Participatory Action Research: A Way to Increase Personal
by Linda M. Phillips and Karen L. Vavra
Within the social sciences, issues around the human condition are
fundamentally important. Issues include individual, group and organizational
dynamics that are studied by these same people working together with
others in pursuit of solutions that are brought about by their active
participation in reflection, inquiry, and theory and practice in
context. Kurt Lewin, a social psychologist, is said to have coined
the term “action research” (Gustavsen). In his 1946 landmark
paper, “Action research and minority problems,” Lewin
argued that “we should consider action, research and training
as a triangle that should be kept together” (p. 42). Action
research (AR) was endorsed by anthropologists, psychologists, sociologists,
educators and others. However, questions around the extent of participation
prompted the nomenclature of participatory research (PR).
By the 1970s, Fals Borda and others converged upon the term Participatory
Action Research (PAR) but it continues to be a disputed concept.
There are numerous terms in use including action research, participatory
research, critical action research, classroom action research, action
learning, action science, hermeneutic or interpretative, instrumental,
collaborative research, co-operative inquiry, industrial action research,
and soft systems approaches. As one might expect, there are different
definitions for each usage and it is challenging to find a consensus
definition for PAR.
We certainly see PAR as a strategy of inquiry and, for the purposes
of this paper, we adopt the description provided by Kemmis and McTaggart:
Participatory action research is a form of ‘insider research’ in
which participants move between two thought positions: on the one
side, seeing themselves, their understandings, their practices, and
the settings in which they practice from the perspective of insiders
who see these things in an intimate, even ‘natural’ way
that may be subject to the partiality of view characteristic of the
insider perspective; and on the other side, seeing themselves, their
understandings, their practices, and the setting from the perspective
of an outsider (sometimes by adopting the perspective of an abstract,
imagined outsider, and sometimes by trying to see things from the
perspective of real individuals or role incumbents in and around
the setting) who do not share the partiality of the inside view but
who also do not have the benefit of ‘inside knowledge’.
Alternating between these perspectives gives the insider critical
distance—the seed of the critical perspective that allows
insiders to consider the possible as well as the actual in their
social world (p. 590).
Some have described action research, participatory research, and
participatory action research as if they were all the same phenomenon: “In
participatory action research, one or more of the members of the
community or organization being studied participate actively in the
research process and in the actions that grow out of this process” (Whyte
p. 127). Others see PAR as an “emergent process” (Greenwood,
Whyte and Harkavy p. 176), or as a form of action research that involves
practitioners as both subjects and co-researchers. PAR is based on
the Lewinian proposition that causal inferences about the behaviour
of human beings are more likely to be valid and enactable when the
human beings in question participate in building and
testing them. Hence it aims at creating an environment in which participants
give and get valid information, make free and informed choices (including
the choice to participate), and generate internal commitment to the
results of their inquiry (Argyris and Schon p. 613).
Still others see PAR as an integrated “three-pronged process
of social investigation, education and action designed to support
those with less power in their organizational or community settings” (Hall
Debates pertain not only to the approaches used but also to whether
PAR is defensible research; whether participation is crucial and
how it is expressed; whether the research really concerns social
improvement; and appropriate roles for researchers, research and
social agents in the enhancement of the human condition (Kemmis and
McTaggart). Nonetheless, there seems to be agreement that PAR extends
the possibilities and opportunities for social research, enhances
inquiry, promotes positive changes in the ways individuals and groups
work together, and evokes more broad-based support for change.
Current applications of PAR can be found in many fields and settings.
One recent example is that of Dee McRae’s two-year project,
Make it Real: Participatory Action Research
with Adult Learners.
McRae assumed dual roles with separate purposes: (1) as facilitator
of a National Literacy Secretariat project called Hair Straight
Back (HSB) and, (2) as researcher of
a Participatory Action Research (PAR) project.
As facilitator of the Hair Straight Back (HSB) project,
McRae and the project team established two purposes:
• to identify the barriers and needs of adult learners who
attend school; and
• to research and publish a map and brochure of the available
community services in Houston [a small town in Northern British Columbia]
which offer support and assistance to prospective adult students.
As researcher of the PAR project, McRae’s research questions
examined whether PAR led to changes in the learning dynamic between
the instructor and the adult learners on the project team and the
way adult learners viewed learning, their own personal capacity and
agency in their personal situations.
