printable version of page Printer-friendly page

Focus On Basics

Volume 1, Issue A :: February 1997

Knowing, Learning, Doing: Participatory Action Research

by Juliet Merrifield
Why do we do research? Who benefits from it? Who uses the information we gather, and what for? What is worth researching? These are the central questions which Participatory Action Research (PAR) makes us confront.

I have been a researcher all my adult life, and have worked in adult education for 20 years. I came to ask myself these questions only gradually, through being challenged by my experiences. In 1977, I joined the staff of the Highlander Center, as co-director of its research program with John Gaventa. Both of us had doctoral degrees, and I had been working as a researcher in academic and commercial settings for almost ten years. Highlander then had a 45-year history of working for social and economic justice in Appalachia and South. We were faced with a dilemma: what is the role of research in a center committed to experiential education, which values experience more than formal education, action more than book knowledge? We had to try to do research in a way that empowered people, not researchers.

At first we put our skills as researchers at the service of the people Highlander worked with. We did research for people. We provided them with the information from libraries, courthouses, and government offices that they needed to fight for what they believed in. But it soon became clear that wasn't enough. Sometimes the people themselves knew more than the "official"-- knowledge their own local knowledge of the land, the water, their own health, could alert them to problems long before "scientific" research caught up. Then too, we were setting up a new dependency -- every time a group needed information they had to come to us. They were no more empowered, in terms of gaining their own ability to access knowledge, than before. And we could not do everything, be everywhere in the Appalachian region.

We began to take another approach: to teach people how to get information for themselves. Getting that information had to consist both of accessing "official" knowledge in libraries and government documents, and also of synthesizing and documenting their experience-based knowledge. As we embarked on this new course, learning as we went, we discovered that what we were doing had a name -- participatory research -- and that it was being practiced in many parts of the developing world.

For me, a community called Bumpass Cove became the defining experience in learning about another kind of research, a research dedicated to honoring people's own knowledge and empowering them with the ability to access and interpret information they need to act on their problems -- a kind of "research literacy." Bumpass Cove is a small Tennessee mountain community. Its mines had long closed, and many people had moved away before a company bought some land for dumping "household garbage." Most people were happy, because it provided some jobs, and they believed officials who assured them that nothing dangerous would be dumped there. Only when spring floods washed some barrels out of the landfill and down the creek, and churchgoers became ill with the fumes, did the community come to recognize the problem, and turned out en masse to close down the landfill.

But even when the landfill was closed the problem was not solved, for at the head of the hollow were still buried an unknown mix of chemicals with the potential to harm humans and the environment. Research was a crucial tool in the residents' struggle to clean up the landfill. Four people from the community group formed a research team. Two went to Nashville to search the files of the state health department for any records relating to the Bumpass Cove landfill. All four then brought to Highlander the two-foot-high stack of photocopies they had made. We sat around a table in the library, sorting through the documents. We made an index card for every instance of chemical dumping we could document. Then we used a chemical directory, a medical dictionary, and a regular dictionary to identify the chemicals and their potential health effects. None of us had formal scientific training, and most of the research team had not graduated from high school -- two later enrolled in their local ABE program, and one has just obtained her GED.

It was my first experience of the literacy of reading both the "word" and the "world." As we read, the group used their local knowledge to make meaning: they knew people who had experienced many of the symptoms we were now documenting, they remembered some of the unusual loads going into the landfill, they knew barrels had fallen off a truck at a bend in the road, where nothing would now grow. Their own knowledge gave the official knowledge meaning.

Around the same time, in a mountain community in Kentucky, Yellow Creek Concerned Citizens (YCCC) was fighting another chemical pollution problem and provided support and encouragement for the Bumpass Cove group. YCCC went a step further and conducted their own health survey of residents along contaminated Yellow Creek. With guidance from health professionals at Vanderbilt University, YCCC members developed a questionnaire and went door to door to collect information. What they found may not have been strictly "scientific" in the model of epidemiological studies, but it was a valuable tool in their legal battle against the company responsible for the pollution, in their political battle to get local and state government to act, and in their organizing of community residents.

Literacy Work

This is literacy work, if we interpret literacy as not just the technical ability to read and write, but the use of these skills in daily life to solve problems and make a better world. For the research teams it was also empowering. Although the knowledge they were gaining was alarming, they were in control. For the first time, they saw themselves as knowledgeable and insightful people, not as second class citizens with little formal education. They confirmed the value of the community's knowledge, and they had access to at least some of the official knowledge as well. Bumpass Cove and Yellow Creek showed me, if I had ever doubted it, the power of accessing and using knowledge to accomplish important work on issues people care about.

If research is to be such a tool, it has to be done in a different way from any of the traditional approaches. Participatory research for action, what we have come now to call Participatory Action Research (PAR), is not a research method, but an approach to research and to learning that may use different methods. Three ideas are central to PAR: participation, action, and knowledge.

PAR projects are many and varied, with different degrees of participation and many research methods.Although simplified, walking through a "typical" research process may help clarify the points at which PAR differs from conventional approaches to research.

Traditional research, whether qualitative or quantitative, is thought up by and carried out by researchers "on" other people. "Subjects" provide information which researchers need, but their knowledge is taken away from them and processed somewhere else.

