Solving Our Own Problems With Help

Many communities face challenges that affect their way of life. These can include anything from bullying to pollution and a host of things in between. The question then becomes, how do communities deal with these issues. On one hand, they have a great deal of knowledge and experience involving the issues. At the same time, many of the community members are probably not versed in the scientific inquiry. Therefore, there is a need for a professional with such experience to help with the problem-solving. The professional in many cases, however, will be new to the situation, and not completely knowledgeable about the background. Given this scenario, the most logical step would be to combine the two, such that they are working together in an effort to create the necessary social change. This is exactly what Participatory Action Research (PAR) attempts to accomplish.

Participatory Action Research is a research method within social sciences that “emphasizes collaborative participation of trained researchers as well as local communities in producing knowledge directly relevant to the stakeholder community” (Coghlan & Brydon-Miller, 2014) Essentially, a trained professional, (psychologist, biologist, ecologist, etc.) works with members of a community in an effort to research, and solve some problem, or create some change within the community. It is based in “self-reflective inquiry”, in that both the researcher and the community members look at the things that they do in an effort to improve their practices and situations they find themselves in. (Baum, MacDougall, & Smith, 2006) There are three distinctions that make participatory action research different from traditional research: research is conducted in an effort to enable action; participants are active in the research process; power is shared between the researcher and researched. (Baum, MacDougall, & Smith, 2006) These methods have been applied to a host of settings including activism, community problem solving, education and health care.

At the agency where I work, one of the divisions uses participatory action research to create social change in school environments. The division creates a yearly Youth Advisory Committees (YAC), comprised of high school teenagers, who, in conjunction with paid professionals, research topics important to the youth audience. Topics include teen pregnancy, drug and tobacco use, underage drinking, bullying, and a host of other issues they deem important. Once they have identified the issues they want to focus on, they begin working on solving the problem. The meet bi-weekly at our agency in an effort to come to a solution that creates change in their audience. The teens on the committee look at themselves, and their environment, and with the help of professionals, are able to analyze and troubleshoot troubling behaviors that create solutions that can be applied to all individuals in this particular community.

When communities face problems, it is they who have the power to correct them. In many cases, however, they lack the knowledge and skill to effectively create solutions to these problems. Participatory action research helps to solve this issue. It introduces a professional to the problem who guides the community on identifying issues, conducting research, making analysis, addressing policies, and creating change. (Phillips, Berg, Rodriguez, & Morgan, 2010) Through this process, communities can better solve problems, and create change that positively influences their quality of life.


Baum, F., MacDougall, C., & Smith, D. (2006). Participatory Action Research. Journal of epidemiology and community health, 60(10), 854-857.

Coghlan, D., & Brydon-Miller, M. (2014, December 24). Participatory Action Research. The Sage Encyclopedia of Action Research. London: Sage Publications Ltd.

Phillips, E. N., Berg, M. J., Rodriguez, C., & Morgan, D. (2010). A Case Study of Participatory Action Research in a Public New England Middle School: Empowerment, Constraints and Challenges. American Journal of Community Psychology, 46, 179-194.




  1. I appreciate your sharing the perspective of your specific organization with respect to Participatory Action Research. I think that inner-city youth experience a disconnect between the perils that they face in their everyday life and what they want to achieve or what they can do about it. It seems that PAR allows the researchers and the participants to address problems that are of immediate consequence to the youth and provide input and potential solutions to address the challenges they face. This feedback loop provides understanding, answers and solutions to areas of struggle that youth may have. I believe that if all schools and students had the ability to explore issues of concern and determine appropriate solutions, it would provide a sense of empowerment and control and, give the youth an opportunity to be accountable for and take action towards what they want in their life.

  2. It is encouraging to hear about the PAR program with your agency! I agree that so much that needs to be done in communities can only really be implemented by those already in the community. You bring up a great point, too, that while those in the community know what needs to change, they may not have the expertise to bring it about. PAR is that perfect balance between persona interest knowledge and research knowledge, pairing your community members with trained researchers to bring about positive change. Do you feel that these interventions are more effective, coming from community members rather than “outsiders?”

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