What is participatory research and how is it connected to human rights work?

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What is participatory research and how is it connected to human rights work?

What is participatory research and how is it connected to human rights work?

  • Let us start by defining what 'participatory research' is, and how it can be used for action.
  • How is this work connected to the protection of human rights?

Why is participatory research such a powerful tool for inspiring action?

  • What is the power of participatory research? Why is it different from other research methods?
  • Do you prefer participatory research? If so, why? 
  • How do participatory research empower people and communities into action?

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

Participatory Research is...

I am a survey methodologist that specializes in human rights violations data. I speak from the viewpoint of a researcher that might enter a community to do research within that community.

Participatory research is research in which the members of the population being studied are treated as equal partners in the work.  From the viewpoint of a survey methodologist, this is the only ethical way to proceed when the primary research is from a different culture than the population being studied for multiple reasons.  First, to remain ethical, a survey must provide more benefit than harm to the population being studied, and the best way to ensure that is to consult with that population.  Second, designing effective questionnaires requires enough understanding of a culture to know which questions are potentially sensitive, which are easily misunderstood or have special meaning, and so on.  The best cultural experts on the target population are members of that population.  Third, your research idea might not be the one that best serves the community.  If your motivation for doing the research is to assist the community, you must know what they with what they want to be assisted.  Best way to know?  You guessed it, ask them.

When is research participatory research?  When members of the community are active in designing and implementing the research, when they are invested in the work, when they are involved in all stages of the work from planning to implementation to results, when they are happy with what was done and how it was done, and when they feel that they were treated respectfully and as valued members of the research team. 

The time to involve the target community?  At the very beginning, when you are formulating ideas.  Approach leaders of the community with your ideas and ask if they make sense!  Ask who the in the community could help the research happen.  Ask what research needs to happen.  Explain exactly where you are an expert and where you are not and members of the local community are the experts.  Ask the community for their goals for the research.  Expect that members of the community might not warm to you instantly.  Be humble.  Ask what you can do and how you can help them meet their goals.  Be ready to compromise your goals to allow theirs to be met. 

The hardest part is building trust and a good working relationship. 



When and how does the action come in?

Dear Jana,

thank for your introduction of the participatory research concept! I think from your post is has become very clear what differentiates participatory research from other approaches that do not actively involve the population under study.

My questions now regard the idea of inspiring action through participatory research. To be precise,

  1. What do we mean exactly when we talk of action? E.g. improving the human rights situation of a specific community? Who wants this action -- the researcher, the population? And who would become active -- The population under study, the population and the researcher, third actors?
  2. Is participatory research a response to a request/need for action voiced by the researched population/community? Meaning, is the research project the result of a request for expertise, in an effort to support that need for action, i.e. a bottom-up movement?
  3. Or is it rather a top-down approach, motivated by scientific interest in a specific question, which then inspires the population to act on its own behalf? This would mean, that the research question comes first, because the researcher perceives a need for action, followed by an empowerment of the population under study to fight for its own rights.

Maybe there is not one answer to each of these questions. Does anyone have experience and can relate to personal stories showing that this differs on a case-by-case basis?

Good questions

In response to Jule,

1.  This is a very good question.  If action is the mitigation of a percieve human rights problem, then the benefit and drawback of participatory research is that the perception is the joint perception of the population and the researcher.  At the beginning the perspective of the researcher might be very different than the community, but one would hope as learning occurred in both directions the perspectives would draw closer together.  Then the action would be mutually agreed-upon.  I would think the hope would be the action would be undertaken by the individuals involved in the research that are able to undertake it.  In a very repressed population, the community itself might not be in a position to advocate but the researcher could.  Differences in education levels can also affect who is able to take action.

In terms of what the action might be, I can think of some examples.  The action might be to bring a case to an international or national court system.  The action might be to develop proposals to submit to international organizations to expand access to health care, education, water, food, transportation.  The action might be to petition the United Nations to intervene or Amnesty International to start a letter-writing campaign.  Because human rights violations vary widely, the possible types of actions also vary widely!

