In much participatory research, control over the process and agenda of the process is handed over from the researcher to the participants, often local people. Participants also analyse and reflect on the information generated by the research process. This can be an empowering experience for community members, as well as documenting local realities which can be used to inform policy and practice.
Participatory research is both a range of methods and an ideological perspective. Its fundamental principles are that the subjects of the research become involved as partners in the process of the enquiry, and that their knowledge and capabilities are respected and valued.
Participatory research is ultimately about relationships and power. The key relationships are between the researcher and the researched, and between local people and those actors they see as powerful and who affect their lives. Participatory researchers act as facilitators and work towards attaining equality in these two relationships.
Local people involved in participatory research processes are often subordinate in their own social context, while outside researchers are often perceived as experts who impose their views. Transforming these dynamics is achieved by enabling local people to articulate their views and express their knowledge through describing and analysing their own situation and problems. Many participatory research processes also have an action component, which involve the participants in successive cycles of analysis, reflection and action.
Means or end?
Different approaches to participatory research vary in purpose, level of participation and representation. The particular balance of these elements depends on the intentions of those initiating the research, and on the availability of time and resources.
Participatory research is initiated for a variety of reasons. The purpose can be very functional – for example, to generate specific information on a particular theme for a new programme or policy – or might aim for the empowerment of communities. Whatever the purpose, it is important that participants are involved in both generating and analysing data, as it is during the analysis that much of the learning takes place.
Level of participation
Local people experience different levels of participation in participatory research processes. In some, they set the agenda and objectives together with researchers, are fully involved in data collection and analysis, and can adjust the goals of the exercise and change research activities. The exact balance often depends on how much power is retained by the researcher or the organisation that has initiated the research.
Who are the ‘local people’ we talk about? In participatory research it is crucial to understand the make-up of local communities and the power relations within them, and to include members of different social groups who have different perspectives on their circumstances. Without due attention to difference, social inequalities can be reproduced in the research process and its outcomes.
Participatory research and the project cycle
Participatory research and analysis can be used at different stages of the project cycle: problem identification, assessment of local priorities, monitoring of progress and evaluation. It can be used to inform policy design and to provide ‘reality checks’ to adjust existing policy frameworks. In each case, to be effective, participatory research needs to be linked to other stages of the cycle. A widely recognised problem is that activity planning does not take the outcomes of participatory research into account, resulting in an intervention that does not do justice to the principles of participatory research.
Participatory research and policy
Participatory research brings out the views of local people: their reality, their challenges, and their understanding of problems and solutions. Their ideas may prove to be quite distinct from those in charge of formulating the policies that affect their lives. Participatory research can therefore produce surprising insights for policy, and may challenge the assumptions on which policy frameworks are based. It may also reveal why certain development interventions intended to help the poor are not actually used by local people.
Participatory research and transnational knowledge networks
Much participatory research has focused on either activities at the local level, or on transmitting grassroots views to governments. But many of the challenges of development and governance in today’s world cross national boundaries and demand new ways of creating, sharing and using knowledge. This has led some participatory researchers to focus on building research networks that cross national boundaries to produce knowledge and action to improve citizen participation and accountability.