An Introduction to Paulo Freire and his Influence on Participatory Action Research

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

Paulo Freire is celebrated worldwide for having developed literacy methods based on learners’ thematic universe and cultivating ways to promote social justice. Along his life, Freire contributed to shifting the paradigm of what counts as literacy – from basic reading and writing words to the development of sociocritical understandings of one’s lived experiences. There are numerous parallels between adult literacy and Participatory Action Research (PAR) initiatives, to which Freirean roots are central.

Together, both PAR and Freirean Literacy movements aim to create local autonomy and capacity for collective democratic participation, by providing to working-class participants knowledge and organizing skills. While participatory and action research traditions existed before Pedagogy of the Oppressed, first published in 1968, Freire’s work articulated the epistemological grounding for PAR as a liberatory praxis.

In Freirean inspired PAR, the academic research model is challenged at almost every point. The dualisms of macro/micro, theory/practice, subject/object, research/ teaching, are collapsed. Freire’s views on the transformative power of this form of inquiry are powerfully stated when he writes that “the silenced are not just incidental to the curiosity of the researcher but are the masters of inquiry into the underlying causes of the events in their world” (Freire, 1982. P. 30). A Freirean approach, which is grounded in popular education and adult literacy, insists on the ability to read the word and the world. 

Many of Freire’s ideas were developed during his literacy work with poor Brazilian workers, but they are relevant to his approach to PAR. A summary of how Freire's principles translate into participatory action research practices can be found in Table 1: 

Table 1: Freire’s key concepts and their influence on PAR methodologies.

Source: Author's elaboration

Freire's original principleHow it translates into PAR


Developing critical consciousness. A reflective and critical process that leads individuals to a state of “full humanity” and emancipation (Freire, 1970).

An expected result of PAR is the systematic consciousness-raising in its participants (Gajardo, 1982) through reflecting and engaging in creating alternative political, social and economic models (Lykes & Mallona, 2001).

Culture of Silence

The “state of being” of marginalized individuals who accept detrimental images of themselves and lack the ability or confidence to critically analyze their realities. May develop a fear of freedom (Freire, 1970). 

Acquiring a voice means gaining power. PAR is equated with acquiring the tools to activate one's “right to speak” (Lykes & Mallona, 2001). 

Thematic Research

Situated de-codification and creative re-codification of existential situations. Communities’ needs are used as primary materials for the educational practice (Shor, 2002).

Through a highly inductive process (Torres, 1992), PAR researchers gain access to the socio-historical and cultural universe of participants by understanding vernacular representations and local “ways of knowing” (Lykes & Mallona, 2001). 


Reflection and action – or thought and practice – are fused and directed at the structures to be transformed. The learning process is not neutral but geared towards acquiring knowledge and tools for interventions into reality (Freire, 1970).

PAR carries social and political intentionality and inquiry and action are integrated (Gajardo, 1982). The purpose of research is to make positive change by developing local knowledge through participation (Ospina et al., 2018; Dodge, Foldy & Hofmann, 2008). Mere awareness of reality is not enough (Schugurensky, 2014).  

Banking education:    

The anti-dialogical model of education that views learning as the depositing of knowledge onto students as blank slates. Implies a mechanistic transfer of information and a disregard for non-canonical forms of knowledge (Freire, 1970). 

PAR advocates for socially constructed knowledge and rejects a “heroic” understanding of the researcher (i.e., the researcher-subject who discovers the reality of participants-objects). Although concerned with validity, PAR moves away from positivist research orientations where objectivity and generalizability reign (Ospina et al, 2008). In PAR, the “other” is construed as a co-producer of knowledge (Brandão, 1999). 

Dialogical epistemology

Education is an inquiry process in which learning occurs through culturally situated and participatory dialogue. Teachers as learners and learners as teachers in a reciprocal process. Teachers as inquiry guides, dedicated to students’ humanization (Freire, 1970, 1996). 

Researcher and participants’ positionalities are interchangeable and may be organized horizontally (Herr & Anderson, 2015). Reciprocal collaboration and mutual inquiry happen between members of an “insider/outsider team” (Ospina et al, 2008).