2/3.  I think participatory research could be called for by the community, suggested by the researcher, or both.  A community might not know what could be possible through research, and the researcher might be able to present a case as to why the research could be useful toward the community goals.  I think if the research is suggested by someone outside the community, what makes it participatory is to go to the community at the beginning, respectfully present the idea, and then listen to what the community would want (if they do want the research to occur).  I think the goal of the researcher should be to elicit from the community what they would like to achieve, and then to provide the community with any technical expertise needed (or ideas needed) that the community does not already have, no matter from which direction the request for partnership came.


Participatory research

Dear Jana,

Thanks for your description regarding participatory research.

I like to share with you that we conducted a Participatory study among the Munda Community of Satkhira District, Bangladesh to establish their rights for empowerment.

Really it is a useful method for working with the grassroots community and easy to finding out any specific problem.

Our experience is that in this process the target group plays the role of researchers and as a result the out put is very high and also the ownership of the target group established.

The challenges are that most of the community people are illiterate and are deprived of from the basic rights so they lost their courage about demanding their rights. it is important to gain faith of the community on the researcher.

How has participatory research been used in Bangladesh?

Kazi Zaved Khalid Pasha wrote:

I like to share with you that we conducted a Participatory study among the Munda Community of Satkhira District, Bangladesh to establish their rights for empowerment.

Really it is a useful method for working with the grassroots community and easy to finding out any specific problem.

Our experience is that in this process the target group plays the role of researchers and as a result the out put is very high and also the ownership of the target group established.

Hi Zaved - we would love to hear more about your experience using participatory research for action in Bangladesh! Please tell us more about why the community chose to use participatory research, how it was carried out, and what was the impact! I look forward to learning more about how this tactic has been used in Bangladesh!

Research and Action

You may have been somewhat surprised to see my name and designation - Professor of Informatics; but one of my areas of expertise is Grounded Theory - or Grounded Theory Methodology [GTM].  I think GTM is relevant to these discussions because it developed from practice-based disciplines - nursing, social work - and is premised upon entering a social domain without preparing research questions and issues.  The features of the method then encourage a dialogue between all participants, with an outcome that should offer the benefits of a variety of viewpoints being brought together in some manner.  GTM can provide a basis for conceptualization to PAR, while PAR can offer ways in which these new insights can be the basis for concerted actions and interventions.

Grounded theory and participatory action research

Thank you, Tony, for sharing a bit about your background and your thoughts on the connection between Grounded Theory and Participatory Action Research. Could you share an example or two of how the integration of these two methodologies could be used by a community? How does (or could) this relate to human rights and social justice work?

Some generic points

Apologies for not replying sooner - but I've been away for a few days.

In response to Kristin's comment - and also taking into account several other postings - one of the key aspects of grounded theory is its stress on getting people to feel confident in their views and concepts about what is going on in any particular context.  In its early formulations this was aimed specifically at novice researchers, to encourage them to break away from the grand theories in their particular field or discipline.  Taking in key aspects of PAR - and action research in general - the distinction between the researcher and the participant breaks down, so that everyone is a participant.  So GTM builds on a constructivist approach that stresses the importance of everyone's accounts.  The GT method then builds on these accounts - or any other sources of 'data' - using them to produce substantive accounts that are pragmatic.  One of the founders of GTM - Anselm Strauss - was particularly influenced by the Pragmatist work of Dewey and James.  The aim of the method is to produce theories that 'fit' and 'work' - i.e. have some impact on people's practices and actions.  The early GT theories were aimed at medical care - particularly nursing - and many of the most effective uses of the method have been within these areas.  These would be good examples from which to build new insights into PAR.

Participatory Research: At What Level?

