Social Work Research: Using Participatory Action Research
Participatory action social work research has long been linked positively to the social work profession, due to its emphasis on systemic social change, the liberation of marginalized groups, and examination of systems of power and knowledge. These core components, along with a focus on working with grassroots groups and social movements, are all consistent with social work research principles and values.
Thus, PAR presents a promising opportunity for social workers interested in conducting social work research outside of traditional disciplinary research paradigms.
PAR has interdisciplinary roots in the social sciences, drawing from theorists such as Marx, Engels, Lewin, and Freire is strongly endorsed by modern social movements such as feminism and ecology movements, and therefore is a logical research methodology for professions with social justice aims.
Social workers often occupy multiple positions in society, as practitioners, researchers, activists, and educators, and PAR is one research methodology that provides a synthesis of “investigation, education, and action1.”
Related Reading: Qualitative or Quantitative Research in Social Work
Foundational Principles of Participatory Action Research
Participatory Action Research in practice rests on a number of theoretical foundations and political positions, influenced and supported by a number of progressive theorists and activist traditions. Many of the same progressive theorists and activist traditions informed the formation of social work as a profession, and continue to influence its values today including:
- A belief in systems theory and the oppressive forces of macro-level structures – the idea that oppression has its roots in macro social structures such as patriarchy, capitalism, and white supremacy, and within this complex system of structures, oppression is felt by groups occupying certain positions at the macro, mezzo, and micro levels.
- Issues of power should be equalized in the research encounter – this is a shift to a radically egalitarian relationship between researcher and researcher participants, seeking to eliminate traditional hierarchies in that relationship by empowering research “subjects” to become active participants in the research process through an equitable sharing of tasks and roles.
- In order to achieve social justice, macro-level change is necessary – the oppressive structures that make up our current social system must be changed in order to see a real societal transformation, therefore, those working toward social justice must contribute to change at the macro-level.
- That society can be categorized into two groups of people, the haves and the have-nots – drawing from conflict theory, this position states that those who have (power, wealth, privilege) aim to maintain their privileged positions and those who do not have want to attain it. Participatory action research, then, seeks to “expose and confront the powerful1.
- Participants should be empowered toward self-determination – through collective action strategies and consciousness-raising, participants should become aware of the oppressive systems affecting them and feel empowered to take control of the economic and political forces that impact their lives.
- Knowledge is power – Oppressed people should be involved in the creation of knowledge because “returning the power of knowledge generation and use to ordinary, oppressed people will contribute to the creation of more accurate, critical reflection of social reality, the liberation of human potential, and the mobilization of human resources to solve problems2.”
What Do PAR Researchers Do?
Those engaged in PAR methodologies of social work research play a number of possible roles and operate in ways consistent with PAR’s philosophy throughout the research process, in conjunction with the people, groups, and communities acting as participants. These roles include:
- Establishing the groundwork for the project through preliminary consultation and evaluation of the issues2
- Promoting participant involvement
- Facilitating community meetings3
- Raising consciousness and promoting activist attitudes4
- Acting as resources within the community
- Working under the guidance of community members
- Including community members in the research process as key informants, experts of community dynamics, etc.
Considerations in the Practice of PAR
While PAR offers many potential benefits, it is not without limitations and flaws. Researchers engaged in PAR should be aware of several valid critiques of the PAR process, and be attentive to them as potential issues that may come up during PAR practice. These considerations include:
- Failure to acknowledge power relations – although PAR seeks a radical egalitarian stance in the research process through participant involvement, researchers must remain aware that power dynamics will always be at play in the researcher-participant relationship. As Healey states: “Many PAR projects could not occur without the initiative of someone with time, skill and commitment, someone who will almost inevitably be a member of a privileged and educated group1.” If power is not acknowledged, it can become minimized, patronizing, or unlimited.
- Lack of clarity in measuring changes – PAR aims to achieve systems-level change, which is difficult, if not impossible, to measure. Researchers must bear in mind how best to evaluate the impact of PAR interventions when measures of change are weak.
- Not culturally relevant – While PAR reaches toward empowerment of participants through the research process, not all cultural contexts experience such participation as empowering. Additionally, other cultural and contextual considerations should be taken into account in research design and practice, as “it cannot be assumed that these values are equally applicable to other cultural contexts.1”
- Minimizing people’s power/agency – PAR’s focus on structural change and systemic power run the risk of failing to recognize, or minimizing the power and agency people do have. “As long as the people remain hypnotized by a concept of power as institutionalized violence, they are disabled in their creative efforts aimed at cultivating their own life sources of power.5”
- Placing participants in risky positions – PAR has an activist and community organizing legacy and focus, as a part of its efforts toward social transformation. However, participating in opposition action (such as protests and manifestations) places some participants at risk of losing their livelihoods.
PAR is a valuable research methodology grounded in many of the same values and ideals upon which the profession of social work was built, and has a great potential use for researchers with social change agendas. For the attentive social work researcher who is aware of critiques to and possible problems arising within PAR, this research methodology offers great promise for community impact and social transformation.
- Healey, K. Participatory action research and social work: a critical appraisal. Intl Social Work. 2001;44(1):93-105.
- Healey, K, Walsh, K. Making participatory processes visible: practice issues in the development of a peer support network. Australian Social Work. 1997;50(3):45-52.
- Mathrani, V. Participatory research: a potential for in-depth understanding. Indian J. of Social Work. 1993;54(3):345-353.
- Finn, J. The promise of participatory research. J. of Progressive Human Svcs. 1994;5(2):25-42.
- Rahnema, M. Participatory action research: the “last temptation of saint” development. Alternatives. 1990;15:199-266.