Blog: How can participatory research help create the change needed in the world?

Image of Danny Burns
Danny Burns, Professorial Research Fellow
Image of Joanna Howard
Joanna Howard, Research Fellow and Cluster Leader
Image of Sonia M. Ospina
Sonia M. Ospina, Professor of Public Management and Policy at the NYU Wagner Graduate School of Public Service

The new Sage Handbook of Participatory Research and Inquiry – edited by Danny Burns, Jo Howard and Sonia Ospina, with contributions from 137 authors in 71 chapters is launched this week.

Our world is in a moment of existential jeopardy. The predicted impacts from climate change mean that it is unclear whether our grandchildren will have a future on this planet.  Many of the progressive changes that people thought were here for good are unravelling at a pace beyond comprehension. Climate change will create domino collapses – as tipping points in different domains are crossed and their effects start to interact with each other, from food security to disease, war and migration. Understanding this complexity and engaging with it radically is critical.

Co-creating alternative narratives that challenge

There are many people who have their heads in the sand – afraid to face up to the reality of what is coming. Others place their faith in science and technology to get us out of this mess. Yet it is science and technology that got us into this mess. We need a revolution in how we engage with our planet and in order to get there we need a revolution in thinking. We need to rethink the dominant positivist model of science that speaks of some objective reality that exists beyond ourselves, towards a model that understands that everything we do impacts on the social, and economic and environmental systems we are all part of.

We also need to co-create an alternative to the powerful narratives that challenge the whole concept of evidence (the propagation of ‘false news’ etc), galvanising anxieties and a sense of impotence and resignation.

Participatory knowledge generation

The seeds of this transformation are already there. They lie in participatory approaches to knowledge generation. When people gather their own data and analyse it, they build ownership of and trust in the knowledge they produce. In turn, this builds a motivation for dialogue and learning that grows into a propensity for action. The trust and agency, which emanate from this process of engagement, enable change to spread, and for movements to be developed, supported and sustained.

Participatory knowledge is robust because it is rooted in experience, because its dialogic and iterative approach means that it is contested from multiple angles, and it is tested in action. Participatory research methods access sources of knowledge that other approaches don’t reach. They facilitate processes for analysing this knowledge and identifying action. It is through such processes that we can transform fear and resignation into trust, hope and collective action for change.

There are many great examples of this sort of transformational change in the handbook. Just one of these, which describes a process facilitated with bonded cotton mill workers in Tamil Nadu, who analysed their own situation and how they could make changes and is summarised in this short video.

Collective learning in a single repository

Five decades of participatory methods learning has led to the maturing of ethical practice and an explosion of participatory research methods and inquiry practices. The new SAGE Handbook of Participatory Research and Inquiry brings together 137 authors who each reflect upon and demonstrate the richness and relevance of that knowledge. The handbook features examples from across disciplines, and across the world, about how to do this work in a deep way and at scale. It invites you to learn from the detailed steps that others have taken so that you have the clarity and inspiration to engage in your own research and act for progressive change.

The collection of 71 chapters in the handbook aims to bring together experiential knowledge rooted in a participatory philosophy and tested through practice of how to build capacities and action for change. Through critical reflections and practical tools it is a movement to transform our approach to knowledge so that we can collectively challenge the social and environmental damage that has been done and build a future for the generations to come.

This book brings together, curated for the first time in a single repository, this collective learning on participatory research and inquiry. We hope that it inspires you.

Learn more about participatory action research process at the online professional development course Using Participatory Action Research to Improve Development Practice.