Ten adults learners who had not finished high school participated
(two were completing fundamental-level course work, six were completing
developmental course work, and two were completing advanced classes).
Each experienced barriers and challenges to learning including substance
abuse, violence, relationship breakdowns, and poverty. The group
of adult learners participated in a project team to determine “what
needs the adults have before they become students” and “how
those returning to school could meet those needs” (McRae p.
How the data were collected was not detailed, but the main source
was “the reflective e-mail journal written to a colleague” (p.
10) who questioned, supported, and provided focused feedback. It
is unclear how the data were analyzed and what constituted evidence
of change among the adult learners.
McRae’s findings were based on descriptive data from her reflective
email journal which included her personal reflections and queries
about the team and the project, as well as feedback from a colleague.
The most salient finding reported by McRae from the HSB project is
that it changed “the way the adult learners viewed learning
and themselves as they developed their personal capacity and acted
with increased agency in their personal situations” (p.
11). She went on to say that PAR projects help learners to “increase
personal agency through facilitated group decision-making processes
and the different learning opportunities related to the project…PAR
offers an approach to teaching adult literacy learners that is respectful
of their current place in the world and … [helps them] to
develop personal skills and capacities to allow them to further explore,
expand, and negotiate their world” (p.1). Several themes were
Agency and capacity: give a man a fish…
An understanding of the adult learners’ context and current
capacity was emphasized by McRae as essential in order to facilitate
learning and the development of personal agency. In order to maximize
potential, adult learners need to know the available alternatives
so that they may make choices to address individual needs.
McRae claims that agency is not only related to issues of access
to services and community, but also personal initiative and perseverance
which directly impact individual success. During the HSB project,
the team members were considered experts with the knowledge and power
to make decisions about the direction of the project. McRae concludes
that this dynamic promoted the development of personal capacity and
agency within the group and amongst the individuals.
McRae considered ownership a powerful component of building capacity
in adult learners. She maintained that PAR projects offer a safe
environment for adult learners with the necessary guidance and support
from peers and the facilitator. When adult learners actively engage
in making decisions, problem solving, and completing tasks within
the project, these skills and capacities transfer to everyday life,
thus increasing personal agency.
Let the learner lead versus the reality zone
The HSB project did not always proceed smoothly because of project
deadlines, constraints and logistics that required certain compromises
which were negotiated and discussed with and by the team members.
The power of money and its role in capacity building
One of the most difficult group decisions, reported by McRae, was
deciding on the best use of the monetary honorarium offered to the
members of the team for participating in the project. After much
discussion, brainstorming and the passage of time, a consensus was
finally reached in the second year of the project. The team jackets
that were purchased with the honorarium represent the pride, dedication
and relationship that developed among the members of the project
PAR projects are not static; rather they evolve and change over
time. McRae points out that as a facilitator, she struggled to balance
timelines and outcomes of the project while ensuring opportunities
and time for authentic growth and change. PAR projects can produce
dissonance for some adult learners because the process is not straightforward,
linear and clean.
The messiness of this type of learning where there is no right or
wrong answer and where the facilitator is not giving direction, but
rather is continually asking questions, is, for some adult learners,
a scary and threatening place…This is a new way to make decisions
and to think things through. It is accepting that there is no one
right answer, no one correct point of view, and no one “quick
fix” solution. It shakes their reality, just a bit, and gives
them a different glimpse of the world and how they
can operate in it (McRae p. 25).
The key feature of PAR projects is not simply the action or product
of the project, rather it is the research and learning process that
is central, according to McRae: “It is the whole complex process
of collaborative research that goes into doing the task, taking the
action, the very nature of PAR that allows for real failures and
real successes. A PAR project and PAR learning are ripe with unexpected,
nonmeasurable and non-academic outcomes” (p. 26).
Room to learn
Dee McRae attributed the growth and development of the project team
and herself to the freedom and opportunity to converse and work collaboratively
in an “open-ended
way.” In retrospect, McRae mentions that at times her preoccupation
to comply with the expectations of the educational institution and
funding agencies, and the completion of the final product of the
project, restricted and limited some of the decisions that were made
in her role as a facilitator. Nonetheless, McRae indicated that the
individual and collective gains are more than just the final product: “[The
adult learners] have all also had the experience of working on a
team project, where the whole becomes greater than the parts. But
most important, they each developed increased personal capacities
for dealing with learning and life” (p. 5).
