Accessible Sanitation in the Workplace – Important Considerations for Disability-Inclusive Employment in Nigeria and Bangladesh
This paper explores the relationship between accessible sanitation and disability-inclusive employment in Bangladesh and Nigeria.
Both countries have sanitation and hygiene challenges as well as disability-inclusive employment challenges, but the existing evidence on the intersection of these issues that is focused on Nigeria and Bangladesh is extremely limited. Building on the literature where this complex issue is addressed, this paper presents the findings of a qualitative pilot study undertaken in Nigeria and Bangladesh. It focuses on the need for toilets at work that are easy for people with disabilities to use in poor countries.
These are sometimes called accessible toilets. Accessible sanitation is not regarded as a challenge that must be addressed by people with disabilities themselves, but as a challenge that must be addressed by many people working together – including governments, employers, and the community.
Comprehensive Social Protection Programming: What is the Potential for Improving Sanitation Outcomes?
Millions of people around the world do not have access to adequate sanitation facilities, undermining progress towards Sustainable Development Goal 6.2 that calls for adequate and equitable sanitation for all.
Efforts to improve sanitation outcomes have been rapidly accelerated in the past decade alongside an expansion of different financial incentives or subsidies to promote access to services and motivate sanitation behaviour. In parallel, social protection has become part and parcel of development policy, with many low- and middle-income countries now offering some form of cash transfers to those most vulnerable. Comprehensive interventions that couple financial transfers with complementary support such as behaviour change communication, training, or coaching have also grown increasingly popular.
Despite similarities between water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) subsidy schemes and social protection interventions, these policy areas have largely developed in silos and limited cross-sectoral learning has taken place. This paper begins to fill this knowledge gap by assessing the potential for comprehensive social protection in addressing sanitation outcomes and drawing out policy implications for the social protection and WASH communities. It does so by focusing on a social protection programme in the context of extreme poverty in rural Haiti.
Exploring the Intersection of Sanitation, Hygiene, Water, and Health in Pastoralist Communities in Northern Tanzania
This paper explores access to water, sanitation, and health in pastoral communities in northern Tanzania.
It argues that the concept of gender, used on its own, is not enough to understand the complexities of sanitation, hygiene, water, and health. It explores pastoralists’ views and perspectives on what is ‘clean’, ‘safe’, and ‘healthy’, and their need to access water and create sanitary arrangements that work for them, given the absence of state provision of modern water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) infrastructure.
Although Tanzania is committed to enhancing its citizens’ access to WASH services, pastoral sanitation and hygiene tend to be overlooked and little attention is paid to complex ways in which access to ‘clean’ water and ‘adequate sanitation’ is structured in these communities. This paper offers an intersectional analysis of water and sanitation needs, showing how structural discrimination in the form of a lack of appropriate infrastructure, a range of sociocultural norms and values, and individual stratifiers interact to influence the sanitation and health needs of pastoralist men, women, boys, and girls.
Between July and October 2021, the Sanitation Learning Hub worked with government representatives and development partners to develop, share, and cross-analyse case studies looking at local system and government strengthening in four local government areas across West Africa: Benin (N’Dali commune), Ghana (Yendi municipal district), Guinea (Molota commune), and Nigeria (Logo LGA).
The initiative focused on examples of local leadership in sanitation and hygiene (S&H), with case studies developed in collaboration with development partners (Helvetas in Benin, UNICEF in Ghana and Guinea, United Purpose in Nigeria) and the local governments they partner with.
The goal was to cross-analyse examples of local government leadership in S&H, looking at what led to the prioritisation of S&H, and identifying commonalities and transferable knowledge through a participatory cross-learning process. The case studies identified positive change occurred in local government leadership in S&H, and analysed the contributions to change, via document review, key informant interviews and focus group discussions.
This learning brief shares the learnings and recommendations that emerged from the case studies and through the three participatory workshops that followed.
A French translation is also available: Le leadership des autorités locales en matière d’assainissement et d’hygiène : expériences et apprentissage de l’Afrique de l’Ouest
Watch the webinar on the findings here: https://youtu.be/87z6ZrQMRc0
Government leadership at both the national and sub-national levels is an essential step towards ensuring safely managed sanitation services for all. Though the importance of sub-national government leadership for water, sanitation and hygiene is widely acknowledged, to date much of the focus has been on the delivery of water services.
This article sets out to start to address this imbalance by focusing on practical ways to galvanise and foster sub-national government leadership for sanitation programming. By focusing on the experiences across three sub-national areas in East Africa (in Uganda, Rwanda and Kenya) where positive changes in the prioritisation of sanitation by local governments have been witnessed, we (a group of researchers, local government representatives and development partner staff) cross-examine and identify lessons learnt.
The results presented in this paper and subsequent discussion provide practical recommendations for those wishing to trigger a change in political will at the local level and create the foundation to strengthen sanitation governance and the wider system needed to ensure service delivery for all.
Today, people worldwide can expect to live into their 60s and beyond.
There are estimated to be around 900 million older adults (aged 60 years and above), around 13 per cent of the world population.
The COVID-19 pandemic helped shed light on the specific needs of older people as a group more susceptible to severe disease/infection, and revealed the lack of capacity within water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) NGOs to respond to these specific needs.
This Sanitation Learning Hub Learning Paper explores the WASH needs of older people in both development and humanitarian contexts, as well as the fundamental role older people play in facilitating other people’s WASH access, health, and wellbeing.
The paper refers to the data WASH actors collect on older people in order to understand their differing WASH needs, the barriers to accessing WASH, and the need to ensure older people’s participation, including their active role in helping find the solutions.
Recommendations are made for planning with communities and programme design; WASH programme implementation and to reduce environmental barriers.
This is part of a series of chapter summaries of the Handbook of Participatory Research and Inquiry.
