Locating participatory research

From the early roots of participatory research, three threads of inquiry have unified the approach. These centre on social investigation that engages ordinary' people; an educational process based on the interaction between researchers and participants; and researchers being in solidarity with people to take collective action (Maguire, 1987, p.29). Accordingly, participatory research has been influenced by a range of movements and writings, including the work of Paulo Freire, emanating from the critique that social science, education and developmental work may exacerbate the position of people as being oppressed, or dominated, rather than contributing to their liberation as citizens (Maguire, 1987). That said, the tradition of participatory research work is well-established, emergent, evolving and diverse within the qualitative tradition. For example, Kemtnis and McTaggart (2005, p.560) assert that three characteristics define the broad field of participatory research:

i) Shared ownership of research studies

ii) Community-based analysis of social problems

iii) A focus on community action

Certainly, participatory research has become increasingly prominent as it seeks to provide the vulnerable with a ‘voice’ in the health and social sciences, engaging them and researchers in emancipatory methods (Aldridge, 2015). An overarching boundary set by Reason (1994) and Freire (1993) was that at its core, participatory research was emancipatory, action-orientated and participatory. Early work centred on its characteristics as involving ways of working and a broad term for a wide range of approaches (Titterton and Smart, 2006). Much of the developmental work, over a period of many decades, has centred on its application in a variety of settings, including the Global South. This has resulted in a host of approaches anchored around collaborative principles such as emancipatory action research, community-based participatory research, participatory learning and action as well as participatory action research (PAR) (de Bran el al., 2016). Indeed, within this breadth in the field of participatory research, Chevalier and Buckles (2019) framed the discrete area of PAR itself as a ‘big tent’ (p. 11).

Within the health sciences, there has been a burgeoning interest in participatory approaches centred on pluralism and a growing family of ways forward, anchored in the twin aims of‘knowledge-making and social change’ (de Brim et al., 2016, p. 12). However, it is important to locate the main features of the participatory tradition so as to contextualise the place of what Reilly (2010) termed ‘participatory case study work’, an approach that we have adapted to showcase the studies shared in this book. As an illustration, although the area of participatory research is diverse, it is arguably imbued with a range of key principles focused on a collaborative form of engagement with people, or a collaborative venture (Titterton and Smart, 2006), that enables personal empowerment, hi essence, these principles centre on:

A deep and abiding belief in people’s capacity to grow, change, and create underlies this democratization of research. Participatory research assumes that returning power of knowledge production and use to ordinary and oppressed people will contribute to the creation of a more accurate and critical reflection of social reality, the liberation of human creative potential, and to the mobilisation of human resources to solve social problems.

(Hall, 1975 cited in Maguire, 1987, p.39)

A difficulty within the field of participatory research has been the degree to which the notion of participation and collaboration can be realised in the practice of doing such research, as well as the different claims by different approaches about the degree of participation involved within the inquiry process (Chevalier and Buckles, 2019). A major strand of participatory work has been the development of collaborative work, focused on social action and change, and expressed in the form of action research. This is focused on a broad spectrum of approaches and a spiral of cyclical activities (Kexmnis and McTaggart, 2005), which itself is defined based on ‘a loose set of principles’ (Chevalier and Buckles, 2019, p.22) that embrace:

  • • An inclusive form of methodical inquiry' that extends beyond the professional scientist
  • • A user-friendly inquiry process that involves a wide range of traditional or novel methods
  • • An engagement with human emotions, imagination atrd relations as part of the inquiry
  • • An embedded approach to building on the lessons learnt from the real-life situations of the inquiry to improve well-being and egalitarian relationships
  • • A recognition that inquiry' carmot be separated from a degree of risk and problems from society and history'

However, within such principles, there is a continuum of positions adopted by researchers and studies leading to radically different interpretations of ‘what research, participation and action actually mean’ (Chevalier and Buckles, 2019, p.22). Therefore, although there is a broad consensus on these core principles and what Hall (cited in Maguire, 1987) termed as ‘abiding beliefs’, the different approaches within the participatory research field position themselves as having a discrete perspective on taking these forward. This often centres on how specific approaches adopt a range of differing positions on the primacy of particular elements. This is surfaced in a critical appraisal of how diverse approaches address the practice of ‘doing’ participatory research and how they define its overall purpose. As an illustration, there are a variety of positions adopted in the case of action research, PAR, appreciative inquiry, cooperative inqvtiry or action inquiry for example (Chevalier and Bvtckles, 2019). Indeed, Chevalier and Buckles, (2019) suggest that there are distinct differences in the claims of participation between PAR and action research, as well as action inquiry:

Practically all studies in the social sciences involving human subjects could be seen as ‘participatory’. The attribute would become so hazy as to have no consequence at all. Its meaning is also lost when the term is generously extended to action inqvtiry or research in first person voice, such as self-studies and auto-ethnographies.


However, within these individual approaches, there is also diversity and a continuum of positions. For instance, in the case of PAR, it can be viewed as an ‘umbrella term covering a variety of participatory approaches to action-orientated research’ (Kindon et al, 2007, p.l).

In this way, the range of debates atrd developments within the participatory field is well illustrated within the rich vein of work in PAR. It provides a key case exemplar of how participatory approaches have a bounded identity within the broader set of principles, with PAR (arguably) combining scholarship, action and a particular focus on power, including political engagement (Kindon et al., 2007). Indeed, Kindon et al. (2007) highlight the tensions arovrnd empowerment and legitimacy within participatory and action-focused approaches that have emerged from international developmental studies.

A further challenging area in participatory research, such as action research and PAR, is the relationship between action and leanring as products from inquiry. Across approaches there is a tension in the literature suggesting that research often leads to either a ‘carnival of participatory methods’ (Wakeford et al, 2015 cited in Chevalier and Buckles, 2019, p.30) leading to no perceived social action or substantive leanring ending up ‘on the shelf, forlorn and recriminating as it gathers dust’ (Bradbury et al, 2015 cited in Chevalier and Buckles, 2019, p.30). How to ameliorate or stop this happening was a challenge that we wanted to explore through our own research programme.

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