McRae makes a case for the merits of PAR as “an approach to
teaching adult literacy learners that is respectful of their current
place in the world and also allows them to develop personal skills
and capacities to allow them to further explore, expand, and negotiate
their world” (p.
1). PAR honours the context and contributions of all participants
and provides a framework for collaboration, ownership and self-actualization
of adult learners, while also empowering adult learners to actively
engage in research about issues that are relevant and important to
them. McRae points out that the process and product of PAR are open-ended,
unpredictable and equally valuable:
Participatory action research projects can be used as a powerful
tool to explore learning and develop personal agency in an adult
upgrading classroom. It is not any one principle of PAR that
offers this benefit, but rather the combination of the principles:
the relationship of the participant to the data and the project,
role in the research, and the processes facilitated to bring
about the action with the participants, all working together that
brings about the desired effect (p. 8).
Whether personal agency was enhanced in McRae’s project remains
unclear based on the report. The lack of clarity is not because of
the use of PAR but rather the longstanding question of what counts
LINDA M. PHILLIPS is professor and director of
the Canadian Centre for Research on Literacy at the University of
Alberta. She also coordinates the Canadian Adult Literacy Research
KAREN L. VAVRA is a doctoral student at the University
of Alberta with interests in those experiencing reading problems
and research methodologies.
Argyris, C. and D. A. Schon (1989). Participatory Action Research
and Action Science Compared: A Commentary. American Behavioral
Scientist, 32, 612-623.
Fals Borda, O. (2001). Participatory (Action) Research in Social
Theory: Origins and Challenges. In P. Reason and H. Bradbury (eds.), Handbook
of Action Research. London, UK: Sage Publications, 27-37.
Greenwood, D. J., W. F. Whyte and I. Harkavy (1993). Participatory
Action Research as a Process and as a Goal. Human Relations,
Gustavsen, B. (2001). Theory and Practice: The Mediating Discourse.
In P. Reason and H. Bradbury (eds.), Handbook of Action Research.
London, UK: Sage Publications, 17-26.
Hall, B.L. (2001). I wish this were a poem of practices of participatory
research. In P. Reason and H. Bradbury (eds.), Handbook of Action
Research. London, UK: Sage Publications, 171-178.
Kemmis, S., and R. McTaggart (2000). Participatory Action Research.
In N.K. Denzin and Y.S. Lincoln (eds.), Handbook of Qualitative
Research, (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.,
Lewin, K. (1946). Action Research and Minority Problems. Journal
of Social Issues, 2(4), 34-46.
McRae, D. (2006). Make it Real: Participatory Action Research
with Adult Learners. Vancouver, BC: Research in Practice in
Adult Literacy (RiPAL-BC).
Whyte, W. F. (1998). Participatory Action Research: Getting Involved
and Creating Surprises at the Workplace. In K. Whitfield and G. Strauss
(eds.), Researching the World of Work: Strategies and Methods
in Studying Industrial Relations. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University
SIDEBAR: Research in
Practice from RiPAL-BC
RiPAL-BC exemplifies the very positive things that can happen when
adult literacy practitioners are encouraged, enabled and supported
to explore their practice and to share their questions and learning.
In 2006, RiPAL-BC produced a series of reports on a range of research-in-practice
projects in the province. The commitment, honesty and questioning
spirit of practitioners comes through in all of this work. As Paula
Davies, whose work examined personal narrative, put it:
Engaging in practitioner research has brought an amazing new dimension
to my classroom practice. In fact, I would say that practitioner
research is one of the most productive professional development activities
that an instructor can engage in!
The five reports are:
• Make it Real: Participatory Action Research with
Adult Learners by Dee McRae
• Catching Our Breath: Collaborative Reflectionon-Action
in Remote-Rural BC by Anne Docherty
• From Concrete to Abstract: The Benefits of Using
a Guided Reflective Writing Technique with Adult
Literacy Students by Leonne Beebe
• Walking Alongside: Youth-Adult Partnershipsin Making
Change by Melanie Sondergaard
• See Me: Use of Personal Narrative in the Classroom by
These publications can be downloaded from: http://ripal.literacy.bc.ca/completed.html