This chapter provides an overview the increasing use of digital technologies in participatory research. It argues that increasing the use of digital technologies in participatory methods has been under-theorised and is not being systematically analysed. The chapter makes two contributions. Firstly it offers ‘digital affordances for participation’ as a new means of theorising the positive and negative implications of using digital technologies in participatory methods. Secondly it introduces the ‘participation cube’: a new model for structuring three-dimensional analysis of levels of (a) who participates (b) at which project stages (c) and with which level of participation in any kind of participatory project. The chapter concludes with an overview of five case studies in which the use of digital technologies both extends and limits participation in a variety of settings.
Since the turn of the century there has been a dramatic increase in the use of digital technologies in participatory work. Digital storytelling, online participatory mapping, and the use of digital cameras and editing in participatory video are clear examples but there are few participatory methods in which the use of digital technologies has not increased. The chapter does not advocate for the use of more or less digital technologies in participatory research. The author acknowledges that the use of digital technologies has both negative and positive implications. The objective of the chapter is only to argue that, given the on-going migration to digital methods, the positive and negative implications of their use has so far been under-theorised and under-researched. The chapter offers new theoretical and methodological means to enable a deeper and more systematic analysis of the ways in which digital technologies both extend and limit the possibilities of participation.
Digital Affordances for Participation
The concept of affordances is well established in design and technology studies but has not been applied systematically in participatory methods. Affordances refer to the ‘new action possibilities’ enabled, allowed, or invited by a new technology. Digital affordances can include the ability to combine images, sound, video, and text, to share files globally instantly, and to work collaboratively with hundreds of people in multiple locations.
The concept of digital affordances for participation is used to analyse the ways in which the introduction of new digital tools or the use of online spaces makes methods more or less participatory. For example, during the Covid-19 pandemic, many participatory projects were forced online. This introduced some exclusions as the ability to participate was related to the quality of connectivity, digital literacies, and agency. However, some people living with disabilities found participation became easier, and some people felt more able to voice their concerns online that they did in a face-to-face setting. The chapter argues that more research attention is to better understand the particular affordance of different technologies for enhancing or limiting participation.
The concept of digital affordances for participation is one way of taking seriously the impact of introducing digital technologies to participatory methods. It focuses attention on the ‘new action possibilities’ that technology adoption involves. The introduction of digital technologies may enable practitioners to reduce dependencies on external experts. Online facilitation may enable the inclusion of people living with disabilities or make it possible to scale participation to include hundreds of people on multiple continents without flights. But it may also exclude people without connectivity or digital literacies. Five chapters of detailed case studies are provided that illustrate the negative and positive affordance of digital technologies for participation.
The Participation Cube
The participation cube is a novel way to structure a three-dimensional analysis of (a) who participates (b) at which stage of the process, and (c) at what level of participation. The participation cube is designed as a heuristic device to help practitioners avoid homogenising the experience of all participants across all stages of a project. It provides a simple means to help structure a systematic analysis at each stage of the process. By disaggregating participants and trace their changing experience at each key stage of the project cycle a more nuanced analysis is possible.
Source: Author's own
The ‘who’ dimension of the participation cube enables a disaggregation of distinct actors. Who gets to participate in any project, whose voice is heard, who has decision-making power, and who remains relatively excluded, has been discussed extensively in the participation literature. Like the other dimensions of the participation cube, the ‘who’ dimension needs to be re-calibrated anew for each project to make it relevant to the actual project actors. There may be more or less than four types of (non)participant and so the cube will need to be drawn and labelled afresh for each project.
The stages of participation dimension of the cube will also need to be recalibrated for each new application to reflect the specificity of each project. There may be more or less than four stages and more or less than four levels. Arnstein had eight levels of participation in three groups in her popular ‘ladder of participation’. In Figure 1 only four of these were selected for the purposed of illustration. Users of the participation cube will need to calibrate their cube with the appropriate number of levels and label it accordingly.
The process of using the participation cube involves tracing the level of participation, in each stage of the project, for each type of participant. This will show that each participant has different levels of participation over the project life cycle. One way of doing this would be as illustrated in the figure below.
Source: Author's own
The participation cube was originally designed as a tool for retrospective participation analysis. A forthcoming journal article applies it productively to projects in Zambia and Uganda to generate insights not originally visible about levels of participation. It is a limitation of this method that it has only been used in retrospective analysis when it would seem to have value as a participation planning tool in project design. Further research is necessary to assess the value of the participation cube as a participatory workshop tool to engage diverse actors in analysing their own experience of participation at different stages of the process, and as a means to identify barriers and opportunities to improve project participation.
The chapter provided an overview of the introduction of digital technologies into participatory methods. Five case studies were used to illustrate the positive and negative implications of the use of digital technologies on levels of participation. It was argued that given the on-going increase is digital use this area has been under-theorised and under-analysed. The concept of digital affordances of participation provides a new mechanism for thinking through how and why the specific digital technologies has particular positive or negative effects on levels of participation. The participation cube is offered as a simple model for tracing the experience of distinct participants in each stage of process to analyse their level of participation. More research is necessary to apply the concept of digital affordances for participation and the participation cube on order assess it utility in practice.
Roberts, T. (editor) Digital Technologies in Participatory Research (six chapter section) in Burns, D., Howard, J. and Ospina S. (2021) The SAGE Handbook of Participatory Research and Inquiry, London, SAGE.
Roberts, T. (2021) Digital Affordances in Participatory Research Methods, in Burns, D., Howard, J. and Ospina S. (2021) The SAGE Handbook of Participatory Research and Inquiry, London, SAGE
This is part of a series of chapter summaries of the Handbook of Participatory Research and Inquiry.
This summary will outline the life and practice of Augusto Boal and his Theatre of the Oppressed (TO) and how it relates and contributes to participatory research. Boal (1931 – 2009) was a Brazilian theatre practitioner, theorist and political activist who developed TO, a collection of tools and techniques used across the world in participatory and transformative theatre work. Through workshops and performances he continually re-invented his methods of using theatre as a tool to look critically at reality, and then to challenge and transform oppression together with communities.
