What is Participatory Action Research?

When Ma’yan works with teens in our Research Training Intensive and in That’s Not Fair!, we do something called Participatory Action Research (often referred to as “PAR”).  Put simply, PAR is a way of doing social research where members of the group being studied collaborate as co-researchers.  In our case, that means that we study teens’ lives by doing research with teens instead of research on teens.

The Public Science Project (a program at the CUNY graduate center here in New York) defines Participatory Action Research (PAR) as “a framework for creating knowledge that is rooted in the belief that those most impacted by research should take the lead in framing the questions, design, methods, analysis and determining what products and actions might be the most useful in effecting change.”  In PAR projects, academic researchers partner with those in the communities they study who would be most affected by the research.

PAR practitioners use their collaborative research to pursue social justice.  One of the core goals of PAR is to disrupt the traditional power relationship in research[1], where the academic researcher asks the questions, chooses the methods, interprets the data, and reports the results (usually in a form accessible mainly to other people in positions of power).  In oppressed and marginalized communities, those most directly impacted by policies typically have the least power to shape them. Even research conducted with the best of intentions can misconstrue the real needs, concerns, and experiences of marginalized research “subjects,” and lead to ineffective or even detrimental reform efforts.  Using PAR practices, we make research accessible to young people who have not trained as academic researchers, enabling them to use it as a tool to challenge unjust social conditions.

PAR and Privilege

For many decades and across a wide range of disciplines, PAR strategies have been used to amplify the voices of oppressed and marginalized people, from people living in poverty to survivors of domestic violence to young people.  More recently PAR principles have been applied at the opposite end of the social spectrum.  In privileged communities, PAR is being used to “explore how privilege is reinforced by and through the daily practices of privileged individuals and the structures, policies, and practices of the institutions which they occupy” (Stoudt, 2008).  One way PAR in privileged contexts differs from other uses of PAR is that oppressed peoples tend to be intimately aware of how oppression affects them, while privilege tends to be invisible to those who possess it.  Since most of teens we work with come from privileged backgrounds, part of how we use PAR is to help make privilege and power more visible and recognizable to our Research Training Interns, which then makes it possible for us to investigate it together.

PAR with Young People

The practice of PAR is also somewhat distinct when the co-researchers are young people.  Like other marginalized groups, youth are impacted by policies and conditions which they rarely have a voice or a vote in creating.  And like many non-academic participants in PAR research, they are often unfamiliar with how research works and may require some instruction and opportunity to practice new skills (e.g., to get comfortable reading existing research or interpreting new data).  Unlike adults, however, young people also tend to spend much of their time in school and may have additional commitments (from extracurricular activities to afterschool jobs to caring for siblings) that limit their availability to participate in PAR research.  Doing PAR with high school students, we are committed to sharing power with them to the greatest extent possible, while simultaneously structuring the project so it does not become burdensome for them.  Sometimes this means that we do the “heavy lifting,” for instance: we might do a first draft of a piece of writing and ask them for feedback instead of writing collaboratively from the start, or we might take their ideas for a project and winnow them down to a few options we know would be feasible.   At the same time, we strive to remain transparent in our uses of power and flexible enough to adjust course if we learn that our suggestions are not in line with their priorities and concerns.  As the RTI has developed over multiple cohorts, so has our understanding and use of PAR methodology.  Today our goal in using PAR is to collaborate with teens in critically examining their social worlds, focusing particularly on pressures they experience related to gender and class. If you have question about PAR, please feel free to contact our Director of Research, Beth Cooper Benjamin Ed.D.

Additional Resources on PAR:

[1] This is especially true of “CPAR,” where the “C” stands for “Critical,” which means that practitioners attend carefully and critically to the uses of power in the research process and the phenomena being studied.