Pseudo-Participatory Researchers and the #BlackLivesMatter Movement

Written 4/15/2017 by Lia Stoffle

This week we learned about social change research and its two subsets: participatory research and activist research. The origins of participatory research are credited to Paulo Freire (Schneider, Gruman & Coutts, 2012). He believed that “authentic education” involved “working with…oppressed groups rather than providing information for or about the group” (Schneider et al., 2012, p. 290). Based on his theories, he worked with Brazilian peasants to incite social change and life improvements. His takeaway: unsuccessful social and political change was due to designs not based on the people who would be affected by the change, but rather based on the ideas of “educators and politicians” (Schneider et al., 2012, p. 291). In 1977 Hall, Marino, and Jackson cofounded the Participatory Research Project in Toronto Canada (Hall, 1992). Their work, and the general focus of participatory research, involves a bias for people of “dominated, exploited, poor, or otherwise ignored” origins, with focus on the interaction or power and democracy, and attention to various social factors (Hall, 1992, p. 16). Having these roots established, my mind immediately went to the #BlackLivesMatter movement. I thought between the thousands of articles and studies at my disposal there must be some literature on social change research involving the Black Lives Matter movement. What I found was far less than I imagined. As I searched through “most recent” and “most relevant” filters I was still getting articles that either had to do with the Black Lives Matter movement OR participatory research. I thought “how in the world could this movement be so prevalent in American society that I see it all over the news and social media, yet the scholarly research be so scarce?” That’s what cued me in to discover that, in a sense, people from different walks of life ARE engaging in participatory research, but they probably aren’t in a position to write a scholarly article about the movement and the connections to the participatory research itself. Social media has made it possible for ordinary people to involve themselves in participatory research without necessarily realizing it.

First, it is important to recognize the three main elements of participatory research. They work in a systemized manner, but because the factors leading to the creation of the particular method for the particular research focus are based on the “origins of the issues,” the methods are never exactly the same between participatory research methods (Hall, 1992, p. 20). For this reason, there three general elements which contribute to something truly being considered participatory research. First is social investigation, and as described in more detail by Lewin, this part involves “fact finding” (Schneider et al., 2012, p. 290). Moving back to the idea of social media as a main contributory factor to bringing together people being oppressed and people outside of the scope of oppression, anyone with internet access can inform themselves and investigate the racial injustice that occurs throughout the country. Moreover, videos and articles can be shared within mere seconds to inform the public, oppressed or not, of what drives the Black Lives Matter movement. This allows invested people to engage in “problem posing and solving,” which is differentiated from the typical linear process seen in standard research because it doesn’t require “academic library exercise” (Schneider et al., 2012, p. 291). In my experience, most of the problem posing takes place on social media. Peers share stories and statistics. Living in Chicago, I am no stranger to hearing cases of police shooting unarmed black men. Overall in 2015, 102 unarmed black civilians were killed by police- that’s one third of all black people killed by police that year. (Mapping Police Violence, 2015). When someone becomes involved in caring about police brutality against black community members, and engages in learning the statistics, they begin the process of participatory research regarding the Black Lives Matter movement.

The second general part of the participatory research process involves education. This is closely related to the social investigation in the case of Black Lives Matter because it involves the use of social media platforms. The education factor involves the oppressed group and members outside of the oppressed group “identifying goals for the project,” or movement in this case, and research planning (Schneider et al., 2012, p. 290). In participatory research, also known as action research, the planning involves preparing for action (the third element of participation research to be discussed in the next section). This is where sharing statistics and stories on social media facilitates the education process for blacks, in this case the oppressed group, and vested non-blacks. I am not black, but I am incredibly vested in this movement, because I care to be involved in social change to create a society in which social prejudice and stereotypes don’t undermine the judgement of the very people who are meant to keep our communities and innocent people safe. Myself and my black social media community members feed off of each other to share information to keep on top of recent occurrences. We talk and discuss and plan. As described by Hoffman, Granger, Vallejos, & Moats (2016), the Black Lives Matter movement (among other current protest movements) rely on “decentralized leadership and utilizing social media.” I believe the decentralization of power for this movement is what inherently makes those involved pseudo- participatory researchers. All involved are investigating, educating, and taking action.

