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.

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