“As my sufferings mounted I soon realized that there were two ways in which I could respond to my situation — either to react with bitterness or seek to transform the suffering into a creative force. I decided to follow the latter course.”
―Martin Luther King Jr., 1960, ‘Suffering and Faith’
People Who Care About a Topic Shouldn’t Get Involved?
It’s a little odd to me that there is a debate over whether or not participatory action research (PAR) is a valid method. Like most things that are different from the norm, the importance lies in not jumping to label them as “good” or “bad” but as what they actually are: different. And, ideally, any scientist would welcome all tools which expand the understanding and possibilities in a given situation. The argument against it seems to be based on the concern about whether or not a researcher who is also a participant can be objective in assessing the situation, deciphering the data, or implementing what is truly the most beneficial course of action. But objectivity, though vital, actually isn’t the most important element of these otherwise-ignored situations. The most important thing is that they are recognized at all.
One of the first things we are told from the first lesson in our most basic class on entering the field of psychology is that “science doesn’t answer big questions” (Psychology as a Science and Profession, n.d.). Instead, science is meant to answer the decidedly small questions unique to very specific situations so that what is learned may then be appliedto more general situations. And that works perfectly, assuming that we’re aware of what requires our focus and have the means to conduct the research. But this scientific method is a top-down approach, assuming that those who have the training, resources, and opportunity to conduct research also have an exhaustive knowledge of what needs to be researchedand will automatically carry it out. Realistically, that is not going to be the case.
In general, research is conducted in cycles of “hot topics” which faze out, giving way to other areas of focus, all of which depends on what interests or corporations provide the funding. In addition, researchers are compelled to publish, which means that they will naturally turn their focus to topics of interest (increasing the chances of publication), rather than what is necessarily most important. Much falls through the proverbial cracks. This is exactly why PAR is well-suited to groups who are ignored, oppressed, or exploited (Maguire, 1987). The group in question does not have to wait for attention or funding from the greater population that would not otherwise consider their problem worthy of attention. It is a bottom-up approach where those who intimately involved in the problem (and vested in outcomes) conduct their own research to bring about positive change. Though this method attracts criticism for not being truly scientific, it is fair to say that much of the progress that has been made with this method never would have come to pass otherwise, because the issues it addresses would not have caught the attention of the scientific community at large nor garnered its focus and funding. This is exactly the “small questions” psychology is meant to answer—specific situations with unique problems requiring specialized solutions tailored to those involved. Private therapy also incorporates this bottom-up technique into its generally top-down approach. Clinical psychology has techniques and methods which are scientifically proven to help in given situations (top-down). However, individual therapists are also given license to adapt these proven methods, depending on their educated assessment of their client and the specific situation (bottom-up)—receiving constant feedback on what is working and what isn’t and evolving the intervention plan to best bring about the desired positive change. This is the same method that PAR uses on a larger scale, with a researcher applying their knowledge to a larger group or demographic.
Rather than dismissing PAR as “unscientific,” it may simply be accepted as another tool that is useful in bringing about positive change. In any research situation, a researcher must decide what method is best for testing a hypothesis. PAR is one possible method which may or may not be suited to a certain situation. In addition, it may actually be moreuseful in situations where there is not a great deal of existing knowledge about the dynamics, traditions, or practices of the group in question—when a researcher is just beginning to gather information on a population. Last semester, I was required to take ENG 221: Writing in the Social Sciences, which requires its students to each find a culture to observe throughout the semester. I chose a group of which I am a long-time member: an online group focused on fountain pens and writing. Because I was already a member of the group, I held a greater practical knowledge than someone who would have been observing from outside the group: I already understood the (very plentiful) jargon; I understood what was taboo in the group and what was encouraged; I understood the hierarchy of the members. All of this would have been lost on an outsider or, at minimum, created a significant learning curve in order to study the group. Because I was an “insider” but also a researcher, I was able to use my knowledge of the group to better understand my observances. I think of this as a very powerful tool—much like the benefit of an interpreter when approaching new study of a culture with which the researcher is not familiar.
Returning to the private therapy parallel, any therapist would be quick to acknowledge that change in a client isn’t something the therapist does, but something the client brings about for themselves. As Yeich and Levine (1992) describe, “Empowerment seems to be a process that one must do for oneself-not something that someone can do for or to another.” This may be even truer for a group: those who are considered in-groupare not going to be as open to being told what to do from someone (or some group) considered out-group (e.g. researchers who have not experienced their situation first-hand). However, because PAR arises from within the group desiring the change, the necessary steps to bring it about would be more readily accepted and adopted. The policy that a researcher should not have a vested interest in their own research is based on the assumption that this is mutually exclusive with being objective. However, if a researcher in this situation can remain as objective as possible in assessing the best course of action, an interest in the outcome may not only bring an otherwise-ignored topic into the spotlight, but it may provide the motive needed to see the situation through to a satisfactory resolution.
Psychology as a Science and Profession(n.d.) Lesson 1: Why Psych 105?[Lesson Notes]. Retrieved from Pennsylvania State University, Psychology as a Science and Profession, https://psu.instructure.com/courses/1803751/modules/items/21132916
King ML, Jr. (1960). ‘Suffering and Faith’ The Christian Century27 April.
Maguire, P. (1987). Doing participatory research: A feminist approach.Amherst, MA: Center for Inter- national Education, University of Massachusetts.
Yeich, S., & Levine, R. (1992). Participatory research’s contribution to a conceptualization of empowerment. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 22(24), 189&1908.