As I was looking at the Web site for the journal Participatory Learning and Action, I was reminded that participatory research is not necessarily confined to the local level.  Although involving people from local communities is critical and necessary, I think that another component of participatory research involves reporting on the results of that research, with the assistance of the intended beneficiaries, whenever possible.

For example, it is possible to discuss with local community leaders the prospect of arranging a "delegation" involving their fellow people and those whom they interacted with during a research project or program, to appear before regional, sub-regional, national, or even international policymaking bodies or institutions. As long as local leaders are willing and comfortable with this arrangement, it can be a powerful means of advocating for human rights and humanitarian action, by raising the visibility of a given problem(s).

In a somewhat different vein, local peoples and networks of them already have been engaged in activities meant to report on and even enable decisions about policy matters concerning human rights and humanitarian actions.  International "congresses" convened by networks of local peoples are an excellent example.  They also represent a key opportunity to combine participatory research results with the "human faces" who represent the intended beneficiaries of that research.  Of course, as practitioners, we must ensure that we seek the full consent of those whom we intend to include, and ensure that involving them will not place them in harm's way or in a compromising position!


I strongly believe that without empowerment, our research in general would have been unsuccessful. We gained the trust and cooperation from the local community by getting them to be involved in our research. Every step of the research process was brought to their attention and they were given the opportunity to provide insights and feedbacks related to issues that were troubling them. We organized face-to-face discussions and went down to the field to gain first hand information on their needs and wants. We as researchers, must always remember to tie their troubles with our research goals. We should always seek ways to assist people rather than just seeking to achieve our research goals. From my experience, there is always a marriage-waiting-to-happen between the two "their needs and our goals". We should strive to satisfy these aims by allowing their needs to become our main interest. Only then can we move forward with our research agenda.

Matching needs and goals


This is a very important point that you are raising.

It would be great if you would share an example about how you conducted the face-to-face discussions and field visits in order to better elicit the needs and wants of the community in order to also match these with your goals.

How different were your goals from their wants and needs? Why do you think this was the case?

Did you also need to provide information and incentives for the community to understand how your goals were also meeting their needs? If so, how did you go about doing this?

People at grassroots have the most expertise in defining success

As someone who has worked extensively in building the monitoring & evaluation capacity of grassroots organizations in Africa, what I have found is that abstract metrics or research frameworks don’t often help people understand their relationship to improving the well-being of those they serve. Rather than using any theory or logframes, local leaders, as members of a community, read real-time trends via observation of what’s happening on the ground, which, in turn, drives intuition. Skills in participatory action research further enhance this.

You can read how-matters.org's latest blog post questioning the use of quantitative statistical information as the sole, authoritative source of knowledge in the international development sector at: (http://www.how-matters.org/2010/11/17/161-indicators/)

Defining success requires balance, though...

HowMatters.org raises an important point that should not be overlooked--and to be fair--does go on to state that quantitative metrics and data should be used wisely and not discarded altogether. I can attest, however, to the power of rigorously defined, scientifically defensible monitoring and evaluation plans. I agree that in a data-centric world, it is easy to lose sight of the human stories and observations of those whose lives are meant to be benefited from development or relief projects. At the same time--and as one who began his career with a more "qualitative" focus--I have come to understand how a sound evaluation program can help to inform all parties as to the effectiveness of a given project or program.

I am thinking of the allocation of relief in post-conflict areas. Oftentimes, international donors are one step removed from assessing the effectiveness of the work of the staff that are implementing services. Obviously, it is about more than measuring the number of infections treated or healthy babies delivered over a given period. But I think that a strong evaluation program that is data oriented and incorporates the voices of intended beneficiaries will help to hold accountable those who are being employed to provide services or other relief or development efforts.

