Feminisms, Intersectionality, and Participatory Research

Publication year: 

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

Feminism is a multifaceted approach to facilitating research that cannot be defined by a single theoretical framework. Third- wave feminism (1980s–present), also known as Black Feminist Thought, Critical Race Theory/Feminism, and/or Intersectionality, is the feminist space we currently reside(Coghlan and Brydon-Miller, 2014). Feminist  research ‘put(s) the social construction of gender at the center of one’s inquiry’ (Lather, 1988: 570), arguing that gender is central in shaping our consciousness, knowledge, and institutions, as well as determining who holds power and privilege. At its core, feminist research  aims to ensure the voices of all, particularly in the context of gender, are heard in order to create a more just world. As such, the links to participatory research (PR) are clear; PR allows for us to see a future where the diverse voices of humanity are welcomed.  

The tenets of PR cannot be achieved if we do not welcome a feminist lens in our work. How can we advocate for   a world that is more equitable, through PR, without listening to the voices of women and  marginalized genders? How can we advocate   for social change if we aren’t willing to think  deeply about how power and privilege impact our worldview? How can we speak about justice if we first aren’t   willing to look at the ways we contribute to gendered bias? 

Key contributions:

The history of feminism in PR markedly begins with the seminal work of Patricia Maguire (1987), one of the first to recognize   the androcentric (focused on the experiences of men) nature of PR and ‘critique … male chauvinism in participatory research’ (Maguire, 1987: ix). Maguire’s piece, Doing   Participatory Research: A Feminist Approach, created a new paradigm by bridging feminist thought with participatory action research, and paved the way for the integration of feminism into PR. Maguire raised the question, where are the women? Stating that at the time, ‘gender was rendered invisible by supposedly inclusive terms such as people, the oppressed, the campesinos, or simply the community’ (Maguire, 1996: 111).  

In the late 1980s, feminist researchers sought a way to combat traditional, positivistic research by implementing approaches that celebrated relationships and iterative processes, giving way to PR (McIntyre et al., 2004). Before this time, ‘rarely have feminist and participatory action researchers acknowledged each other as collaborators with mutually important contributions to the journey’ (McIntyre et al., 2004: ix). Unfortunately, even at this point, feminism and PR continued to diverge, with feminism still rooted in more positivistic research paradigms, and PR remaining predominantly androcentric (McIntyre et al., 2004).  

Scholars such as Patricia Maguire, Yolanda Wadsworth, Andrea Cornwall, Mary Brydon-Miller, and Alice McIntyre continued to fight for a feminist space in PR in order to make way for the two frameworks to converge. Cornwall’s (2001) book Making a Difference? Gender and Participatory Development highlights the exclusion of women’s voices in participatory discourse and community engagement, and argues for a deeper consideration of power dynamics and more inclusive spaces for all genders.

In 2004, McIntyre, Brydon-Miller, and Maguire published their text Traveling Companions: Feminism, Teaching, and Action Research, which compiles perspectives from feminist participatory researchers as they explore and reflect upon power, practice, and positionality within their own scholarly action-oriented practice. Concurrently with the introduction of feminist thought into PR came the notion of race and power through the lens of critical race theory (CRT). Much like feminist scholars determined a stark gap in PR as women were left out of conversations surrounding privilege and power, Bell (2006) pointed out  that race and racial issues too are left out of PR discourse. 


The tenets of feminist PR include: (1) Rejection of value-free research, (2) Inclusivity, (3) Power, voice, and empowerment, (4) Positionality, and (5) Relationships and collaboration. 

Rejection of value-free research:

Feminist scholars reject a positivistic  approach that suggests research must be objective and value-free, acknowledging this paradigm creates ‘dehumanizing assumptions, methods, and implicit messages’ (Maguire, 1996: 113). Instead, feminist scholars acknowledge that knowledge is socially constructed and research exists within a system of values. Feminist PR researchers commit themselves to conduct research that challenges political systems of power and practices that continue to marginalize populations (Brydon-Miller et al., 2003). 


Participatory research as a whole has historically failed to be inclusive of marginalized communities, which led to inclusivity becoming a core concept within feminist PR (Reid and Frisby, 2008). In order for PR to be authentic and transformative it must be inclusive and couched within a feminist lens that appreciates the depth and intersectionality of human experience (Frisby et al., 2009: 24). Cornwall (2001) argues that in order for  women to be fully engaged, they must feel comfortable and welcomed in spaces where participatory work is being done. Frisby et al. (2009: 23) notes that ‘this is where action research contributes back to  feminist theory-building, because the goal is to engage in participatory processes that are inclusive of those usually marginalized from  more formal processes of theory production,’ suggesting that the overall processes are more intentional about inclusivity. 

Power, voice, and empowerment:

As feminist researchers we are called to  explore how power comes into play in the  world around us, but also within our research. Facilitating participatory methods from a feminist perspective requires that we give up  control of conducting research, and rather welcome collaboration with others. Participatory approaches are designed to expose the role of power in the construction of knowledge, recognizing that it is feminist research that ‘calls attention to the centrality of male power in that social construction of knowledge’ (Maguire, 1996: 111).  


Within a single feminist PR project, the researcher takes on multiple roles that can be impacted by their own positionality and personal bias, both of which are necessary to address. An action researcher may hold several roles, which is further confounded by whether the researcher is an insider in the community they are studying, an outsider, or some combination of the two. Feminist participatory researchers have an obligation to acknowledge and delve into the ‘interlocking nature of oppression and privilege’ (Brydon-Miller and Maguire, 2009: 85). Despite power differentials that may exist, or the multiple roles that a researcher may carry, the participants, or co-researchers, are the leaders of decision-making (McIntyre, 2008), to stay true to the PR process. 