Boal’s Philosophy and Image Theatre, Forum Theatre and Legislative Theatre
Boal was interested in ‘the possibilities of a workable Marxist theatre aesthetic in the Brechtian tradition’ (Campbell, 2019: 6) alongside the influence of Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. This resulted in an approach to popular theatre in which spectators are reimagined as ‘spect-actors’ who create and contribute to the aesthetic processes in which they take part. This can be demonstrated through three of TO’s most well-known tools: Image Theatre, Forum Theatre and Legislative Theatre. Image theatre involves participants using their bodies to create images exploring oppression which are then reflected upon together (Santiago-Jirau and Thompson, 2019: 156). Forum theatre mobilises the ‘spect-actors’ of a performance to move onto the stage and perform proposed solutions to an oppression portrayed in the play. This process is curated by a ‘Joker’, who is a conduit between the audience and those onstage, who must facilitate, provoke and manage the proceedings. Forum Theatre is a place not ‘to show the correct path, but only to offer the means by which all possible paths may be examined’ (Boal, 1979: 141). Legislative Theatre builds on this by taking the solutions proposed onstage by the ‘spect-actors’ and bringing them together with law-makers in the same event. Through these three brief examples we can chart the progress from the passive spectators of traditional theatre into ‘spect-actors’ who can embody and understand their own oppression, propose and trial solutions to it and then translate these solutions into legislation.
Applications to Research
TO as created by Boal is a transformatory artistic practice, not a fully formed research methodology and therefore in most research applications TO methods are used alongside other more traditional research methods. Catherine Etmanski describes the possibilities TO offers action-oriented research by charting resonances, both are interested not just in understanding reality, but changing or transforming it (2014: 775). Boal himself saw theatre as a form of knowledge, and alongside this ran his commitment to the use of this knowledge ‘as a means of transforming society’ (Boal, 1992: xxxi). Key features of TO which are particularly relevant to research are the dialogic properties of the aesthetic space, the ‘spect-actor’ and theatre as a form of knowledge.
The aesthetic space is the space which is created when participants show an Image in a workshop, or give a performance. Boal writes at length about the properties of the aesthetic space which allows us to see ourselves, but also the memory of the past and the imagination of the future (Boal, 1994: 19). This unique perspective is exciting for research as we are able to both see and analyse but crucially as ‘spect-actors’ we are also able to interact with and change what we see. Participants in the research process are able to combine analysis with the creation of new knowledge and dialogue with what is presented in the aesthetic space, in a cycle of action and reflection.
Boal believed everyone was an actor (Jackson, 1992) and should be able to access the means of production of theatre but also everyone is an actor in the world, with the power to change it. Likewise, in participatory research everyone has access to the means of production of knowledge through participation in the research process as co-researchers. This breaking down of traditional barriers in the hierarchy between the objective researcher and those being researched are challenged even further by the physical and fun activities of creating theatre – ‘spect-actors’ are creators of knowledge alongside the researcher in an embodied process.
Boal’s notion of theatre as knowledge resonates with some participatory research methodologies which allow for an expansion of our understanding of knowledge. For example cooperative inquiry uses an ‘extended epistemology’ that allows for ‘tacit and pre-verbal’ learning to emerge from a community of co-inquirers (Heron and Reason, 2014: 2 – 3). The techniques of TO lend themselves to exploring these other knowledges, as we have seen with Image Theatre which uses our embodied instincts to provoke various interpretations. The focus is not on the original intention or ‘truth’ of the image, but rather the emergence of a collective set of truths or understandings, which are allowed to co-exist.
Dilemmas and Implications
Recording and Presenting Knowledge – a key consideration is the translation of the particular kinds of knowledges produced by the method into that which is academically acceptable, without reducing them to the verbal and the elite. This is similar to the dilemmas faced in other participatory methods which also use creative methods and may analyse images, use personal reflections or the discussions surrounding images and stimuli.
Role of the Facilitator – A researcher using TO must consider the additional role as the facilitator of a creative process and how this will impact their positionality and the research. The facilitator, or ‘Joker’ can be a powerful figure who is there to ask questions, to provoke and perhaps inspire. How does this role work alongside the role of the researcher? Ali Campbell reflects on this and employs a deep and unflinching self-reflection alongside an awareness of this tension (2019), through this awareness practitioners can be mindful of their own presence.
TO in Research? To what ends? – TO was developed as a radical act in direct opposition to oppression as a tool for revolution. Today as the methods have been adopted, reproduced and reimagined in many contexts across the world, critiques have emerged that TO has become far removed from its original political intent (Howe et al, 2019: 1, Boal, J., 2019: 292). These are important questions to consider. For Boal, TO was about using people’s knowledge through theatre in order to act, to make a change. This is the crucial impetus at the heart of TO – the ‘spect-actor’ who is co-creator of knowledge, and action.
Augusto Boal’s TO has proved a rich resource for a global community of practitioners who have used and extended his methods for a huge range of purposes. There are elements of TO which offer us the opportunity to access new or underexplored sources of knowledge, generated in collaboration and dialogue with participants. This approach faces us with questions as practitioners and researchers. These include queries about the intentions and impact of our work, and its relationship to Boal’s revolutionary philosophy.
Boal, A. (1979). Theatre of the Oppressed. New York: Theatre Communications Group.
Boal, A. (1992). Games for Actors and Non-Actors. Trans. A. Jackson. London and New York: Routledge.
Boal, A. (1994). The Rainbow of Desire: The Boal Method of Theatre and Therapy, 1st edn. London and New York: Routledge.
Boal, J. (2019). Theatre of the Oppressed in neoliberal times: From Che Guevara to the Uber driver. in K. Howe, J. Boal and J. Soeiro, (Eds.), The Routledge Companion to Theatre of the Oppressed. New York: Routledge. pp.288 – 301.
