Approach

Originating with the pioneering work of Kurt Lewin and the Tavistock Institute, participatory action research (PAR) is a well-documented tradition of collective reasoning and evidence-based learning for social change. Taken together, the various formulations of PAR constitute a robust alternative to positivism's denial of human agency and justice in the global era.

Our research and related publications contribute many new ideas and practical tools to this longstanding tradition by weaving together insights and lessons from critical, clinical and pragmatic perspectives on PAR. Our approach builds on the common idea that research must be done “with” people and not “on” or “for” people. Inquiry of this kind makes sense of the world through efforts to transform it, as opposed to simply observing and studying human behavior and people’s views about reality in the hope that meaningful change will happen somewhere down the road.

Various publications emerging from this work are grounded in genuine examples of collective fact-finding and analysis facilitated by the authors and colleagues from around the world. They show how to move beyond the narrow set of qualitative (focus group, interview, story telling) and quantitative (survey) methods commonly used in mainstream research, and employ 'skillful means' to mesh knowledge-making with real life experimentation and the ideals of justice and genuine democracy.

Theory

The methods and conceptual underpinnings presented on this website build on lessons from different disciplines, scientific traditions, and theoretical frameworks. By engaging with theories of knowledge and society we hope to create more space for teaching PAR in the university environment. Even though PAR has been around for 70 years, it is still not taught systematically at universities, in part because it is considered too light theoretically and substantively. Theoretical commentaries and detailed case studies published here and elsewhere are meant to correct this view. In the end, theory matters and makes a difference in the methods you choose and the way you do research. As Kurt Lewin put it, "there is nothing so practical as a good theory."

Our contribution to PAR theory consists in casting a different light on the inquiry process, treating it as a vital part of all human life in society. To begin, we question the split between theory (Gr. epistêmê) and technique (Gr. techné), or substance and process. This conventional split treats substance as the subject matter of thought or mental process. It is that which is to be known, has "real" content, and feeds into existing bodies of knowledge. In contrast, the inquiry process is commonly reduced to the journey, not the destination. It represents the path to knowledge guided by methods and devices, stepwise procedures, and the technical means people use to solidly grasp the phenomena of social and natural history.

Positivism is largely responsible for this split between theory and technique. It is the main source of instrumental views on methods to produce objective knowledge, using techné to discover things that are true in substance and at the service of hard science. The association between positivism and its technocratic legacy (such as Taylorism and mass-scale industrialization) is so close most humanistically-minded critics keep their distance from technical means and technology in general. As with positivism, humanism ends up keeping the worlds of means and ends apart.

In our work, we choose to reclaim and refashion tools, techniques, crafts, systems, or methods of knowing in support of the art of collaborative inquiry. The attention we give to the many pathways and possible innovations in the process of knowing is based on the notion that learning embodies the ways in which we humans actually interact with each other and shape the world "about us." The assumption we make, amply confirmed by experience, is that the knowledge-making techné is inseparable from the substance we value in fact or in principle, including the wellbeing of others and the many objects of sensemaking and meaningful activity in everyday life. As in Gandhi's philosophy, the art of inquiry will be more, or less, skillful depending on how well it embeds the ends in the means.

For a full discussion of the theoretical foundations of PAR, and our contribution to the field, see Participatory Action Research: Theory and Methods for Engaged Inquiry.