Researchers may be driven by their own curiosity. They may be driven by the agenda of powerholders: funders of research, government, foundations, corporations. Even if they believe the research is in the best interests of their "subjects," those interests are defined by the researchers, not by the people being studied. In the name of objectivity and avoiding bias, traditional "top down" research systematically excludes those who are being researched. There are hopeful signs of change in adult education research -- inviting learner and practitioner views on research priorities, and a growing interest in teacher inquiry, but too much still follows traditional paths.

In PAR, in contrast, those who would traditionally be the subject of research decide what problems are worth investigating and what the important research questions are. Sometimes the community members themselves also conduct the research -- carry out interviews, raid the libraries -- sometimes experienced researchers carry it out, but invited by and in collaboration with the group. From that participation comes learning, and, ultimately, empowerment.

An article like this necessarily skims over many details and the complexity of real research in real communities. In truth, the variation in PAR projects is immense. Some don't even look like traditional research at all -- they may look like community theater, perhaps, or use visualization and mapping techniques to synthesize community knowledge without using texts. While in their purist form, PAR projects are initiated by the community and researchers are invited in, in others, researchers committed to this approach search out communities to work with, and create effective collaborations which benefit both the community and the researcher. Rather than a single model, PAR is more usefully seen as a range of projects on a scale of increasing participation.

Participation is not an easy idea to put to work. It may be problematic to figure out just who the "community" is. Is it geographic, or a community of interest? It may be divided by lines of gender, race, class, age, religion, sexual preference, and others. There may not be a ready-made group with which researchers can work. Full community participation in research is also difficult to sustain over the long haul, especially without an organization. People who are not professional researchers have other demands on their time and energy.

The action in PAR can also be problematic. Sometimes pushing for an action may threaten the most vulnerable members of the community. In Bumpass Cove, for example, research team members were later attacked as Communist sympathizers. Taking action can give people the confidence to keep going, but if it is unsuccessful, it can turn them off and make it harder to act in the future. It can be divisive as well as bringing people together. Community organizing is time consuming, slow, and the rhythms of the research project may not fit comfortably with the rhythms of community organizing and action.

Negotiating the search for knowledge between researchers and community can also be tricky. Tension may arise between the professional researcher's interest in knowing and the need for knowledge for community action. Researchers' standards for when is enough may not be the same as community standards. It may be difficult to verify what people believe they know from their own experience. Engaging in dialogue with people about what they know and what they don't, about how to interpret and what it means, is a delicate process.

PAR and Adult Education

Within the fold of adult education research, PAR already has a place. For example, in Ivanhoe, Virginia, a community that was dying after the closure of its mines and industries began to revive itself. Helen Lewis, a sociologist, and Mary Ann Hinsdale, a theologian, worked with the Ivanhoe Civic League in participatory research to document the community development process.3 The Civic League asked Helen Lewis to teach a course in Ivanhoe on community history, and members of the class planned, researched, and wrote a book on the community, which involved many community members in interviewing and being interviewed, and collecting old photographs.

In Carpinteria, California, an anthropologist found her role as a researcher transformed when she was drawn into working with parents in the community on communicating with schools.4 Faced with requests for help, she moved from being a "disinterested observer" to supporting an emerging parents' organization providing advice to Latino parents on how to help their children be successful in school, and how to relate to teachers.

In North East Arnhemland, Australia, the Tolngu community has been using participatory research as part of a major transformation, in which control and responsibility for education has shifted to a Community School Council. The curriculum and pedagogy are being redesigned to include traditional knowledge, and community based teacher education is being developed.5

PAR is not just about research, but also about learning and about action. And if adult education programs and practitioners are open to it, PAR may be a strong tool for improving program and practice. As an example of its potential, we might look at PAR in program evaluation. Learners' voices would be integral, identifying important evaluation questions, providing some of the answers, and planning program changes. Evaluation would shift from a judging process to a learning process, in which everyone has something to learn from thinking through what we need to know, identifying researchable questions, gathering information, systematizing it and analyzing it, planning and making decisions about changes. All stakeholders would work together to help each other meet their goals, to build a strong organization, develop "expertise," and create community.

At its heart, PAR is about action. Its purpose is not to generate knowledge that is filed away, or taken away to Washington to be lost in the political maneuverings around public policy, but to provide a solid and thoughtful basis for change -- and not just any change, but one that benefits the people who will be affected by it. That is the core challenge that PAR presents to the world of educational research: are we making a difference where it matters, is the world a better place for our work?

A special thanks to the Highlander Center for providing us with photos.


1 Patricia Maguire, "Proposing a more feminist participatory research: Knowing and being embraced openly," de Kooning, Korrie and Marion Martin (eds.), Participatory Research in Health: Issues and Experiences. (London/New Jersey: Zed Books, 1996), p. 32.
2 Andrea Cornwall and Rachel Jewkes, "What is participatory research?" Social Science Medicine, 41:12, 1995, p. 1670.
3 Mary Ann Hinsdale, Helen M. Lewis and S. Maxine Waller, It Comes from the People: Community Development and Local Theology. (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1995).
4 Concha Delgado Gaitan, "Researching change and changing the researcher," Harvard Educational Review, 63 (4) (1993).
5 See Raymattja Marika, Dayngawa Ngurruwutthun, and Leon White, "Always together, Yaka Gana: Participatory research at Yirrkala as part of the development of a Yolngu education," Convergence, XXV (1): (1992) 23-39.

Updated 7/27/07 :: Copyright © 2005 NCSALL