Campbell, A. (2019). The Theatre of the Oppressed in Practice Today: An Introduction to the Work and Principles of Augusto Boal. London and New York: Methuen Drama.
Etmanski, C. (2014). Theatre of the Oppressed. in D. Coghlan, and M. Brydon-Miller (Eds.), The SAGE Encyclopedia of Action Research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. pp. 773 – 776.
Heron, J. and Reason, P. (2014). Co-operative inquiry. in D. Coghlan, and M. Brydon-Miller (Eds.), The SAGE Encyclopedia of Action Research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. pp. 188 – 192.
Howe, K., Boal, J. and Soeiro, J. (Eds.), The Routledge Companion to Theatre of the Oppressed. New York: Routledge.
Jackson, A. (1992). Translator’s Introduction. In A. Boal, Games for Actors and Non-Actors. London and New York: Routledge.
Santiago-Jirau, A. and Leigh Thompson, S. (2019) Image theatre: A liberatory practice for ‘making thought visible’. In K. Howe, J. Boal and J. Soeiro, (Eds.), The Routledge Companion to Theatre of the Oppressed. New York: Routledge. pp. 156 – 161.
Soeiro, J. (2019). Legislative Theatre: Can theatre reinvent politics? In K. Howe, J. Boal and J. Soeiro, (Eds.), The Routledge Companion to Theatre of the Oppressed. New York: Routledge.
This is part of a series of chapter summaries of the Handbook of Participatory Research and Inquiry.
Action Research as a systems science: This chapter argues that Action Research is built upon a scientifically-grounded epistemology and a set of well-developed theories and methods. Together these aim to produce more just, sustainable, and desirable states of human life. Underlying Action Research is an epistemology that understands the empirical world as a complex, dynamic, group of interacting systems. All local phenomena exist within the interplay of these dynamic systems. All living systems are open systems, thus depending for survival on successful adaption to the environments and processes affecting them.
No neutrality: In an Action Research world, there are no neutral positions, no uninvolved spectator observers. Action Research both observes and participates in the surrounding world. Not acting this way makes the world around us fundamentally unintelligible.
Moral aims: Action Research aims to bring about improved conditions of life for the broadest array of stakeholders possible, human and non-human. The goal is the greater realization of human potential, fairness, and sustainability in solidarity with other humans and in a positive interaction with the planetary ecologies.
Coping with diversity is the only path forward: To bring this about Action Research proceeds by bringing together the broadest array of relevant stakeholder possible and orchestrating their interactions to surface the wealth of knowledge and experiences in any group of people so these can be brought to bear on solving the problems collectively deemed important. Any social theory or method that does not involve the subjugation of human actors or despoiling other animals and the environment is potentially relevant to Action Research projects. The methods may be qualitative, quantitative, phenomenological, Marxist, constructivist, etc. What matters is the analysis of problems, the collaborative development of potential solutions, and the collaborative application of those solutions to solving human problems.
Cycles of action and research: If the solutions tried do not work to their satisfaction, the collaborators return to the analysis and development of new action plans until the results meet their aims. This is why Action Research is specifically a form of “pragmatic” action.
Action Research and the return to a “real” social science: In most respects, Action Research is the product of a period at the end of the 18th century when the distinction between the natural sciences and human sciences first emerged with vigour. The work of Thomas Malthus, Adam Smith, David Ricardo and others showed that moral and political designs by themselves failed to produce effective human outcomes. In addition recognizing the gradually growing understanding of the “laws of nature”, these thinkers understood that societies and cultures had another kind of law-like properties. These properties meant that no amount of moralizing could reduce poverty, inequality, or human degradation.
The birth of the social sciences: The social sciences emerged from this recognition originally in the form of political economy. It had the explicit aim of understanding these structuring principles and managing them to produce better human outcomes. Soon these analyses followed by those of others like Karl Marx and Frederick Engels produced a clear answer to the reasons why inequality, poverty, and environmental degradation existed. The answer was the greed and desire for political hegemony of those made wealthy by the industrial revolution at the expense an unprotected, underpaid, and short-lived work force. Therefore, as the 19th century progressed, political economy ran head-on into resistance from the wealthy and political elites who did not appreciate having the sources of their wealth and power revealed by academics, journalists, and novelists.
The contradictory role of the research university: This period of elite reaction coincided with the creation of the “research university” in Europe and the United States, a process that could have given wings to the social critique provided by political economy and to a variety of populist and working class movements aimed at creating more egalitarian and solitary societies. The response to the risk that critical political economy posed was to use the same management strategy that worked in the factories of the Robber Barons, namely Taylorism.
Taylorism: Taylorism is a hierarchical, authoritarian system. Those at the apex of the pyramid exercise total control over those below. To achieve this, manufacturing tasks are divided into smaller, hermetic units, each with its own hierarchical internal structure as well. Passing down from the bosses to the managers to the foreman to the workers, experts from the apex of the system organize the work process, work rules, productivity targets, and remuneration schemes. The farther down in the structure you are, the less intelligent you are asserted to be. You are conceived to be just a body to do the bidding of the bosses in work processes designed by efficiency experts who themselves do no manual labour. This is the model that gave us the Ford Model T and the assembly line system. Politically this was an ideal system for extracting value from the work of poorly paid others while preventing them from addressing the conditions of their work and their salaries. These organizations were viciously anti-union and heavily dependent on low wage labour.
Academic Taylorism: As it happened, the development of the research universities coincided with the heyday of Taylorism in factories and universities were rapidly built on the model of the Tayloristic factory. Deeply hierarchical, universities were structured to have an authoritarian apex that delegates power downward to deans, department heads, and last of all to faculty and secretarial staff. All the fields of inquiry are divided up into the physical sciences, biological sciences, social sciences, and the humanities and each of these was further segmented into the separate “disciplines”, each with its own budget and personnel lines. For the bosses this is an ideal management system because it reserves to them the ultimate authority over budget and resources. The deans then compete for those resources and the department heads under the deans complete with each other for the dean’s resources, and the faculty members compete with each other, and so on. This system maximizes authoritarianism and minimizes participation.
