Participatory action research

Fig: The multiple linked facets of participatory action research.
Fig: The multiple linked facets of participatory action research.

Participatory action research comprises a family of research methodologies which aim to pursue action and research outcomes at the same time (PAR, action learning, soft systems methodology, developmental evaluation, etc.). It therefore has some components which resemble consultancy or change agency, and some which resemble field research. The focus is action to improve a situation and the research is the conscious effort, as part of the process, to formulate public knowledge that adds to theories of action that promote or inhibit learning in behavioural systems. In this sense the participatory action researcher is a practitioner, an interventionist seeking to help improve client systems. However, lasting improvement requires that the participatory action researcher help clients to change themselves so that their interactions will create these conditions for inquiry and learning. Hence to the aims of contributing to the practical improvement of problem situations and to the goals of developing public knowledge we can add a third aim of participatory action research, to develop the self -help competencies of people facing problems.

“You cannot understand a system until you try to change it” (Lewin)

PAR: linking practice, reflection and learning

The principles of action research can be seen to underpin the development and improvement of practice in all the fields of inquiry within this site. The concept of learning by doing in which learning is perceived as experiential and reflexive is fundamental to this approach. It recognises that people learn through the active adaptation of their existing knowledge in response to their experiences with other people and their environment. Moreover, the process of building on experience is a natural one for most people and action research provides a framework for formalising and making this process more effective. By making explicit and documenting the processes by which individuals carry out their activities and problem solving processes allows for the fine tuning and improvement of these processes. And while action research is inherently a collaborative approach, it is also useful as an approach to improve individual practice.

The accompanying LfS blog posting –  – Participatory action research provides for multiple benefits – provides a brief introduction to action research and how it is can be used, and points to a wide range of topic areas that can all contribute more specific information around its use in practice. The following links point to a range of useful materials that help us think about the ways in which we can practice action research and learning:

Why use action research

Understanding action research
This useful page by Margaret Riel provides a  overview of action research for new action researchers which is revised yearly.  It provides a good orientation to the different dimensions of action research that characterize different approaches. Margaret also leads the excellent Open Action Research Online Course … which provides a video, activities and writing modules and resource links for each module.

Both critical and applied? Action research and transformative change
This 2018 paper by Emma L Westling and Liz Sharp outlines how doing action research in technical areas provides an opportunity for social science to present its perspectives outside of ‘normal’ social science contexts, supporting greater attention to ethical, justice and environmental concerns. Importantly, taking a critical action research to water management enables informed dialogue with technical decision makers and other key stakeholders – raising and pushing forward socially and environmentally progressive futures.

Ten essentials for action-oriented and second order energy transitions, transformations and climate change research
This 2018 paper by Ioan Fazey and colleagues explains the need for more action-oriented research and introduces the concept of first and second-order science, which frames the rest of the paper. They then point to ten essentials for guiding action-oriented transformation and research. They include: 1) Focus on transformations to low-carbon, resilient living; 2) Focus on solution processes; 3) Focus on ‘how to’ practical knowledge; 4) Approach research as occurring from within the system being intervened; 5) Work with normative aspects; (6) Seek to transcend current thinking; 7) Take a multi-faceted approach to understand and shape change; 8) Acknowledge the value of alternative roles of researchers; 9) Encourage second-order experimentation; and 10) Be reflexive. The paper emphasises that while first-order modes of research are important, much greater emphasis is needed on second order approaches that can accelerate learning and actions that lead to transformations towards a low-carbon, resilient and sustainable world.

Why action research?
Members of the editorial board of Action Research responded to the question, ‘Why action research?’. This 2003 article examines common themes and commitments among action researchers as well as exploring areas of disagreement and important avenues for future exploration.

Participatory action research and its practice

Participatory Action Research, Planning, and Evaluation​
This site founded by Jacques Chevalier, Daniel Buckles and Michelle Bourassa is dedicated to advancing authentic dialogue and sound inquiry among people committed to making a difference. It weaves together insights and lessons from critical, clinical and pragmatic perspectives on PAR, building on the common idea that research must be done “with” people and not “on” or “for” people. The approach they advance is not just another toolbox or packaged methodology, but is developed around the idea that every process must be designed from scratch, tailored to a specific purpose, timeframe and set of actors. This is a craft involving five skillful means – engaging, grounding, navigating, sensemaking and scaling. Their handbook is particularly useful and available for download.