Relationships & Collaboration:

Feminist PR involves ‘creating knowledge through participatory processes in the context of human relationships’ (Maguire, 1987: xvi). Within a single feminist PR framework, participants in a project are considered to be co-researchers who contribute fully to the research throughout the entire process (McIntyre, 2008), which is grounded in a deep commitment to a relational approach  as a philosophical underpinning. By developing strong relationships with co-researchers, participatory researchers are able to gain the trust of underserved communities and gather more rich, relevant data in order to work towards creating measurable, positive change  (Vaughn et al., 2017). 


Black Feminist Thought, Critical Race Theory (CRT), and Intersectionality lend themselves well to participatory research strategies (Houh and Kalsem, 2015), particularly in terms of collaboration and authentic relationships between researchers and par ticipants (Thomas, 2009). Intersectionality, a theory that highlights and values intersecting identities in relation to human experience (Crenshaw, 1989, 1990), is a concept originating in both CRT and Black Feminist Thought.

The primary tenet of intersectionality is the consideration of intersecting oppressions that are a result of being a part of more than one historically marginalized group (Crenshaw, 1989, 1990). According to Anderson et al. (2007: 7), PR ‘has the potential for empowerment and the inclusion for greater diversity of voices in educational policy and social change.’ The issue of power relations and balance of power is a key theme in PR (McIntyre, 2008), CRT, and third-wave feminism (Delgado and Stefancic, 2017; hooks, 2000). 

Feminist-Informed PR Methods:

Through its connection with feminist thought, PR has the ability to appreciate and highlight marginalized voices as well as view women as capable contributors to research and social justice (McIntyre, 2008). Just as there is no single theory that informs PAR, there is also no single method that PAR implements (Burns, 2007; McIntyre, 2008). 


The development of Photovoice was rooted in utilizing a feminist theoretical lens to address the androcentric nature of participatory research (Wang and Burris, 1997). Photovoice involves providing people with cameras so that they can take photographs as a means to ‘identify, represent, and enhance their community’ (Wang and Burris, 1997: 369). It is used most often around the topic of   health, however it is beginning to gain popularity in other spaces.

Photovoice is rooted in a feminist inquiry; it is in opposition with positivist ways of knowing, instead focused on ‘listening to and learning from women’s own portrayal of their lives’ (Wang, 1999, p. 187). Photovoice confronts other forms of research that rely on the researcher to determine the needs of the community; rather, within this method communities are empowered to ‘collectively prioritize’ their needs (Wang and Burris, 1997). Photovoice empowers people to be catalysts of change within their own communities, by providing them an opportunity to share their knowledge and expertise (Wang and Burris, 1997). 

Group-Level Assessment:

Group-Level Assessment (GLA) is a qualitative, participatory methodology meant for large groups (Vaughn and Lohmueller, 2014). The process involves participants responding to prompts on large posters presented throughout the room, then a preliminary group analysis is conducted, followed by group discussion; reflection is also a key part of the GLA process (Vaughn and Lohmueller, 2014). GLA leads to data that are propelled by participants, not by researchers, and it leads to the creation of action plans that work toward program development and problem solving (Vaughn and Lohmueller, 2014). The nature of the participatory process makes GLA inclusive of multiple individuals and experiences, and responding to prompts anonymously allows for leveling the playing field between stakeholders.

Within the context of feminist PR, GLA has been used in several instances to amplify women’s voices and capture their unique, pluralistic experiences. Guy and Boards (2019) used intersectionality as a framework for their participatory research project investigating the perspectives and needs of under- represented minority (URM) women students enrolled in STEM degree programs. Their study implemented a GLA to develop an action plan to support them at the university. Arthur and Guy (2020) also utilized GLA within a feminist PR framework to better understand women engineering students’ experiences during their cooperative education (co-op) programs. Through the GLA process, Arthur and Guy (2020) worked with their participants to develop several action items that are being used to improve the experiences of women engineers on co-op. 


Feminism challenges PR to focus on power, gender, and collaboration as key tenets. Feminism has helped participatory researchers ensure that relational collaboration and genuine participation are central to their practice. Feminist participatory scholars urge participatory researchers to ensure that conversations around gender and power are discussed as central to our development of knowledge, in an attempt to combat the traditional, androcentric nature that has historically plagued PR.

Feminist PR promotes inclusivity of all genders in the PR process, while not simplifying individuals’ experiences as mono lithic. Furthermore, feminist PR demands that participatory researchers be intentional about who is offered a seat at the table, while also consistently revisiting who is left out. 

Recommended reading:

Arthur, B. and Guy, B. (2020). ‘No, I’m not the secretary’: Using participatory methods to explore women engineering students’ experiences on co-op. International Journal of Work-Integrated Learning, 21(3): 211–222. 

Crenshaw, K. (1990). Mapping the margins: Intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of color. Stanford law Review., 43 (6): 1241-1299. 

Frisby, W., Maguire, P. and Reid, C. (2009). The f’word has everything to do with it: How feminist theories inform action research. Action Research, 7(1): 13–29. 

Maguire, P. (1987). Doing Participatory Research: A Feminist Approach. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press. 

McIntyre, A., Brydon-Miller, M. and Maguire, P. (Eds.) (2004). Traveling Companions: Feminism, Teaching, and Action Research. West- port, CT: Greenwood. 


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