The Participatory Research of Orlando Fals Borda

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

In the early 1970s Colombian sociologist Orlando Fals Borda developed a participatory research methodology rooted in support for social movements. After two decades at the National University of Colombia based on the social science of the global North and in his work on agrarian reform, Fals began to argue that these approaches did not recognize the particularities of Latin American societies. He began instead to promote research that harnessed the transformational powers of the working classes to effect social change through a revolution from below. Together with economist Augusto Libreros, sociologist Gonzalo Castillo, and journalist Víctor Daniel Bonilla, he founded La Rosca de Investigación y Acción Social (Circle of Research and Social Action), funded by the US Presbyterian Church (Castillo, Fals Borda, and Libreros were all practicing Presbyterians with links to progressive currents in the World Council of Churches).

La Rosca proposed to ally itself as a collective of researcher-activists with peasant and Indigenous organizations, as well as working-class sectors. Their accompaniment in the political activities of grassroots organizations prodded them to adopt Marxism as their central theoretical support, as well as toward the construction of a participatory methodology. Like Paulo Freire (2005 [1970]), they understood education to be a vital tool for the acquisition of self-consciousness and the recognition of the place of individuals in the social fabric. Alternative forms of popular education would, they argued, open the way to heightened class consciousness and effective political action by placing in question the foundations of a system based on oppression and inequality. 

Using his relationship with the National Association of Peasant Users (ANUC) on the Caribbean coast of Colombia as a laboratory for developing his methodology, the efforts of Fals and the Fundación del Caribe—the research team he established in the city of Montería—centered on the revitalization of peasant historical memory of past struggles in order to propel ANUC's radical program of mass mobilization and direct action, in particular, the occupation of large landholdings by peasant activists (Zamosc 1986). Fals and his colleagues conceptualized what they called "action research" as a methodology predicated on the insertion of external researchers into social movements.

These were not scholars confined to their university desks, nor did they conceive of their insertion into communities as purely for observational purposes. Instead, they saw themselves as politically committed investigators allied with and participating in the activities of rank-and-file organizations, with the goal of raising class consciousness and generating processes of change. In the course of this collaboration, what Fals Borda called ‘people’s knowledge’ would come into dialogue with scientific knowledge, potentially transforming research as we know it. 

Fals's approach to social scientific methods involved a reconceptualization of the meaning of research, as well as the coining of a set of underlying concepts: participation, critical recovery, and systematic devolution. The Fundación del Caribe’s participatory research process deferred to peasants (campesinos) in the generation of the research agenda and fostered their active involvement in the interpretation of data and the insertion of what was learned into political practice.

In other words, Fals envisioned a dialogue punctuated by activism, with information garnered through research providing the basis for collective decision-making about political action (Fals Borda, 1979). Both external and internal researchers would enjoy the same level of responsibility in a project, while, at the same time, they would all participate in the social movement as activists (Brandão, 2005), for example, at land occupations. Continuous flows of reciprocity in both research and political action would transform the very meaning of ‘objectivity’ into a bi- or multi-directional process. 

Central to this approach was an objective called ‘critical recovery,’ which paid ‘special attention to those elements or institutions that have been useful in the past to confront the enemies of the exploited classes. Once those elements are determined, they are reactivated with the aim of using them in a similar manner in current class struggles’ (Bonilla et al., 1972: 51–52). The fruits of critical recovery was made comprehensible to peasants through the production of a series of graphic narratives that grew out of a dialogue between campesinos and researchers through which they identified concepts crystallizing both the major tropes contained in the narratives of peasant eyewitnesses and providing avenues for making their stories relevant to the present. The graphic narratives merged past and present through vivid images in which peasant readers could identify not only their forebears, but themselves, and could learn about organizing tools used in the past that could be imported into the present. 

The fruits of critical recovery were disseminated through what Fals called ‘systematic devolution,’ whereby research results were returned to the organizational leadership and its rank-and-file in a range of media and activities—workshops, graphic narratives, radio programs, accessible prose narratives—geared to the level of schooling and the political awareness of the diverse audiences to which they were presented. However, these materials were never meant to be final products, as occurs in academic research, but, instead, they provided a stimulus for further discussion and, ultimately, for new political projects. In this way, Fals conceptualized research as a continuous activity that evolves out of the sedimentation of progressive stages of memory retrieval and interpretation, enabling information-sharing and analysis at all stages in the process.  

Fals never published a manual documenting how PAR functioned in its early years; instead, he insisted that PAR drew upon local experience to cultivate a philosophy, methodology, and set of techniques for conducting research premised on the establishment of horizontal relationships between external researchers and communities in the service of the organizational objectives of the latter. Fals's notion of action research did not follow a recipe, but instead, was a kind of an intersubjective and empathetic dialogue between researchers and the subject group, one that would be adjusted to the particular circumstances of the research relationship. One could say that Fals conceived PAR as a method based on lived experience and for this reason, it was renewed each time it was put into practice.  