Decolonising action research
This 2011 special edition of the ALARA (Action learning and action research journal)  aims to capture some of the dilemnas, solutions and actions researchers experience in the decolonising space. This collection of papers demonstrates that researchers are not only undertaking research with and within indigenous and non-indigenous contexts, but that they are doing so in exciting and dynamic ways across a diversity of situations.

Acknowledging privilege through encounters with difference: Participatory Learning and Action techniques for decolonizing methodologies
This 2011 paper by Vivienne Bozalek shows how Participatory Action and Learning (PLA) research techniques can contribute to decolonising methodologies by alerting participants to privilege and marginalisation through encounters across difference. Consciousness of privileges is often obscured and naturalised as part of normative expectations of everyday living. This paper contends
that no one is exempt from interrogating their positionality and their beliefs, and that PLA research techniques can provide the means by which people can be confronted with privileges and marginality through encountering the ‘other’.

Action Research Resources
This site by Bob Dick provides comprehensive links and material to key action research, action learning and related resources. This site also acts as home to Areol, action research and evaluation on line, which is a set of on-line learning sessions provided (as a 15-week public on-line course offered each semester) as a public service by Southern Cross University and the Institute of Workplace Research Learning and Development. I did this course when it started some years ago … and can really recommend it.

Creating a Wider Audience for Action Research: Learning from Case-Study Research
This 2006 paper by Bodil Blichfeldt and colleagues discusses similarities and differences between these two forms of research practice. The paper also highlights some of the criticisms and challenges action researchers face. It suggests ways in which action researchers may enhance the discussability of action research by: (a) increasing the transparency of their research processes, (b) declaring the intellectual frameworks brought into action research projects, (c) discussing transferability of findings, and (d) defining accumulation of results. This may require an extension to scientific discourse. In particular, the paper suggests that action researchers could change the ways in which action research results are reported to increase their reach among a wider audience.

The Application of Participatory Action Research to Climate Change Adaptation in Africa. A reference guide
The primary aim of this Reference Guide is to provide a set of concepts and practical tools for use by those working to support stakeholders (communities, government agencies, policy makers) in their efforts to adapt – or to help others adapt – to climate change. The Guide nevertheless presents a generic set of concepts and tools that is likely to be of use to others working to address other development challenges requiring a multi-stakeholder learning-by-doing approach.

Participatory action research: Guide for facilitators
This guide has been written by Robert Nurick and Marina Apgar as a resource document for the training and capacity building of facilitators who conduct participatory action research (PAR) in the CGIAR Research Program on Aquatic Agricultural Systems (AAS). This guide provides a road map for facilitators to support them in delivering a rigorous PAR process, providing them with guidance for effective facilitation that allows for critical reflection throughout the engagement process. The material in the guide is also relevant to other groups wishing to take a PAR approach to research and community development.

Chapter 3: The role of action research in environmental management
In this methodology chapter (from my thesis) Will Allen outlines the underlying concepts of action research in more detail. Some differences between action research and mainstream science are then explained, particularly to justify its use as an appropriate methodology to address social and institutional issues related to improving environmental management. Some more practical details of practicing action research are then discussed. Finally the process of critical reflection in action research is highlighted, and an illustration of how it’s use in practice can help in getting people to think more deeply about the use of environmental practices is outlined.

Action Science Network
The Action Science Network aims to accurately describe and efficiently demonstrate the theory and practice of action science and, secondarily, to connect individuals and groups interested in working with action science. (In the field of Organizational Development, Action Science is also known as Action Inquiry, Action Research, and Organizational Learning.) The Network also maintains a comprehensive bibliography of books and articles by Chris Argyris.

A Set of Principles for Conducting and Evaluating Interpretive Field Studies in Information Systems
This oldish (but still worth reading) paper by Heinz Klein and Michael Myers discusses the conduct and evaluation of interpretive research in information systems. While the conventions for evaluating information systems case studies conducted according to the natural science model of social science are now widely accepted, this is not the case for interpretive field studies. A set of principles for the conduct and evaluation of interpretive field research in information systems is proposed, along with their philosophical rationale. The intention of the paper is to further reflection and debate on the important subject of grounding interpretive research methodology.

A number of other pages and sections in this site provide information on related areas. There are, for example, a number of research approaches that support participatory and learning-based initiatives. Other specific pages look at how to manage integration in applied research settings and new thinking on managing participation and engagement.