Participatory action research (PAR) is a methodological approach to research that breaks with standard social scientific practice in a number of ways. In standard practice, research into the behavior of social groups is conducted by university-trained scientists, while in PAR research is conducted by the social groups themselves with the assistance of university-trained scientists. In standard practice, research into the behavior of social groups is conducted with an attitude of scientific objectivity, while in PAR research processes are conducted with a less objectivist attitude. Finally, in standard social scientific practice, the primary aim of research is the accumulation of knowledge, while in PAR the primary aim of research is improvement of social conditions, or social change. Given the aim of improving social conditions, much of PAR is conducted in the conditions of developing countries. However, action research approaches have been found useful worldwide in a broad range of contexts including education, urban planning, environmental conservation, and others. Journals, handbooks, and collected works on the subject are readily available.
PAR is not really a single method, but rather one of a family of research approaches. One approach derives from John Dewey through Kurt Lewin, who is often considered the father of American-styled action research. Lewin sought both knowledge production and beneficial social change through social experiments. He proposed “a type of action-research, a comparative research on the conditions and effects of various forms of social action, and research leading to social action” (Lewin 1946, 38). This research involved a spiral of steps, “each of which is composed of a circle of planning, action and fact-finding about the result of the action” (1946, 38). Action science is a school of thought developed by Chris Argyris. Argyris’s work is dedicated to improving community and organizational conditions, working largely in the context of industrial and corporate organizations and focusing specifically on the study of change and resistance to change. This research includes the study of “defensive routines” that manifest in organizations challenged with change, “dispositional” attributions of the form “My supervisor believes in such and such,” and theories of “causal responsibility” that concern the effects of decision a on outcome b. And she uses field experimental methods that meet “the rigorous tests of disconfirmability” (Argyris et al. 1985, xii).
Another approach to action research has a praxiological, or critical, orientation deriving from Karl Marx and Frederick Engels through Antonio Gramsci. Fals Borda’s (1985) promotion of participatory action research aims to foster community awareness within the perspective of historical materialism, addressing socio-political barriers to third world development efforts. William Foote Whyte has developed an approach to PAR that is different from that of Fals Borda. Whyte’s is more indicative of approaches to action research that focus on community participation. His characterization of the approach may therefore serve as a working definition of PAR: “In participatory action research (PAR), some of the people in the organization or community under study participate actively with the professional researcher throughout the research process from the initial design to the final presentation of results and discussion of their action implications” (Whyte 1991, 20). Despite its preoccupation with social change, Whyte believes that PAR should be recognized as an approach providing unique opportunities for academic research. It should be incorporated “into the tool kit of the social sciences” (1991, 19).
From the perspective of epistemology, PAR breaks quite deliberately with the tenet of scientific objectivity based in the fact–value dichotomy. Sometimes identified with British empiricist philosopher David Hume, the fact–value dichotomy refers to a distinction between scientific data, which are facts that can be proven, and social opinions, which are based on values and are matters of mere preference. The attitude of scientific objectivity follows from the priority assigned to the pursuit of factual knowledge. PAR’s epistemology must therefore include knowledge gained from action that is guided by values.
For researchers interested in contributing to the well-functioning of social groups, or society as a whole, alternatives to scientific research have traditionally included policy research and applied research. Both policy and applied research aim to support or to change social processes. Policy research is concerned more specifically with informing decisions required of policymaking in large-scale societies or settings. While applied research focuses on the actual business of implementing social action, policy research, strictly speaking, may not be required or may have already been conducted (Etzioni 1971). Following such a classification, PAR would belong to the category of applied research, though not all researchers would agree with assumptions underlying distinctions between these forms.
Modern philosophical trends have largely undermined, or at least complicated, assumptions underlying the fact–value dichotomy and the idea of factual objectivity. Social theorists as divergent as Pierre Bourdieu, Jürgen Habermas, Michel Foucault, and Seyla Benhabib identify an element of practice in the conduct of most, if not all, inquiry. The relationship between PAR and contemporary philosophy of social science remains yet to be thoroughly articulated.
- Argyris, C., Putnam, R., & Smith, D. M. (1985). Action science: Concepts, methods and skills for research and intervention. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
- Brown, D. L., & Tandon, R. (1983). Ideology and political economy in inquiry: Action research and participatory research. Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 19(3), 277–294.
- Etzioni, A. (1971). Policy research. American Sociologist, 6, 8–12.
- Fals Borda, O. (1985). Knowledge and people’s power. Geneva: ILO.
- Greenwood, D. J., & Levin, M. (1998). Introduction to action research: Social research for social change. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Hall, B. (1992). From margins to center? The development and purpose of participatory research. American Sociologist, Winter, 15–28.
- Lewin, K. (1946). Action research and minority problems. Journal of Social Issues, 2(4), 34– 46.
- McTaggart, R. (ed.) (1997). Participatory action research: International contexts and consequences. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.
- Rahman, M. A. (1993). People’s self-development: Perspectives on participatory action research. London: Zed Books.
- Whyte, W. F. (ed.) (1991). Participatory action research. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.
Back to Development Communication.