Impact on the social sciences: This form of organization was particularly disastrous for the social sciences. Following its logic, the “dangerous” political economists were segmented up into historians, economists, sociologists, political scientists, anthropologists, and psychologists. Within these categories, the disciplines were further subdivided into disciplinary specialties. With all the power concentrated at the apex, any of these fields whose practitioners produced perspectives critical of or calling into question the unequal, authoritarian, racist, sexist, and hierarchical nature of the surrounding society and polity were and are disciplined without mercy.
Domestication of conventional social science: Political economy that began as an analysis aimed at reforming and democratizing society was domesticated into a group of spectator activities. When an occasional practitioner strays from this script, they are mercilessly harassed, often fired, and publicly humiliated. In the early twentieth century, John Dewey and colleagues founded the American Association of University Professors in an unsuccessful effort to protect faculty freedom of speech on such issues. Facing this coercive environment, many faculty in these fields took refuge in academic jargon, positivist and statistical studies, and obfuscating claims of being impartial and objective spectators. So hegemonic is this system become that many of the inmates have become their own jailers.
“Pure” versus “applied” social science: Another solution developed was to divide the social sciences into the “pure” and the “applied” fields. The applied social sciences were permitted to work on welfare programs, advise public schools, teach “home economics”, and advise on international development programs. Most of these applied social scientists saw themselves as “experts” who were intellectually superior the people they applied their nostrums to. But the applied practitioners were disrespected by the “pure” social scientists as mere “social workers”. Thus, anyone who applied their ideas in practice risked status loss in academic settings.
Modest counter-movements: Despite the hegemony this scheme, there have been occasional counter-movements. Among these were the fields of Institutional Economics, John Dewey´s pedagogical philosophy, various pro-social programs at US land-grant universities (e.g., agricultural extension, labour studies), academic feminism, Afro-American studies, Latino studies, Asian studies, post-colonial studies, etc.
Key among these in the history of Action Research was the work of Kurt Lewin at MIT where he created an action research program and coined the name “Action Research”. Despite the promise of this work, Lewin died suddenly, and the flame gradually went out in post-World War II America. Action Research remained mainly practiced outside of the boundaries of Taylorized academia in places like the Highlander Center, the civil rights movement, Fals-Borda´s work in Colombia, Paolo Freire´s work in Brazil, and others.
Action Research and the global reckoning: Now Action Research is gradually rebuilding momentum because life itself has imposed its challenges on not just the university but on all of society. Climate change and environmental collapse, racism and hate crimes, increasing ruptures of civil society, collapsing rural towns and pathological cities, inequality of a sort never seen before on the planet, the re-emergence of the Cold War, surveillance capitalism, and algorithmic subordination have made it clear that the Tayloristic university and the siloed disciplines are an unaffordable fantasy world. Real answers to real questions are needed and we circle back to the original intentions of political economy.
Transdisciplinary system problem-solving: Starting from a recognition that the real world is a complexly nested and dynamic set of interacting systems whose evolutionary consequences (biological and cultural) either promote life or result in extinction, it is clear that the social sciences have to be recomposed to take their place in a transdisciplinary approach to physical, biological, social, and cultural “wicked problems”. No one field has the necessary knowledge and methods, but each has a piece of the puzzle and tested methods to contribute to a collective endeavour.
Diversity again: For the very same reasons that diversity matters in the study of complex systems, human diversity also matters in solving these problems. Tayloristic organizations and societies behave much less intelligently than they would if they were to tap the experience, expertise, and energy of all the stakeholders together. Creating and managing the conditions in which every actor with ideas and capabilities can contribute to creating fairer and more sustainable solutions to human problems is the strength of Action Research. The multiple crises our Tayloristic global systems has created to preserve the power and wealth of a few at the expense of the rest of humanity make it clear that respecting diversity is not merely a moral imperative but an empirical necessity if we are to survive this millennium.
Argyris, Chris, Diana McLain Smith, and Robert Putnam. 1985. Action Science. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Belenky, Mary Field. 1997. A Tradition That Has No Name: Nurturing the Development of People, Families, and Communities. New York: Basic Books.
Greenwood, D., (2021) Pragmatism: Linking Systems, Evolution, and Democratization in Participatory and Action Research in Burns, Danny, Jo Howard, and Sonia Ospina, eds. 2021. The SAGE Handbook of Participatory Research and Inquiry. London: SAGE Publications, Inc., pp: 79-92.
Fals-Borda, Orlando., and Md. Anisur Rahman, eds. 1991. Action and Knowledge: Breaking the Monopoly with Participatory Action Research. New York: Apex Press.
Freire, Paolo. 1970. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Translated by M.B. Ramos. New York: Herder & Herder.
Greenwood, Davydd, and Morten Levin. 2006. Introduction to Action Research: Social Research for Social Change. Second edition. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications, Inc.
Horton, Myles. 2003. The Myles Horton Reader: Education for Social Change. Edited by Dale Jacobs. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.
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 ), 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.
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 ). 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 Don’t 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.
This is part of a series of chapter summaries of the Handbook of Participatory Research and Inquiry.
In this chapter, the authors present the experiences and dilemmas faced in their aims to influence global policy through participatory processes with people experiencing poverty and marginalisation. The two experiences presented are: 1) The Participate Initiative, a participatory research network convened by the Institute of Development Studies in 2012 to influence the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs); specifically the Ground Level Panels and 2) The actions developed by the global movement ATD Fourth World; particularly The Merging of Knowledge approach used in the Hidden Dimensions of Poverty global research project.