The Fundación del Caribe and La Rosca closed their doors by 1975 as a result of conflicts within the left and with ANUC. Since then, participatory action research has undergone numerous transformations, best encapsulated by Alfredo Molano, one of Fals Borda’s early students and a chronicler of the Colombian conflict: 

In Colombia, we have passed from the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie to the struggle for full respect for human rights, or in other words, we have stopped fighting against the State, and are now fighting for it. Before we were concerned with militancy; now, our eyes are on participation. It is as if Action Research had made us more modest. Today we are prepared to accept equality; we are undergoing a far-reaching redefinition of our own relevance. The idea that the people need to be led has fortunately been replaced by the excitement of being among the people and the wonder of its creative ability. Subjectivity has gained ground, and allowed the heart to win some points against the head. (Molano, 1998: 8)

Molano’s observations reflect the changing nature of social protest across the globe, with the advent of neoliberal policies that bound popular movements to non-governmental organizations, and, in the wake of the 1991 Colombian Constitution, fostered electoral participation in new political parties as an alternative to direct action and dreams of overthrowing the current social order.

How have La Rosca’s interlinked objectives of participation, critical recovery, and systematic devolution fared in this changing environment? In the summer of 2018, one of us (Joanne Rappaport) took this question to a series of grassroots organizations, research institutes, and institutions of higher education in different regions of Colombia, facilitating a series of workshops with Indigenous activists, community organizers, health workers, student activists, high-school students, and university faculty, in which the three concepts anchoring the work of La Rosca and the Fundación del Caribe were presented and evaluated in light of the objectives of the diverse publics who participated in the events (Rappaport, 2020: Ch. 7). 

The audiences of the workshops were heterogeneous. Some participants had extensive experience with PAR, while others were only beginning to appreciate the methodological options available to them. Despite these differences, participants voiced similar appreciations of what constituted PAR, describing it as a combination of research methodology, pedagogy, and politics, a ‘methodological-political horizon.’

More than a set of research techniques, they called it ‘a philosophy of life, an emancipatory stand to confront the world,’ and a collectively constructed ethic, echoing one of Fals Borda’s last writings (Fals Borda, 2008: 162). Channeling Fals’ notion of the ‘sentipensante or ‘thinking-feeling person’ (Fals Borda, 2001: 30), a concept that anchors his methodology to grassroots life-worlds, they observed that PAR is a process of coming to know something, combining sentiment and analysis to construct a relationship among the participants and with the broader social reality in which they live. However, only the most experienced PAR practitioners at the workshops appear to have used critical recovery and systematic devolution as guiding concepts in their work; the less-experienced participants envisioned PAR as following an established formula, and were surprised at the extent to which Fals Borda's research methods emerged from the social context in which he and his collaborators were working.

While it is true that Fals and the Fundación del Caribe were only partially successful in establishing horizontal relationships and in impacting the future of ANUC, their experience points to an approach to activist research that continues to be relevant today, particularly in Colombia, where social movements confront a stalled peace process. Fals's departure from conventional research models generated a creative tension that still bears profound implications for the type of knowledge that today's PAR generates and the ways in which such knowledge can be used. Its objectives were and continue to be clearly emancipatory, both in their foregrounding the hitherto-ignored point of view of the oppressed and in their radical rewriting of research methods. 

Recommended reading

Bonilla, V.D., Castillo, G., Fals Borda, O. and Libreros, A. (1972). Causa popular, ciencia popular: Una metodología del conocimiento científico a través de la acción. Bogotá: La Rosca de Investigación y Acción Social.  

Brandão, C.R. (2005). Participatory research and participation in research: A look between times and spaces from Latin America. International Journal of Action Research, 1(1): 43–68. 

Fals Borda, O. (1979). Investigating reality in order to transform it: The Colombian experience. Dialectical Anthropology, 4(1): 33–55. 

Fals Borda, O. (2001). Participatory (action) research in social theory: Origins and challenges. In P. Reason and H. Bradbury (Eds.), Handbook of Action Research: Participative Inquiry and Practice. London: Sage. pp. 27–37.

Fals Borda, O. (2008). Action research in the convergence of disciplines. International Journal of Action Research, 9(2): 155–167.

Freire, P. (2005 [1970]). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Trans. M. Bergman Ramos. New York: Continuum. 

Molano, A. (1998).  Cartagena revisited: Twenty years on. In O. Fals Borda (Ed.), People’s Participation: Challenges Ahead. Bogotá: Colciencias/IEPRI/TM Editores. pp. 3–10.

Pereira, A. and Rappaport, J. (2021). Tropical Empathy: Orlando Fals Borda and Participatory Action Research. In D. Burns, J. Howard and S.M. Ospina (Eds.), Sage Handbook of Participatory Research and Inquiry. Thousand Oaks: Sage, vol. 1, pp. 55-67.

Rappaport, J. (2020).  Cowards Dont Make History: Orlando Fals Borda and the Origins of Participatory Action Research. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Zamosc, L. (1986). The Agrarian Question and the Peasant Movement in Colombia: Struggles of the National Peasant Association 1967–1981. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press/Geneva: United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.


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