Participatory Action Research by Caitlin Cahill

Writing in the wake of Nelson Mandela’s passing, the anti-apartheid wisdom of “nothing about us, without us, is for us,” resonates strongly with the commitment of participatory action research to value knowledge that has been historically marginalized and produced through collaboration and in action. Raising critical questions with regards to the purposes and audiences of research, participatory action research (PAR) takes seriously the critique that “ivory tower” research not only embodies, but reproduces class, raced, gendered, hierarchies (Torre et al., 2012).

Building upon the long-standing traditions of grassroots social movements (, critical pedagogy and activism (Freire, 1997; PyGyRg,2012), and legacies of critical race, decolonizing, and feminist theories (Tuhiwai Smith, 1999; Kelly, 1997; Torre, 2009;  hooks, 1990, Haraway 1991; Torre & Ayala, 2009; Tuck, 2009), PAR’s historical roots traces different lineages from around the world from liberation theology, critical psychology, and popular education (Freire, 1997; Fals-Borda, 1979; Lewin, 1951; Bunge, 1971). Founded upon “a commitment to the significant knowledge people hold about their lives and experiences and a belief that those most intimately impacted by research should take the lead in shaping research questions, framing interpretations, and designing meaningful products and actions” ( see “Principles”; Pain, 2004); PAR challenges the normative production of knowledge by including excluded perspectives and engaging those most affected by the research in the process (Stoudt et al., 2012). Not only does PAR open up new spaces for participatory knowledge production, it reframes the “problem” and pushes scholarship in new directions (Torre et al, 2012; Fine et al., 2003; Reason & Bradbury-Huang, 2007).  Some of the most exciting PAR scholarship does just this, advancing theory and practice (Askins & Pain, 2011; Torre et al, 2008; Elwood, 2006; Kesby, 2005; Cameron & Gibson, 2005).

Participatory approaches to doing research have gained critical attention from across the disciplines, as scholars, activists, and practitioners committed to social change work closely with communities to investigate their concerns and develop proposals for transformative change (Kindon, Pain & Kesby 2007). At the same time critical scholars have pointed to the ways that broad applications of the term ‘participation’ may mask tokenism and provide an illusion of consultation (Cooke and Kothari, 2001; Hart, 1998; Arnstein, 1969) when participatory research is presented as a set of techniques rather than a commitment to working with communities, as this may result in the reproduction, rather then the challenging, of social inequities (Kesby, 2005).

The scholarship gathered here reflects the promises and potential of  Critical participatory action research (CPAR) (or liberatory PAR) as a transformative social justice project that is epistemologically and ontologically rooted in democratic participation, critical inquiry, and action (mrs c-kinpaisby-hill, 2009; More then a method, CPAR is an ethic of inclusion (Cahill, Sultana, & Pain, 2007; Manzo and Brightbill, 2007) that has profound implications for rethinking the politics of representation and challenging what Foucault (1980) identified as the ‘subjectifying social sciences’ (Cameron & Gibson, 2005). Engaging an analysis of how the intimate and global intertwine’ (Pratt & Rosner, 2006), a critical PAR maps out the relationships between social structures and injustice in everyday life experiences (Spataro, 2012). Centering questions of power, geopolitical context, and politics, scholars and community members engaged in PAR praxis develop new theoretical lens for understanding and reframing “the problem”–whether it be educational assaults (Autonomous Geography Collective-Chatterton, Hodkinson, Pickerill), 2010; Cammarota & Fine, 2008; Fine & Torre, 2004; Tuck, 2009); the prison industrial complex (Fine et al., 2003); discriminatory policing (Stoudt et al., 2011; ; immigration (Francisco, 2013; Cahill, 2010); privatized spaces/ ‘proprietary ecologies’ (Donovan, 2014); gentrification (; LGBTQ discrimination (Billies, 2011) through collaborative research.

Central to PAR is a presumption of engaged scholarship, of doing research informed by an “ethic of care” in its most profound sense as a deep respect for relationships and humanity (Tuck & Guishard, 2013; Guishard, 2009; Manzo & Brightbill, 2007; Cahill, Sultana & Pain, 2007). CPAR is grounded in a commitment to building capacity, making private troubles public, moving from personal to social theorizing, and in turn to action. If ‘the point is to change the world, not only study it’ (Maguire, 2001), there is an implicit emphasis in participatory work upon action and inciting social responsibility (Fine et al., 2003). Moving “beyond the journal article” (Cahill & Torre, 2007), critical participatory researchers engage multiple publics (academics, policymakers, community members), to rethink the way they think and act in the world, creating products, performances, reflecting the thickness of the research where different outcomes share different findings of the research process (Fox & Fine, 2012; Quijada Cerecer et al, 2011; Nagar, 2006; Pratt & Kirby, 2003; Kindon, 2003). As an explicit practice and politics of engagement and solidarity in its most profound sense, CPAR offers a vision for “what could be” (Torre et al., 2001), as a “democratic practice of freedom” (Freire, 2001).