The issues presented in this chapter are important and relevant because:
- As the rights of all people to participate at all levels of decision-making and public affairs is a human right codified in international law, it is imperative that organisations keep enabling opportunities for people in poverty to exercise this right
- Meaningful participation can alter the structures and institutions that lead to marginalisation and exclusion, challenging their historic domination by a few; both the Ground Level Panels and the Merging of Knowledge approach are testament to this
- More than ever, there is a pressing need for recognising the value and contributions of knowledge that is generated ‘at the margins’, i.e. outside professional or academic spaces. This is a pre-requisite for people to participate meaningfully.
Summary of Experiences
The first section of the chapter presents the step by step process followed by the Participate initiative and ATD Fourth World in developing and implementing the following participatory processes:
Participate’s Ground Level Panels (GLPs)
Initiative created to confront the UN High-Level Panel report’s recommendations with direct perspectives from people living in poverty and/or marginalisation, i.e. to provide a reality check. They took place in four countries: Brazil, Egypt, India and Uganda. The panels were recognised as a way of moving beyond ‘the perfunctory “clictivism”’ that characterised the post-2015 consultations and debates.
Hidden Dimensions of Poverty
ATD Fourth World’s participatory research developed with the Merging of Knowledge approach, and the associated global policy work. The research stemmed from the need to revise the existent ways of measuring poverty and create new ones alongside marginalised groups. Using their Merging of Knowledge approach, it aimed to fill this need by bringing knowledge from. activists, professionals and academics in the global North and South to co-create a holistic proposal.
Dilemmas faced and lessons learnt
The second section presents the dilemmas faced, lessons learnt and how each of the experiences practically dealt with these.
1. Bringing diverse people together to influence complex policy processes
The first dilemma relates to convening people who live in poverty to discuss a global policy agenda. It is essential to think about the reasons behind doing so and the ways of making these discussions truly relevant to them whilst also drawing out relevant points for advocacy.
- People who live in poverty must be able to have the necessary time to recognise the value of their knowledge and their right to contribute to these global debates: Discussions must be presented in ways that are close to people’s lived realities, placing their knowledge at the centre. Translation and interpretation in multiple languages is essential for true dialogue to occur.
- Facilitators must be open and flexible: Facilitation should give the opportunity to divert from the plan to prioritise the groups’ needs, and accommodate the needs and opinions of people with different identities and mindsets.
- Tools and activities must allow for balanced participation, making sure that opinions from the weakest voices in the room are heard and respected. Creative forms of expression are fundamental to allow the knowledge existent within groups to manifest in more organic ways.
2. Creating advocacy messages suitable for global policy audiences without losing the depth of the participatory dialogue
Linked closely to dilemma 1, it is the need to ‘shape’ research findings in ways that speak to the jargon and terminology used by global policy audiences. This becomes particularly difficult in a rapidly changing environment when opportunities for influence arise unexpectedly.
- Having a clear plan of advocacy activities, mapping out the audiences, the type of messages suitable for each and the source of these in advance, can help with creating key messages that are both appealing to global audiences but also still connected to the participatory process.
- Creating key messages once the participatory process is finalised is ideal, but this needs to be balanced with the fast-paced global policy consultations, and an increasing demand for realtime data rather than ‘outdated’ inputs.
- Policy influencing, particularly at the global level, is mostly about contribution: by linking with others who align with your proposals and gathering a critical mass behind them, a tangible contribution can be achieved. Aiming for attribution can be strenuous and ultimately lead to unacceptable compromises.
3. Navigating the complex and multi-layered power dynamics in global policy processes
Power dynamics in global policy processes take time and expertise to be understood and navigated. Organisations and movements should see themselves as enablers of marginalised people’s knowledge rather than speaking on their behalf.
- Having members of staff and/or trusted intermediaries, whose role is to specifically navigate these complex power dynamics, is essential. Particularly, actors who can broker entry points to have one-to-one conversations with high level people; otherwise, presence in global fora can become a waste of resources, as messages shared in large events will inevitably get lost.
4. Considering pros and cons of bringing people in poverty to global policy spaces
It is important for networks, movements and organisations to weight the pros and cons of bringing people with direct lived experience to global policy spaces where there is a high risk of falling into tokenism. However, done with due care, the participation of marginalised people can result can be meaningful and transformative for them and for those of who are able to witness it.
- Suitable conditions and resources must be in place for the meaningful participation of people living in poverty in global policy spaces; this includes investment in long-term preparation and constant accompaniment before and during the events.
- Logistical challenges should not be underestimated; these range from having the right legal documents in place to apply for a passport to dealing with institutional discrimination. These hurdles can become real obstacles that decrease motivation and willingness to participate.
5. Communicating back global discussions and agreements to people on the ground
Organisations often face challenges to communicate back to people on the ground issues discussed and agreed at global level and how it speaks to their realities, i.e. the feedback loop is not closed. This can result in people feeling disenfranchised and that the effort and time put in participatory activities did not yield results.
- Creating ways for closing the feedback loop between the global policy discussions and the communities is essential to keep accountable to people on the ground. To do so, resources should be set aside from the beginning in any project or programme.
- Connecting global debates to community realities can be done on a regular basis so people progressively develop an awareness of the connections between the local and the global.
Both of the experiences in the chapter emerged as ways for shifting the power balance by putting at the centre of deliberations knowledge from marginalised groups to question what experts in research, policy and practice have to say about the causes and consequences of poverty and marginalisation. In this way, they recognise and share the unique contribution that comes from the lived experience of poverty.
The chapter also provides practical insights for other actors who want to advance further the recognition of the knowledge of people who experience poverty and marginalisation in global policy processes and fora, as a way of advancing human rights for all. It is only when ‘poor and marginalised people’ recognise themselves as political subjects with rights and the right to claim those rights, that their participation at any level of decision-making becomes truly meaningful.
ATD Fourth World (2013). Guidelines for the Merging of Knowledge and Practices when
Bray, R., De Laat, M., Godinot, X., Ugarte, A. and Walker, R. (2019). The Hidden Dimensions of Poverty. Pierrelaye: International Movement ATD Fourth World.