The third element of participatory research is action (Schneider et al., 2012). Lewin suggests that there is typically more than one step in the plans of action. In the Black Lives Matter movement, this is definitely the case. The first plan of action is to keep the stories alive and not allow people to forget the injustice that perpetuates our society. As an example, I became particularly involved when Sandra Bland was pulled over in Texas for failing to signal a lane change, and was subsequently arrested for “assault of an officer,” when there was no evidence of such action on the video recordings of her arrest (Liebelson & Reilly, 2016). After nearly three days of being held in jail, she was found dead- allegedly by suicide. The reason this particular case enhanced my drive for involvement in this social issue is because it actually hit close to home. I went to high school with her. My older friends were close friends with her. She spoke out against police brutality through videos on the internet and for treating people as equals on both sides of the fence. Though there is no answer to what really happened, most of us find it hard to believe that she would have taken her own life. So, our community took action. We shared stories and hashtags to keep her story alive. This is a step that many advocates and participants take in the preliminary stages of action. People created T-shirts and posters. These action steps using social media have also facilitated the creation of online communities centered around the Black Lives Matter movement. By creating online communities, there is a sense of support, emotional connection, and the fulfillment of needs for people within the oppressed group and for those looking to take action to help create necessary social change (Schuschke & Tynes, 2016). Further steps like protests are frequently taken by the Black Lives Matter movement. Chicago is a great example for how protests, largely shared on social media, attract people within and outside of the oppressed community. Through these action methods, we all partake in sending the message that there needs to be positive social change and recognition for the persistent injustice the black community faces.

Though I am sure some of these participants hold psychology backgrounds, I have yet to find a single participatory research project specifically geared towards the Black Lives Matter movement. That said, I think there is an abundance of evidence for the fact that when communities come together to incite social change, we are all engaging in a less formal act of participatory research. The Black Lives Matter movement is one of many movements taking place in the politically charged atmosphere of present day America. We witnessed the women’s march which was a global phenomenon in which women, men, and other minority focused groups investigated, educated and acted in solidarity. We saw protests emerge at various airports in solidarity with refugees being held from entry into the country with the travel ban. All of these mass efforts are a result of social media enabling global communities of likeminded people to come together and take action.


Hall, B. (1992). From Margins to Center? The Development and Purpose of Participatory Research. The American Sociologist, 23(4), 15-28. Retrieved from

Hoffman, L., Granger, N., Jr., Vallejos, L., & Moats, M. (2016). An existential–humanistic perspective on black lives matter and contemporary protest movements. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 56(6), 595-611. doi:

Liebelson, D. & Reilly, R. J. (July 13, 2016). Sandra Bland Died One Year Ago. Huffington Post. Retrieved from

N/A. (2015) Police killed more than 100 unarmed black people in 2015. Mapping Police Violence. Retrieved from

Schneider, F. W., Gruman, J. A., and Coutts, L. M. (Eds.) (2012). Applied Social Psychology: Understanding and Addressing Social and Practical Problems (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications. ISBN 978-1412976381

Schuschke, J., & Tynes, B. M. (2016). Online community empowerment, emotional connection, and armed love in the black lives matter movement. Emotions, technology, and social media; emotions, technology, and social media (pp. 25-47, Chapter xx, 167 Pages) Elsevier Academic Press, San Diego, CA. Retrieved from

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1 comment

  1. Armin Vossooghi

    Hi, I’ve enjoyed reading your post, regarding participatory research and BLM movement. As you may already know Participatory research is when the researchers are a part of the community and they get involved to learn things about the community that they live in (Nelson A., 2017). A good example of such research would be an individual who lives in the ghetto and is constantly tries to bring changes in the ghetto to better the lives of its residents.
    To bring change in the less fortunate areas of the city, the residents of that community need to act and figure out what can they do to better their lives and the lives of the people in their community and black lives matter movement is a good example of such community. Even though I agree that black lives do matter, I must say all lives matter. I agree with what you’d said about when someone looks at statistics of police brutality in black communities, they are getting involved in participatory research. Also, I’d like to add to that by saying that our society needs to look at the society as whole, rather than a specific group.
    I believe the best social change research method that would be effective in the said areas, would be the participatory research which is research conducted by the residence of that community. The researcher would understand the issues within that community better than anyone else and would be able to design and implement a plan to bring change within that community.
    Nelson, A. (2017). Lesson 13. Applied social psychology: Social Change / Participatory Research. Presented on the PSYCH 424 course content site lecture at the Pennsylvania State University.

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