The current outbreak of cholera in Haiti is one example.  I would argue that a strong, scientifically defensible program for assessing inputs and outputs (i.e., what is brought into the country and what is produced as a net gain) might have prevented the introduction of cholera to a population that already has suffered a lifetime of catastrophes and inequality. Perhaps the answer lies in finding a balance between rigorous monitoring and evaluation programs and direct reporting and dialogue from local leaders and other local community actors. They most certainly are not mutually exclusive, and the challenge to all of us is to better understand when it is approrpriate to use them equally or to use one with greater emphasis.

~Michael Kisielewski, StatAid

Balancing indigenous information sources with quantitative data

I think you both have good points but perhaps are addressing different issues.  The first issue is whether the community understands and can use the proposed assessment tools for a research project.  The second issue is the use of quantitative or qualitative data.

When participatory research occurs, an overly-academic, abstract framework for assessment -- either qualitative or quantitative -- might not go over very well.  If the community members do not find the assessment technique intuitive, they are not likely to embrace it.  However, it is possible to design an assessment process -- in collaboration with the community -- that is acceptable to all parties involved, even one that relies on quantitative measures.  An example might be how a local community organization can keep track of how many women it serves.  Even if no person in the group is literate, tracking clients can be done simply by tying a knot on a rope for each new client.  If the group needs to track the number of visits per client, perhaps a separate rope for each client is appropriate.  Yes, this is quantitative information, but it isn't couched in an abstract framework.  If the local community understands that the organizations that provide the money require the quantitative information, and the system for determining that information is logical to (and appropriate for the education of) the local community, then success is more likely.  The point is that just like in participatory research, designing an assessment process should also be participatory.  And if one is going to be participatory, sticking to a rigidly-defined abstract framework is not likely to be effective. 

In terms of the second issue, in many ways this is an artificial distinction.  Quantitative data is simply information that has been quantified.  So you can do research by gathering stories of human rights abuses, for example, or you can gather counts of abuses, at the other extreme, or something in between.  I think the point with participatory research is to gather information in a way that makes sense to the community, on phenomena that the community believes should be measured.  If the community is truly integrated into the research process, it will be tolerant toward the collection of information required by a funder that individuals in the community don't particularly care about.

That's my two cents.



Has Participatory Action Research changed since the 80s?

Hello all,

I ran across these 16 tenets of Participatory Action Research (PAR) that were presented to the 3er Encuentro Mundial Investigacion Participatva (The Third World Encounter on Participatory Research), Managua, Nicaragua, back in 1989.

Would you agree that these 16 tenents still hold true for implementing PAR today?

Participatory Action Research
   1.     is an approach to improving social practice by changing it
   2.     is contingent on authentic participation
   3.     is collaborative
   4.     establishes self-critical communities
   5.     is a systematic learning process
   6.     involves people in theorising about their practices
   7.     requires that people put their practices, ideas and assumptions about institutions to the test
   8.     involves keeping records
   9.     requires participants to objectify their own experiences
  10.     is a political process
  11.     involves making critical analyses
  12.     starts small
  13.     starts with small cycles
  14.     starts with small groups
  15.     allows and requires participants to build records
  16.     allows and requires participants to give a reasoned justification of their social (educational) work to others

If you click on this link http://www.caledonia.org.uk/par.htm#4.  Each of these 16 points have a brief description which I found very helpful.

I would be very interested to know if the practice of PAR today has maintained these points and if these points have grown to include others.

16 tenents of PAR

Nancy, this is a great list to share; I would add to it the following:

17. Requires a gender-sensitive framework/analysis

18. Can create ethical and moral dilemmas and/or duress

19. Demands personal/professional adaptability to be comfortable with worldview transformations

20. Requires resilience and some shock-resistance when confronted with alternative realities as PAR can be life-altering

21. Can involve both short and extensive periods of commitments - months can turn into years




Great points. I would like to add that being flexible is also an important point when carrying out participatory research. Plans change due to circumstances and situations. We must be able to tweak our plans to adapt to the ever changing world. The only thing that is constant is change~Heraclitus 

Best wishes always


Somewhat rigid?

