Participatory Action Research – concepts and action for hydrocitizenship
This blog has been co-written by Katherine Jones, Michael Buser and Owain Jones and is based on a meeting of the Bristol project team.
From its inception, the hydrocitizenship project has had the goal of citizen/community participation at its heart. The proposed interdisciplinary, inter-professional and inclusive research project aims to draw upon notions of ‘participatory action research’ (Pain 2004; Kindon et al. 2008) in designing activities, in reflecting upon what is important, and in evaluating the process and outcomes of research.
PAR has been described as an approach rather than a prescriptive set of methods (PAR toolkit) (Pain et al. 2011) that aims to involve ‘participants’ (i.e. people outside of the project team) as early as possible in the research, and before any crucial decisions have been made about detailed aims methods and direction. Given that some essential decisions about the project, such as the conceptual basis, were determined before the inclusion of project partners, we’ve had to consider carefully the extent to which we can consider ourselves to be taking a fully-fledged PAR approach.
With these things in mind, on Oct 23rd 2014 the Bristol project team gathered to consider what a PAR approach might mean in this project, whether we were able to do this and if so, how? And if we could not consider this project to be truly PAR due to the later involvement of community and other partners, what principles of PAR could we still incorporate and hold at the center of the project that would guide our dealings with others?
Led by Dr. Michael Buser and Katherine Jones, the day was organized as a set of activities around exploring our process and principles of PAR. We started the morning by splitting into two groups (of three and two) to come up with succinct descriptions in response to the question ‘what are we doing and why?’ This simple but provocative question forced us to confront our underlying assumptions that we had perhaps not acknowledged directly for some time, and also to see whether other team members had similar ideas. We then came together to compare these.
One group’s description: ‘a multi-disciplinary arts-based participatory action research project investigating connections between communities and water. We are doing this in order to foster a greater sense of understandings of the social and ecological relationships and to empower people to take individual and collective action’
Another group’s attempt: ‘Imaginatively exploring ideas of community and participation through a lens of water, and vice versa’ and ‘Actively re-framing water relationships and engagements given the perception of limitations in existing knowledge-based paradigms’
Following this exercise, Michael gave an example of another Connected Communities project he had worked on which had aimed to use PAR as an approach. In describing the project he reflected on what had worked well and what hadn’t, issues of research ethics, tensions in how research is done with people who may not have the time or inclination to be part of it, and tensions around selecting appropriate methods in collaboration with people as well as with spaces. We reflected on this research and what potential similar issues we could face.
The next step involved looking more carefully at the principles that are considered part of a PAR approach. Michael provided us with sheets with the principles on them and we scored each principle on a Likert scale of strongly disagree to strongly agree. The results were then collated and projected on the screen so that we could discuss these as a team. We were in broad agreement about many of the principles but there were some concerns about some of them – for instance in our role in ‘changing the lives of participants’. The points of contention could in some ways be associated with tensions between a PAR approach and an arts-based approach with research aims about ‘improving’ nature-society , two methodologies that we are aiming to blend in this project.
After the meeting, Michael drafted a set of principles based on our discussions (see below). This has been distributed to the team for discussion and is a working document that we will re-visit as we go along. It should be noted that this is something we are working on as a team in the context of our project and we would encourage other teams to do similar exercises rather than simply accept what we’ve come up with.
The above exercises were extremely helpful to us as a group in considering what it is that we are aiming to do and why. In a project like this, with its underlying concern with making a tangible difference in the world in terms of social and socio-ecological relationships, it is important to give thought to how we might envision such a shift and what implications this has for our own behavior as project researchers and creative consultants.
Overall the day was very engaging and fruitful and allowed a reflective consideration of PAR in relation to our project approach. Though we decided that because key players have not been involved from the beginning that this could never be truly considered a PAR project in the strictest sense, unpicking our assumptions and leanings towards principles of PAR allowed us to take steps towards ensuring that as we move forward in our engagements with our local advisory group, with community partners, with community enablers and indeed, with people in the communities, that we are aware of the principles of participation and the ethical and power-relation dimensions involved.
As we move forward we are in a position now to continually reflect on whether we are being true to the principles that we started out with, and to refine these as we come into contact with new issues and conditions. In at least one sense, that of being reflective and considered about our process and approach, we are aiming to be true to PAR.
DRAFT ENGAGEMENT PRINCIPLES FOR DISCUSSION
These are working principles. They are based on our discussion but have not been thoroughly interrogated or debated. Comments are very welcome. Please send comments to the Bristol team care of Katherine Jones Katherine12.Jones@uwe.ac.uk
Recognizes community as an important yet contested concept through which to conduct engaged research. For our research, the word ‘community’ signals an interest in the relationships between and among both human and non-human parts of the world (including relations of correspondence as well as conflict). Further, we note that ‘community’ reflects an entanglement of material and immaterial elements which produces particular notions of identity as well as a shared sense of fate (e.g. a shared interest in the social and ecological health of the world). As such, community is a fluid, open and multi-faceted concept of the future.
Builds on community strengths, resources and opportunities. The research will identify, support and build upon social structures, processes and knowledge already existing in the community (human and non-human) . Our partners and participants are reservoirs of knowledge and can contribute to the project by drawing upon their existing strengths and resources. However, we also seek to introduce and co-construct new knowledge by making connections beyond pre-existing, local assets. Further, we recognize that this is not a static process and are aware that knowledge exchange will flow in multiple directions.
Maximizes opportunities for meaningful engagement and collaborative partnerships. We hold an ethos of maximizing participation throughout the project which acknowledges variability and flexibility. This means facilitating dialogue between the multiple networks of local community partners and other non-aligned individuals while recognizing a non-linear, horizontal approach to the project. Further, we see our work as an opportunity to add richness to existing local activities.
Integrates knowledge and action for those involved in the project. We commit to an action-orientated programme and accept that there will be multiple beneficiaries and multiple forms of benefit across the team, project partners, and individuals. At the same time we recognize that there might be some possible tradeoffs or tensions between these.
Promotes a co-learning process that attends both to social and environmental inequalities. We recognize the inherent inequalities between marginalized communities and researchers and will attempt to address these power issues by maximizing opportunities to share information, resources and decision-making power with community members. Further, the research seeks to expand beyond conventional understandings of the social and modernist perspectives on ‘problem solving’ in order to engage with the wider inequalities expressed within eco-social communities.
Involves a cyclical and iterative process. This research should involve trust-building, partnership development and maintenance in all phases of the research. The time frame of the project offers some promise in this regard but the resources required are proving challenging.
Disseminates findings and knowledge gained to all partners. This research should disseminate information gained in a respectful and understandable language that acknowledges all participant contributions and ownership of the knowledge production.
Emphasises the production of non-academic outputs. This includes outputs such as community reports, newsletters, presentations, websites, video, drama productions, art exhibitions, training packages, etc. We also recognize the multiplicity of project outputs will include more conventional academic works such as journal articles, books and conference presentations.
Facilitates responsiveness to partners and project participants. This includes facilitating regular dialogue between the research team and those engaged in the project as well as enabling meaningful opportunities for review and critique.
Kindon, S., Pain, R. & Kesby, M., 2008. Participatory action research. International encyclopaedia of human geography., pp.90–95.
Pain, R., 2004. Social geography: participatory research. Progress in human geography, 28, pp.652–663.
Pain, R. et al., 2011. Participatory Action Research Toolkit: An Introduction to using PAR as an Approach to Learning, Research and Action, Durham: Durham University.