Facilitating Participatory Research

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This is part of a series of chapter summaries of the Handbook of Participatory Research and Inquiry

Participatory research typically sets out to improve some real situation. In such research, two outcomes are typically pursued, research and action. The research provides increased understanding of the situation. The action seeks to bring about desired improvement. This chapter describes how facilitation and facilitators can assist both outcomes and their integration. Good understanding supports more effective change. Well-informed change contributes to a deeper understanding of the research situation.

Throughout, it is assumed that, wherever possible, best results are achieved by engaging participants as equals. In addition, the interests of all stakeholders are preferably taken into account. Good outcomes, if possible, are pursued for all. It is acknowledged that these goals may not be fully achieved easily. Also, they may not be accomplished at a single attempt. They may develop slowly throughout a study.

Principles illustrated by case studies and examples

To guide facilitators, the chapter provides some overarching principles that, if followed, enhance both research and action outcomes. Useful principles provide helpful guidance for novice facilitators. They also allow more experienced facilitators to apply the principles in ways that allow the facilitators also to draw on the experience they already have.

For ease of application, the principles are then usually illustrated with specific and detailed process descriptions. Some are detailed enough for novices to follow them, much as a novice cook might follow a recipe. In addition, two extended case studies provide a more general background. They offer a context to help bring the principles and the process descriptions to life.

One case study is of leadership in organisational settings. The other is about interventions for community development in a number of community settings. Both help to illustrate what the principles and practices look like in reality. They also serve to demonstrate that general principles are not an obstacle to shaping each research study to fit the actual situation.

The relevance of decision-making processes

One of the ways in which participants are commonly involved as equals is through the use of decision-making meetings. Even when participants are unwilling to engage more deeply in the research they may accept and welcome their involvement in decision making. Similarly, when the participation is modest for reasons of practicality, participant involvement in some decisions is still feasible and useful. Accordingly, processes for participative decision making are an emphasis in the chapter. 

Many of the processes described are robust enough that they are fairly safe even in inexperienced hands. The processes in effect provide some of the facilitation. At other times, the use of experienced facilitators may allow access to a greater variety of options. Experienced facilitators are usually better able to react in the moment to unexpected developments. Some writers on participatory research recommend their use. The more complex and uncertain the research situation, the more benefit there is in the use of experienced facilitators.

Components and stages in participatory research

Every application of participatory research is likely to be unique to some extent. However, some generalisations can be (and are) offered. For example, different styles of participant engagement may be appropriate at different stages of facilitated participatory research. The chapter describes a framework that summarises four overlapping components that, though overlapping, tend to occur in sequence.

In this framework the first component usually happens before most participants are engaged. The initial scope and purpose of the research are first defined. Some researchers and participants may be more directly involved in early planning. If so, they are recruited and briefed.

The framework includes a second component that is often overlooked in research. It is worth including for its substantial benefits. As any participant comes on board, relationships are built with existing participants. There may also be deeper relationships built in smaller groups of participants too, if applicable. Expectations are then clarified so that participants, whatever their role, develop shared aspirations for research and action outcomes.

Such activities are used before what might be regarded as the formal research might otherwise begin. The activities aim to build trusting relationships between all those taking part, whether researchers or participants. Shared expectations about the situation to be improved and the desired research and action outcomes make facilitation easier. With shared expectations, decision making becomes more productive and satisfying.

An early task recommended for a facilitator is therefore to encourage agreed expectations about the overall approach to be used. Expectations about different participant roles can also be developed, if applicable. The chapter includes specific suggestions about how a facilitator can encourage constructive interactions between those taking part.

Actual data collection and analysis together form the third component. The prior components (described above) increase the likelihood that participants can continue to be involved as equals in the actual research. The fourth component — implementation and action — may or may not occur. However, as research becomes more participatory, the likelihood of action, often concurrently with the research, is increased.

In participatory research, minority groups may require special attention during all four components. Such groups often express feelings of being exploited. The styles of participation described in this chapter are relevant. They may be achieved in such a way that such groups are given equal voice with the researchers and the other participants.

Other choices

There can be several different aspects to the overall approach to facilitation. One is likely to be the general form and style of the processes used. This may include the role of the facilitator or facilitators, if any. The social structures of the research and change components are also addressed. For instance, where there are many participants, this may include how a coordinating group of researchers and some participants may be established.

The group’s role may be to allow the local participants to inform researchers about features of the organisation or community. Particularly in larger studies it may also act as an intermediary between the study and the organisation or community. It may take on the role of helping to keep all relevant participants informed and involved.