I would hope that PAR might have all these characteristics but not that research *must* have all of these characteristics to be PAR.  For example, by the definitions given for the 16 characteristics the community involved in PAR would need to be educated and literate; are we saying that PAR can't occur in illiterate populations?

Also, Participatory Action Research is the name for a particular process you have outlined, but is it the same as Participatory Research for Action?  My understanding is that PAR is based on "Action Research" which is a very systematic process... I was not interpreting "Participatory Research" to be the same thing.  Perhaps I am confused?

'Participatory research' and 'action research'

Thanks for pointing this out, Jana! Could you (and others) help us understand what the difference is between 'participatory research' and 'action research' and how 'participatory action research' fits into this? They all sound so similar! Thanks!

Action Research, PAR, et al.

My understanding is that Action Research was developed in the educational setting as a method for teachers/staff to improve their ability to solve problems through evidence-based decision making.  Basically, the researchers are also the subjects.  In contrast, PAR involves an outside researcher partnering with a community for the purpose of solving problems through evidence-based decision making. In both cases, there is a well-defined framework for the research as has been described in other messages.  Participatory research is research in which the community and "trained" researchers are equal partners in the research process -- as such, the process by which the research occurs is not so mandated as that for PAR.  Again, this is just my understanding -- I am not an expert on PAR or AR!

participatory research with illiterate populations

Thank you, Jana, for pointing out how different definitions imply certain characteristics of the target populations.

janaasher wrote:

I would hope that PAR might have all these characteristics but not that research *must* have all of these characteristics to be PAR.  For example, by the definitions given for the 16 characteristics the community involved in PAR would need to be educated and literate; are we saying that PAR can't occur in illiterate populations?

Your comment made me wonder: Does anyone have experience conducting participatory research with illiterate populations? What are some guidelines, ideas, and tactics that you would recommend using?

PAR Tenents and Somewhat rigid?

Hi all,

Thanks so much for your great responses and comments to list of "tenents" and the questions being raised.

I would like to hear more comments from people regarding your thoughts on the difference between "participatory action research" and "participatory research for action".  For the later, I'm also thinking about the methodology utilized by people using "Action Theater". This idea works well regarding your comment about how to involve illiterate populations. Ain O Salish Kendra (ASK) in Bangladesh using a participatory research method in order to develop the issues of most concern to community; then they create the play using the information they have recevied from the community; put the play on for the community; the community participates in the play by helping to decide what kind of actions should be taken in order to address the issue; and then they decide how to make that action happen to make a desired change.

I had made a post under another thread with a methodology could also relate to engaging illiterate populations - the storytelling technique behind the "Most Significant Change (MSC) Technique" - the link to the post and resource is here: Participatory Evaluation- Most Significant Change resource

Community Power Dynamics: an obstacle to PAR?

People are bringing up very important themes for the initiation and implementation of participatory research, such as the importance of communities to feel empowered by the project , as well as some of the difficulties inherent in participatory research, including neogtiating the different perspectives and backgrounds of communities and project leaders. These points reminded me of the difficulty in trying to understand and not be limited by power dynamics within communities that could potentially disenfranchise certain community members from participation in the research. I was wondering if anyone has experience with overcoming this obstacle and what tactics you have found to be most useful. Also, do you think it is important to connect what may be harmful power dynamics into a larger human rights issue, or address the issue on a smaller case-by-case basis?

Community Power Dynamics


I think that the matter of power dynamics is very delicate.  Sometimes, it might be necessary to accept that the distribution of "power" or influence in a community cannot easily be overcome--if at all.  It is very context-specific--especially if those dynamics have been part of a community for long periods of time.  Also, addressing the issue of power dynamics is likely to be more manageable if a community is smaller in size.  That might sound obvious, but it can be easily overlooked--in such a way that we--as practitioners, are tempted to believe that there are simple solutions for overcoming barriers that might be created by the distribution of power and influence in a community.

~Michael Kisielewski, StatAid

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