Many of the readings cited here have been drawn from the critical geography, critical pedagogy, and critical psychology literatures.

“Participatory Geographies Research Group.” n.d. Participatory Geographies Research Group.
“Being Policed: Young People’s Stories of Encounters with the NYPD.” n.d.
“Centre for Social Justice and Community Action.” n.d. Centre for Social Justice and Community Action.
“Morris Justice.” n.d.
“The Highlander Center.” n.d.
“Fed Up Honeys.” n.d.
“Public Science Project.” n.d.
Arnstein, Sherry R. 1969. “A Ladder of Citizen Participation.” JAIP 35: 216–24.
Billies, Michelle, Juliet Johnson, Kagendo Murungi, and Rachel Pugh. 2009. “Naming Our Reality: Low-Income LGBT People Documenting Violence, Discrimination and Assertions of Justice.” Feminism & Psychology 19 (3): 375–80. doi:10.1177/0959353509105628.
Bunge, William, Nik Heynen, and Trevor Barnes. 2011. Fitzgerald Geography of a Revolution. Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press.
Cahill, Caitlin, Farhana Sultana, and Rachel Pain. 2007. “Participatory Ethics: Politics, Practices, Institutions.” ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies 6 (3): 304–18.
Cahill, Caitlin, and Maria Torre. n.d. “Beyond the Journal Article: Representations, Audience, and the Presentation of Participatory Action Research.” In Connecting People, Participation and Place: Participatory Action Research Approaches and Methods, edited by Sara Kindon, Rachel Pain, and Mike Kesby, 196–206. London: Routledge.
Cameron, J., and K. Gibson. 2005. “Participatory Action Research in a Poststructuralist Vein.” Geoforum 36: 315–31.
Cooke, B., and U. Kothari. 2001. Participation: The New Tyranny? London: Zed Books.
Donovan, G.T. 2014. “Opening Proprietary Ecologies: Participatory Action Design Research with Young People.” In Methodological Challenges When Exploring Digital Learning Spaces in Education, edited by G.B. Gudmundsdottir and K.B. Vasbø. Sense Publishing.
Elwood, Sarah. 2006. “Critical Issues in Participatory GIS: Deconstructions, Reconstructions, and New Research Directions.” Transactions in GIS 10 (5): 693–708. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9671.2006.01023.x.
Fals Borda, O. 1979. “Investigating the Reality in Order to Transform It: The Coloumbian Experience.” Dialectical Anthropology 4: 33–55.
Fine, M., and M.E. Torre. 2004. “Re-Membering Exclusions: Participatory Action Research in Public Institutions.” Qualitative Research in Psychology 1: 15–37.
Fine, M., M.E. Torre, K. Boudin, I. Bowen, J. Clark, D. Hylton, M. Martinez, et al. 2003. “Participatory Action Research: Within and beyond Bars.” In Qualitative Research in Psychology: Expanding Perspectives in Methodology and Design, edited by P. Camic, J.E. Rhodes, and L. Yardley, 173–98. Washington DC: American Psychological Association.
Foucault, M. 1980. Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews & Other Writings 1972-1977. New York: Pantheon Books.
Fox, Madeline, and Michelle Fine. 2012. “Circulating Critical Research: Reflections on Performance and Moving Inquiry into Action.” In Critical Qualitative Research Reader, edited by G Cannella and S Steinberg. Vol. Critical Qualitative Research Reader. New York: Peter Lang Publishing.
Francisco, Valerie. 2013. “‘“Ang Ating Iisang Kuwento”’ Our Collective Story: Migrant Filipino Workers and Participatory.” Action Research, December, 1476750313515283. doi:10.1177/1476750313515283.
Freire, P. 1974. Education: The Practice of Freedom. London: Writers & Readers Publishing Cooperative.
Freire, P. 1997. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books.
Guishard, Monique. 2009. “The False Paths, the Endless Labors, the Turns Now This Way and Now That: Participatory Action Research, Mutual Vulnerability, and the Politics of Inquiry.” The Urban Review 41 (1): 85–105. doi:10.1007/s11256-008-0096-8.
Haraway, D. 1988. “Situated Knowledges: The Science Questions in Feminism as a Site of Discourse on the Privilege of the Partical Perspective.” Feminist Studies 14: 575–99.
