Participatory Action Research: Researchers Working With Communities to Bring About Social Change

Participatory Action Research (PAR) involves researchers who apply their skills and training to a particular issue that they personally care about; they are invested in the outcome of the research and their aim is to contribute to creating social change.  PAR focuses on research that enables social action. Mary Brydon–Miller (1997) describes Participatory Action Research as a blend of basic science and applied science—she explains that psychologists can use this approach to social science to contribute to the general field of knowledge in a certain realm while also helping to support some sort of positive social change. This approach, which opponents argue is an inappropriate mix of one’s politics and psychology, is very different from the traditional scientific approach to studying issues using a more detached and objective research design (Brydon–Miller, 1997).
At the root of PAR is the goal of providing a framework where positive social change can come about through a combination of efforts; communities working in tandem with psychologists to share their knowledge, vision, and values can effectively facilitate social change in countless areas, from criminal justice to environmental sustainability to overpopulation to poverty. Knowledge is never fixed, there is always room for more knowledge to be assimilated into our existing schemas and frameworks of how the physical world and social processes within it work.
Educator and author Paulo Freire felt very strongly that community members need to be an integral part of the social change process—he felt that the “researcher and researched” should be “equal and active participants” in any process meant to result in social change that would affect that community (Brydon–Miller, 1997, p. 659). By including community members, researchers can learn more about the real issues that communities are facing, and by employing a more engaged and interpretive subjective perspective, the team members can act and reflect repeatedly until the framework for the desired future changes is laid.
The Participatory Action Research process begins with mutual trust between the researcher and the other participants in the community where change is needed. One example of how participatory action researchers can apply their knowledge and skills to helping members of the community is seen in the efforts of Darius Tandon and his colleagues in Chicago—there they work with local African–American leaders to learn more about how to strengthen leadership and bring about positive change in minority communities (Brydon–Miller, 1997, p. 663). The leaders of the communities are active participants in the process, helping to choose topics to explore, interviewing others, analyzing data, and also deciding what action needs to be taken going forward based on research findings.
Participatory Action Research requires respecting and exploring a new paradigm in the world of social science— one which embraces a collaborative approach between researchers and community members who actively work together to bring about social change. This type of social research can exist along with traditional scientific methodology and add a new dimension of depth to critical inquiry, where the ultimate goal is to create new knowledge while also helping to bring about social change.

Brydon-Miller, M. (1997). Participatory Action Research: Psychology and Social Change. The Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues, 53(4). 657-666.


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