Burns, D., Howard, J., López Franco, E., Shahrokh, T. and Wheeler, J. (2013). Work with
Us: How People and Organisations Can Catalyse Sustainable Change. Brighton: IDS.
Howard, J., López-Franco, E. and Wheeler, J. (2017). Using Knowledge from the Margins
to Meet the SDGs: The Real Data Revolution. Participate Policy Briefing 3. Brighton: IDS.
López Franco, E. and Shahrokh, T. (2013). Informing Post-2015 Development with
Ground Level Knowledge. IDS Policy Briefing 44. Brighton: IDS.
Participate (2012). What Do We Know About
Participate (2013). Bringing Ground Level Experiences to the Post-2015 Global Development
Shahrokh, T. and Wheeler, J. (Eds.) (2014). Knowledge from the Margins: An Anthology
from a Global Network on Participatory Practice and Policy Influence. Brighton: IDS.
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 principle||How 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).|
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).|
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).|
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).|
Encounters with the Participatory Imagination in the UK Action Research Community: Interplays and Silences
This is part of a series of chapter summaries of the Handbook of Participatory Research and Inquiry.
As two long-standing action researchers we both maintain a curiosity about the traditions and emergent ideas that surround and underpin our practice here in the UK. In our chapter 'Becoming Participatory: some contributions to Action Research in the UK' (ref) we offer a set of reflections on where - in the pursuit of becoming participatory - we have come from, and where we're heading, and in this further contribution we take our reflections a little further.
We acknowledge our chapter is a partial account from two practitioners and participants, who believe AR is fundamentally an ethical endeavour overtly committed to social justice, that creating knowledge is a process of co-production, rooted in experience, rather than as a means to generate decontextualised and generalisable 'truths'. As we looked back, we viewed some of the work we cite as not particularly participatory, and that we have experienced the participatory impulse as an aspiration that inevitably has to navigate the possibilities, contradictions, and tensions of the dominant hierarchical non-participatory world.
When we encountered action research, both of us strongly felt the weight of the positivist tradition in our educational upbringing. We were eager to shake off our assumptions with a fresh approach to knowledge as being provisional, contested, and contingent, where instead of the presumption of an external abstract ‘knower’, we position knower/s within a system oriented towards producing knowledge for worthwhile action. Yet the questions we had to face in so doing were many and indeed, they continue to inspire our curiosity.
As Richard Winter and colleagues point out, all writing is in itself a research act (Winter et al 1999), and the invitation to collaborate on this chapter offered us each an opportunity to examine the development of action research thinking and practice that had shaped our engagement with such questions. What we present here draws on our reflections about the process of writing the chapter together and how we now view the importance of the content we chose to highlight.
I (Ruth) approached my contribution from two decades of co-ordinating the Collaborative Action Research Network (CARN) initially as a Co-ordinating Group member and later as Lead Co-ordinator. In the course of writing the chapter, Cathy drew my attention to the government sponsored Community Development Projects (CDPs) in the 1970s which had enthused her early interest in urban studies, and this prompted me to recall my glancing encounters with the CDP, and with action research and the participatory turn at this time. My engagement with the field had, I realised, actually begun with an intuitive grasp of action research and its thinking in the radical community development and protest movements of the 1970s. In turn this led me to question what had obstructed my subsequent ability to incorporate these early experiences into my 'official' biography as an action researcher. It seemed to me that there was a significant gap in the documentation of these events, and that this 'absent literature' might account for how little they figured in our discipline’s traditions. I myself had been viewing my own biography through the narrow lens of academia and its publications.
Cathy's experiences derive from working in research, teaching and policy roles across government, practice settings and academia. Her first real immersion in action research came about alongside other mid-career professionals seeking to reappraise their practices and impacts to foster social change by studying at the Centre for Action Research in Professional Practice (CARPP) at the University of Bath. CARPP was co-founded in 1993 by Judi Marshall, Peter Reason, David Sims, and Jack Whitehead to develop the theory and practice of AR, underpinned by an internationally informed participative worldview and an extended epistemology. CARPP specifically aimed to enable postgraduate research that would meet established quality criteria and bring about radical developments in both ideas and practices.
In the late 1980s I (Ruth) re-entered the academic world into action research practice in health settings at London University Institute of Education to undertake commissioned research, and this provided me with an opportunity to explore some of the origins of action research. I found that London's Tavistock Institute was the main champion of action research in the UK post-war years, where clinicians and HR specialists radically re-envisioned both individual and institutional 'frozenness'- or the inability to encounter problems as available for inquiry - as socially constructed.
But, in trying to present an account in our chapter of its key influences in the UK setting, I re-discovered how slippery the UK's geographical boundary proved to be. Kurt Lewin – a German Jewish refugee from Nazism – practised AR in the USA, yet the Tavistock Institute counts his work as foundational. Similarly, the origins of CARN in England arose from an American funded curriculum development project and drew from the outset on international networks. Ideas were crossing international boundaries fast.
On the other hand, we also realised that while this cross-fertilisation was apparent across the growing body of participatory work in the UK, there has always been a certain insularity between distinct centres of inquiry based in the UK academy itself, including the ones we report on here. Looking back, I wonder to what extent this productive international exchange of thinking was stimulated by a fascination with unfamiliar – ‘exotic’ - contexts and an ease of imaginative connection that may have seemed less straightforward between the directly connected world of neighbours.
The democratic impulse was one of CARN's core values and was practiced through inquiry and discovery approaches to learning. Initially it was school-based – it was the Classroom Action Research Network – and grounded research acts in the processes of teaching and learning. Carr and Kemmis thought of action research as 'an embodiment of democratic principles in research'. This radical re-orientation of focus towards practice as knowledge production challenged the hegemony of academic educational research by 'making teachers' investigations of classroom practice its central component' (Somekh 2010: 109).
