Participatory Action Research (PAR) for Sustainable Community Development

PAR allows for reflections that improve researchers’ understanding of situations and helps shape strategies.

By Xunaxi Cruz Velasco

Social justice and reducing income poverty as well as many of the associated symptoms of poverty have become the overarching goal of sustainable development efforts. Economic development is considered essential to reduce poverty and to meeting the Millenium Development Goals (MDGs). Within the discourse of sustainable development, the issue of rural poverty and environmental degradation is often related to rural communities who depend upon the use (direct or indirect) of their natural resources as their income source. In fact, there are numerous case studies in which the symbiotic relationship that once coexisted between humans and nature that indigenous groups used to live with, no longer exists.

Currently the challenge lies in improving livelihoods through economic alternatives that also maintain the natural resources for current and future generations. There have been many different approaches to reaching this goal, such as providing direct economic aid either through government or NGO’s; or by the installation of government programs to promote community development in an attempt to mitigate rural poverty. However, many of these programs have not successfully achieved their goals, as once the external aid is gone, program participation often drops to low or nonexistent levels . Some reasons may be either that financial, material or human resources have also gone or simply because the initial objective offered was not within the community’s interests and priorities. Participating communities need to be involved in defining what they want to achieve, otherwise motivation, more often than not, will decline, preventing their capacity to generate self-sufficiency.

In my journey to understanding how to contribute within my own community’s development to more sustainable livelihoods, I discovered action research methodology. Action research methodology is defined by Peter Reason and Hilary Bradbury, as “A participatory, democratic process that seeks to bring together action and reflection, theory and practice, in participation with others, in the pursuit of practical solutions to issues of pressing concern to people in their communities.” It is a learning process that focuses on learning by planning, doing, observing and reflecting. In addition, it is a good approach to assisting in the process of raising economic development, increasing awareness of natural resource-dependency and capacity-building on a group level.

Jean MacNiff and Jack Whithead posit that the aim of action research is to improve social or personal situations, rather than just understand and propose theories about the causes of the external situation. In doing so, they illustrate the fundamental difference between action research and traditional research methods based on what is studied, how it is studied and represented, as well as why it is studied.

In traditional research, the researcher is an external observer who proposes theories, while in participatory action research (PAR) the “objects of research”, or the community, are integral parts of the research as they generate their own living theory of practice. Participatory action research claims that this methodology “researches with, rather than on, people” .

Action research provides the opportunity for full community involvement in the development of projects, by allowing for clarifications and reflections that might improve the researchers’ understanding of situations and problems to shape their strategies rather than prematurely introducing external ideas. This principle is strengthened by the opinion of Cooke and Daniela Tilbury who argue that “active participation helps to take the learning process of the program beyond reflection and towards capacity-building, which builds the knowledge and skills for participants to act in their community as leaders or agents for creating change.”

A particular strength provided by the participatory action research methodology, highlighted by Ernie Stringer, Brydon-Miller, Greenwood and Maguire, is that in this cooperative relation between participants and researcher there is a permanent respect for knowledge of the members and for their ability to understand and address the issues. These authors also reinforce the notion that researchers act as external figures that “provide people with the support and resources to do things in ways that fit their own cultural context and their own lifestyles”.

Action learning in social enterprises as a tool for the poverty alleviation issue

In the search of economic opportunities for rural communities, the launch of entrepreneurial activities managed by families or the community is frequently found. This kind of social enterprise has been created in areas, such as forestry, small scale agricultural activities and handicrafts. Social enterprises have been developed through action learning rather than action research. The basis of action learning is the same as action research — both involve the participants developing an action plan, implementing the plan and reflecting on what they have learnt from this. However, the main difference between ‘action learning’ and ‘action research’, according to Ortrun Zuber-Skerritt, “is that action research is more systematic, rigorous, scrutinisable, verifiable, and always made public”.

The main findings of case studies based on action learning show that the creation of social enterprises is not, alone, the solution to alleviating poverty. Rather, the participatory collaboration method helps development in local communities through capacity-building as an empowering process. This leads participants to increase control over their lives by nurturing community strengths and problem-solving abilities. Furthermore, in relation to environmental management, community enterprises can improve the conservation of some types of areas. On the other hand, it has also found that both natural conservation enterprises and social enterprises need the support of business and market specialists, as small producers also need to address a gap in knowledge of consumer markets and business management.

PAR as part of community development

In terms of community development, findings from capacity-building and community networks for self-resilience show that, in order to get people in the community interested in public participation, individual knowledge management needs to be achieved. This is an important element for creating a good collective awareness. Moreover, one factor that is often addressed by action research literature is a cooperative context within which individuals have sufficient security to speak and interact. On this point, Cynthia J. Chataway argues that often in native groups, people protect themselves from making public contributions to the research by participating privately, hence a continuing process of consensus is needed in all stages.

Paulo Freire suggested that “the investigator’ should bring to the research his/her own personal data as well as expecting his ‘objects-subjects’ to bring theirs”. In the case of Indigenous communities, practices as well as decision-making processes are influenced by their cultural and social context. Then, the extent to which externals might interfere with such a cultural context within the community must be considered. With reference to this argument, Stringer and Chataway say that community members should be the ones who determine the nature and operation of the things that affect their lives; as the decision-making process has to do with a greater sense of community and clarity about their cultural identity. Therefore, both authors suggest that the role of the researchers and externals is to join community voices and allow them to be heard for them more clearly than in the past.

Limitations of action research in community development

As already stated, PAR has several strengths regarding community development, but it is also important to be aware that, as with any other processes, limitations might be found. For example, in indigenous or rural groups, power structures might cause difficulties such as extending the time of development and implementation of initiatives and community projects. It is also important to highlight that it is frequent that groups working with PAR change the expected outcome of the research, as a result of the reflection process embedded in PAR. They might find out that what was considered as the main problem is just the result of some other issue that need to be tackled first.

It must be taken into account that each community is different and that each process will differ from others. From a personal point of view, PAR brings about opportunities to conduct development within communities. It is a relevant approach that provides a process for communities to explore their own practices, to find sustainable livelihoods and more resilient groups in terms of what is relevant to them.


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Originally published in August 2013 on the Post Growth institute (PGI) blog. Find out more .

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