Hart, Roger A. 0000 in. “Stepping Back from ‘the Ladder of Participation’:  Reflections on a Model of Children’s Engagement in Group Activities.” In Progress in Participatory Research with Children and Youth, edited by B. and Reid Jensen A. Newbury Park, California: Sage.
Hooks, B. 1990. Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics. Boston: South End Press.
Kelley, R.D.G. 1997. Yo’ Mama's Disfunktional! Fighting the Cultural Wars in Urban America. Boston: Beacon Press.
Kesby, M. 2005. “Re-Theorising Empowerment-through-Participation as a Performance in Space: Beyond Tyranny to Transformation.” Signs: Journal of Feminist Theory 30.
Kindon, S. 2003. “Participatory Video in Geographic Research: A Feminist Practice of Looking?” Area 35: 142–53.
Kindon, Sara, Rachel Pain, and Mike Kesby. 2007. Participatory Action Research Approaches and Methods: Connecting People, Participation and Place. London: Routledge.
Lewin, K. 1946. “Action Research and Minority Problems.” In Resolving Social Conflicts.
Maguire, P. 2001. “Uneven Ground: Feminisms and Action Research.” In Handbook of Action Research: Participative Inquiry and Practice, edited by P. Reason and H. Bradbury, 59–69. London: Sage.
Manzo, Lynn, and Nathan Brightbill. 2007. “Towards a Participatory Ethics.” In Connecting People, Participation and Place: Participatory Action Research Approaches and Methods, 33–40. London: Rout.
Pain, R. 2004. “Social Geography: Participatory Research.” Progress in Human Geography 28: 1–12.
Pratt, Geraldine. 2000. “Research Performances.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 18 (5): 639–51. doi:10.1068/d218t.
Pratt, G. and Kirby, E. 2003. “Performing Nursing: The BC Nurses Union Theatre Project.” ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Human Geographies 2: 14–32.
Quijada Cerecer, David Alberto, Caitlin Cahill, and Matt Bradley. 2011. “Resist This! Embodying the Contradictory Positions and Collective Possibilities of Transformative Resistance.” International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education 24 (5): 587–93. doi:10.1080/09518398.2011.600269.
Reason, Peter, and Hilary Bradbury. 2001. Handbook of Action Research: Participative Inquiry and Practice. SAGE Publications.
Routledge. 2013. “Revolutionizing Education: Youth Participatory Action Research in Motion (Paperback).” Accessed December 31.
Smith, L.T. 1999. Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. New York: Zed Books, Ltd.
Spataro, David. 2011. “Reframing Structure and Agency in Participatory Action Research.” International Review of Qualitative Research 3 (4): 455–76.
Stoudt, Brett, Michelle Fine, and Madeline Fox. 2011–2012. “Growing up Policed.” NY Law School Law Review 56.
Torre, María Elena. 2009. “Participatory Action Research and Critical Race Theory: Fueling Spaces for Nos-Otras to Research.” The Urban Review 41 (1): 106–20. doi:10.1007/s11256-008-0097-7.
Torre, María Elena, and Jennifer Ayala. 2009. “Envisioning Participatory Action Research Entremundos.” Feminism & Psychology 19 (3): 387–93. doi:10.1177/0959353509105630.
Torre, M.E., M. Fine, K. Boudin, I. Bowen, J. Clark, D. Hylton, M. Martinez, et al. 2001. “A Space for Co-Constructing Counter Stories under Surveillance.” International Journal of Critical Psychological 4: 149–66.
Torre, María Elena, Michelle Fine, Brett G. Stoudt, and Madeline Fox. 2012. “Critical Participatory Action Research as Public Science.” In APA Handbook of Research Methods in Psychology, Vol 2: Research Designs: Quantitative, Qualitative, Neuropsychological, and Biological, edited by H. Cooper, P. M. Camic, D. L. Long, A. T. Panter, D. Rindskopf, and K. J. Sher, 171–84. Washington,  DC, US: American Psychological Association.
Tuck, Eve, and Monique Guishard. 2013. “Scientifically Based Research and Settler Coloniality: An Ethical Framework of Decolonial Participatory Action Research.” In Hallenging Status Quo Retrenchment: New Directions in Critical Qualitative Research, edited by TM Kress, C Malott, and B Porfilio. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.
mrs. c- kinpaisby-hill. 2011. “Participatory Praxis and Social Justice: Towards More Fully Social Geographies.” In A Companion to Social Geography. Blackwell.
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