This approach emerged in other disciplines, particularly the caring professions, and postgraduate study which bridged higher education and practice settings began to develop. It was at this point that the term 'classroom' was exchanged for 'collaborative' in CARN's title, though there is a continuing sense within the network of the inquiring classroom as omni-present, potentially in every setting if we care to think of it that way.
I (Cathy) found that CARPP was strongly committed to the exploration of the ontological and epistemological groundings of AR, rooted in pragmatist philosophy and a participatory world view where ‘truth is something we do together’. As a student, this was an exhilarating experience that positioned AR as a life-long endeavour and commitment to dialogue, collaboration, exploring purposes, living values, and taking worthwhile action.
The joy of writing the chapter was in part, an opportunity to revisit and reflect on the experience of being part of the CARPP ‘community of inquiry’. The work of the founders is internationally known and there is a substantial rich, thematically coherent, and values-based body of work that thankfully, is still accessible. There are journal articles and PhD theses that include experimental, creative, and innovative forms of writing and representation and more expansive expositions of ways of knowing.
Being part of this community also exposed me (Cathy) to the different perspectives and space occupied by a parallel, yet distinct approach to inquiry as a critically reflexive, relational, and improvisational approach, through the work of SOLAR (Social and Organisational Learning as Action Research).
SOLAR was established by Susan Weil, initially based at University College Northampton in 1996, and then at the University of the West of England (UWE), Bristol 2002-9. Despite shared epistemological roots with CARPP, SOLAR wanted to be more systemic, seeking powerful patterns in stories, recurring themes and tensions that reproduce themselves in complex systems and tended to avoid the terms first-, second- and third-person inquiry used by CARPP.
At a CARPP workshop in 2002, I (Cathy) was excited and challenged by the invitation from Susan to engage more explicitly with power relations and system dynamics; to find ways to conduct inquiry amidst the ‘minefields of silence’, designing for emergence, and having the courage to learn from the mess, naming contradictions as an act of power, making it legitimate to notice frozenness, the issues that are not discussed, and how people respond.
Twenty years later, this challenge is highly resonant. In revisiting this work for our chapter, we saw some of the Tavistock's ideas, for example, organisational frozenness, silences, and denial, but transformed through an epistemological framework where expertise is no longer positioned via the ‘expert’ clinical gaze and framed instead as egalitarian.
We were also struck by the prescience of Susan Weil’s work from the 1990s that was developing creative ways to work with stories and acknowledge the realities of complex systems, those ‘not capable of being understood or controlled, in which we must approach learning and change as relational and improvisational processes’ (Weil, 1997: 378).
At times highly experimental, SOLAR continued to develop the thinking and practice of Systemic Action Research (SAR) in stark contrast to traditional research or consultation. Their work was a clear call to ‘build cultures that support new forms of collaborative inquiry and action research’ that strongly reverberates throughout our experience and, to this day, warrants a wider audience.
As in the case of the early decades of AR in the community development movement, documentation in the initial period of education-based AR was also limited, with publication taking place in single sustained works such as Carr and Kemmis's Becoming Critical (1986), collections such as the Handbooks of Winter (1999) and Winter and Munn-Giddings (2001) and Reason & Bradbury (2001), and guides to practice.
On setting out the dates of origin of the two foremost UK based international AR journals we were surprised to see how long it had taken for them to emerge: Educational Action Research in 1993 and Action Research Journal ten years later. Whilst SOLAR’s continuing influence manifests in Barry Percy-Smith’s work at the University of Huddersfield and Danny Burns at IDS, University of Sussex, the closure of the SOLAR archive at UWE creates a significant loss of documented activity for the action research community.
In registering silences, we concluded by finding hope for the flourishing of action research and the contribution it can make to a more just and sustainable world often manifesting in marginal, off the radar spaces. We propose that any revitalised vision of a deeply participatory AR will need to adopt a more holistic, affective, and relational approach to learning and knowledge creation that demands that we recognise the part emotion – including fear, anger, sadness, excitement, passion, and courage – plays in creating cultures, and the necessity to better integrate acknowledgement of our feelings into our practice.
Silence about important participatory work has much to do with the ‘enclosure of knowledge’ (Hall & Tandon 2017) within universities. We are encouraged by the emergence of new publication opportunities outside the conventional peer-review system – eg via The Social Publishers Foundation, CARN Praxis – in a cycle of return to the days before the establishment of peer-reviewed journal in our discipline, but in this iteration, embracing diversity.
The UK-based initiatives we highlight always drew on significant worldwide connections and interchange. Acknowledging that global exchanges and meetings of AR scholars from different networks and with differing interests are now taking place more often, the chapter that we originally wrote in 2019 issues a challenge for action researchers to be more collaborative, to share our practices within and across disciplines and sectors in the UK and embrace the technologies that can reduce our airmiles.
Our experience of the subsequent Covid 19 pandemic has at least demonstrated to us just how possible and valuable this really is, both internationally and more locally. Our individual and mutual immersion in online meetings and networks across a wide variety of contexts and localities, has been sudden and hugely beneficial. We have seen conference participation transformed by the inclusion of students, researchers, teachers, and practitioners of action research who would never attend a face-to-face event, not least because of the barriers of costs and time to travel.
We have taken part in and witnessed encounters as equals between eminent writers and figures from the action research world and novice researchers, practitioners and mid-career researchers in small breakout rooms and other configurations. Such a fresh shape to our networking has created a significant and welcome disruption to the power dynamics and cliques that can prevail. We hope this will continue to re-orient our relationships in ever more productive ways.
Open access resources
Open Access title: Democratising Participatory Research: Pathways to Social Justice from the South by Carmen Martinez-Vargas. https://www.openbookpublishers.com/product/1511
Carr, W. and Kemmis, S. (1986). Becoming Critical: Education Knowledge and Action Research. London: Routledge.
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