations to complete it, and lead the collective analysis exercise. Social actors, who traditionally are the objects of research, become - at the same time - the active subjects of research.

 In post conflict environment such methodology allows key actors to address issues of common concern with ownership. There is greater opportunity to apply such works in countries of conflict both at the national level but also regional level. Please see Interpeace who have successfully utilized this methodology.  In our case The Participatory Research for action methodology was used to help participants identify options for policy formulation and priority setting in their environment. Through these process sometimes community have successfully reconciled.

Participant research for action in a wartorn country


Thank you for sharing this expereince from interpeace.

Please give us an example of what you were highlighting regarding the policy formulations that were developed through the participatory research for action process.

From my perspective, the

From my perspective, the biggest challenge is finding good materials for introducing it into an academic curriculum.  I teach at Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), which is a natural audience for this approach. Many of my students have concentrations in human rights, others in economic and political development practice.  There are a lot of Peace Corps veterans as well as students who will return to their homes in developing countries.  But we cover a vast amount of material concerning media and development in a semester  (See class research at:  http://newmediadev2009.wikischolars.columbia.edu/)   So I need to identify the right "participatory research in a box" resource to better introduce the entire class to the basic concepts, and allow some of the students to delve deeper.

I must add that much of our culture runs counter to these ideas in other areas of the university.  Business schools, for example, often approach their fieldwork in developing countries as "tell, don't ask" (or even worse, "sell, don't ask"!)  The listening and collaborative aspects of participatory research need to be introduced across a wide spectrum of academic disciplines.  

Challenges in Academia

Hello, Anne:

I would imagine that teaching participatory research or approaches to participatory research could have several starting points, in light of its relative youth as a practice.  I agree that there are aspects of academia that traditionally do not jibe well with the underlying principles of participatory research.  One way to develop your own teaching resource might be to draw upon the "lessons learned" from other disciplines, to point out pitfalls and other practices one should avoid--as you elude to in your message regarding the business school philosophy.

~Michael Kisielewski, StatAid

Wanted: PAR-in-a-box

What a great idea, Anne! I hope that someone reads this and provides you (and all of us) with a PAR-in-a-box toolkit! In the meantime, I found a few other resources that might help:

  • Oregon Health and Science University with contributions from Universities around the US, put together a PAR toolkit for UCEDDs (University Centers for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities). On their website, they write:

The purpose of this project is to develop educational modules on participatory action research with the creation of a toolkit by modeling an inclusive approach.  Through the creation of the toolkit, every UCEDD will be able to access resources that will enhance and increase Participatory Action Research and support initiatives that are most meaningful to people with disabilities and their families. It will also be available to individuals, advocacy groups and state consumer councils.

This could be a place to start when thinking about how to bring PAR into academic cirriculums.

  • Insite! has developed a toolkit on stopping police brutality against women and trans people of color. A section of this toolkit is on participatory action research - what it is, how to do it, and how it can be used to stop police brutality. They also include an example of a case study:

For example, Different Avenues, a community-based organization in Washington, D.C., did a participatory research project about how sex workers were being impacted by the D.C. police department’s enforcement of “prostitution free zones.” They recruited people from among their constituents and trained them in data collection, analysis, and report writing. Together, the participants developed a survey, administered it, analyzed the results, presented them back to the community for feedback, and then released a report, which is being used to develop a campaign against police harassment and abuse against people who are, or are perceived to be, sex workers in D.C. The report, Move Along: Policing Sex Work in Washington, D.C., describes the research process they used, and can be found on the Resource CD that accompanies this toolkit.

I hope this will be a good start to creating the PAR-in-a-box! Know of any other toolkits or examples of how PAR has been introduced in academic cirriculums?

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