Action research provides an alternative approach to bringing about changes in knowledge, policy and practice. But to be effective and inclusive, taking into account complex dynamics of power and participation, action research requires capable facilitators with particular skills – such as the ability to give attention to personal and collective processes of reflection and action. This article explores the challenges of learning to do this kind of action research that are faced by practitioners and activists working for social change in diverse contexts around the world. It reviews these challenges, offering insights and lessons from an innovative master’s degree programme called the MA in Participation, Power and Social Change, which uses action research and reflective practice as the basis of its approach to learning.
The landscape of research communication in development has been undergoing a significant shift in recent years. The very visible emergence of new technologies has been accompanied by other shifts in the politics and business of development knowledge: the understanding of what constitutes “expert knowledge” in development, a growing emphasis on process over product in development research and new understandings of what drives social change and policy influence.
With the rise of participatory and co-constructed communications have come suggestions that we have neglected the rigour and “hard evidence” needed to influence policy. As some have turned back to grassroots forms of communication such as community radio, they face ambivalence from others struggling to see what is new or innovative about such ‘archaic’ approaches. As such we find ourselves at an interesting juncture, one that this Bulletin aims to explore by drawing on the experiences of practitioners, theorists and community intermediaries from a wide range of disciplines.
This article makes a case for using participatory communication in research. It introduces participatory communication as a citizen-led approach to both creating and expressing knowledge: within research this means that researchers are not simply responsible for generating information and communicating about it, neither are they acting alone. From this perspective the emphasis of participatory communication is on communicating rather than extracting or delivering information. Participatory methods can communicate research findings in new ways and add depth and meaning to articulations of knowledge. This knowledge can easily get ‘lost in translation’ when findings are synthesised or communicated through conventional research outputs alone.
This IDS Bulletin is entirely based on the global action-research project Valuing Volunteering, commissioned by Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO), a UK-based international volunteer cooperation organisation, and conducted by researchers at IDS in partnership with VSO. The project explored how and why volunteering contributes to poverty reduction and sustainable positive change, and the factors that prevent it from doing so.
The research took a participatory and action-research approach and aimed to inform the learning and practice of both VSO and the volunteer for development sectors on how to work effectively through volunteers to achieve sustainable change. It produced 12 rich and detailed case studies, which cover a diverse range of expressions of volunteering: from international volunteers of different kinds – from the global North and South, short-term and long-term, young adults and professionals – through to community members engaged in informal self-help and community volunteering initiatives and national volunteering schemes. This research was carried out by four international volunteer researchers who spent two years in Kenya, Mozambique, Nepal and the Philippines.
While the data reflect the views of people in communities, the voice and analysis is that of the international volunteer. The perspectives expressed here are about volunteers’ contributions and their motivation to identify what kind of approaches to working as a volunteer make a difference. The Valuing Volunteering project goes beyond the immediate issues or concerns in the setting, and enables a deeper reflection on how people, processes and the environment that they are situated within influence one another.