Participatory research

What is it?
Participatory research involves the active and continual engagement of stakeholders in a study, investigation or assessment where the participants hold power of control over the process that is equal to or greater than the researchers. This is accomplished through a) a mutually respectful partnership between researchers and stakeholders, b) full recognition that local knowledge, expertise and resources are critical, c) joint-development of research design, d) full collaboration in implementation, observations (and other data collection), monitoring, analysis, interpretation and communication of results, and e) building in the potential that co-production of knowledge during the process can generate ownership, equity and empowerment among the participants, increasing their capacity to make or contribute to more informed decisions and to take action. [1,2,3]

Background/context and objectives
Participatory research has roots in a number of different fields including international development, agricultural development, community development, public health and land-use planning. It is also fundamental to a form of medical research called translational medicine, where all stakeholders, ranging from patients to basic researchers form a collaborative and highly participatory research team. Specific forms of participatory research are further defined by the level of participation/degree of engagement and the emphasis on problem solving, action and activism (e.g., action research; participatory action research).

While the goal of empowering stakeholders to take action is part of many forms of participatory research, the primary distinction between participatory and more traditional forms of research is the degree to which control is placed into the hands of the participant stakeholders. Among the most important typologies for considering this is known as the ladder of citizen participation which was introduced by Arnstein (1969). This ladder is made up of eight “rungs” ranging from passive involvement, defined as non-participation, and thus more prone to manipulation by organizers, to the most active level of engagement where citizens completely control the process. [4] This typology emphasizes the most important constraint in participatory research: it is how the process is structured and conducted that ultimately determines the power relationships, which in turn influences the quality of the engagement and the results. Biggs (1989) created a widely used continuum of participation that goes from stakeholders providing facilities and resources (contractual) to cooperation by participants in externally-controlled activities (consultative) to greater involvement of participants in the decision-making process (collaborative) to participants ultimately gaining a greater level of influence over the direction and control of the whole participation process as well as the profits obtained from it (collegial). [5]

Participatory research contains three fundamental components: collaboration, mutual learning, and acting on relevant research results. [1] Participants tend to be stakeholders (those who are affected by, or who can affect, a decision or action), and the researchers themselves are considered stakeholders with equal – but not greater – voice in the process. Participants are all linked in some way to the research theme, and depending on the focus of the research, they can also share other common characteristics (e.g., members of the same community). Participatory research involves the facilitated interaction among participants using techniques to help encourage collaboration and the balanced contribution among all stakeholders.

Guidance for applying the framework
Making research participatory involves employing one or more qualitative or quantitative research methods in a way that transfers control from the research team to the stakeholders participating in the research. It also involves a formative approach to research where what is learned (or, more accurately, the knowledge that is co-produced among all stakeholders, including researchers) is reinvested into the research process prior to completion of the study, either confirming the current approach is on track, or forcing a re-evaluation of approach leading to adaptations designed to reflect more accurately what is deemed relevant by the participants. Thus any aspect of the research design may change at any stage of the research; in the most extreme cases, even the research questions themselves may be adjusted to reflect what matters most. This means that the responsiveness and adaptability of the research design are the most important characteristics of how participatory research is structured. Like traditional research, outcomes are anticipated, but unlike traditional research, mid-stream course corrections based on what is learned are not only common, but a sign that the research design ensures the pursuit of what is relevant not only by the researchers before the process begins, but also by the participants who bring new information and insights throughout the process. Participatory research is always applicable locally, but through careful design, can (and ideally should) lead to findings that are applicable elsewhere.[1] Participatory research is reflective in nature which means that progress can be monitored by both traditional process indicators linked to the research design as well as periodic self-assessment by the participants during the process.

Participatory research methods are commonly used when local knowledge and/or local buy-in is valued. For this reason, methodologies underlying user-centered product design and development [6,7], those encouraging innovation and acceleration in business planning [8,9], as well as community visioning [10] are founded on participatory research methods. While it is more obvious to consider participatory research appropriate for subject matter with a clear human dimension, participatory methods can also be applied where that connection is less obvious. For example, a purely bio-physical study of hydrological processes in a given landform may not have a direct human dimension, but because those processes may be influenced by the actions of people, or people may be impacted by them, a participatory approach may be appropriate. Because participatory research approaches are based on relevance and involvement, the prerequisites for adoption, they are essential to ensuring the broader impact of science.

Good practice tips
Although participatory research is more open ended than traditional research, it requires expertise in not only each method employed, but also facilitation. Careful planning is essential, with testing of each step, as well piloting the overall protocol developed for the study.

Participatory research, like all human subjects research, is subject to research ethics review. This can be challenging, particularly when those conducting the institutional ethics review request that all ethical problems and risks can be identified before they occur, and where the boundary between researcher and participant is assumed to be clear and distinct. When research has been designed to affect positive change, and where the progress of the research and lead to a reframing of the research questions, predicting in advance all possible outcomes is not possible. Moreover, in participatory research everyone involved is both a stakeholder and researcher, making traditional research lines between subjects and those conducting the study much less clear. Meeting this challenge may requires good communication with the review board and framing the submission of the research protocol in a form more conducive to the review process. [11]

Success stories
Participatory research is now central to a significant portion of research conducted in support of international development, public health and land use planning. It is central to user-centered design which influences engineering and software development, and is key to many business acceleration methods. Though at a more limited scale, it is being implemented in the Earth and environmental sciences with particular success where the communities engaged at the outset and that involvement is maintained throughout the process (e.g., human dimensions research, conservation and natural resource planning.

To learn more
[1] Macaulay,A.C., L.E. Commanda, W.L. Freeman, N. Gibson, M.L. McCabe, C.M. Robbins, and P.L Twohig. 1999. Participatory research maximises community and lay involvement. British Medical Journal 319(7212):774-778. doi:10.1136/bmj.319.7212.774
[2] Cornwall, A., and Jewkes, R. 1995. What is participatory research? Social science & Medicine 41(12):1667-1676. doi:10.1016/0277-9536(95)00127-S
[3] Reed, M. S. 2008. Stakeholder participation for environmental management: A literature review. Biological Conservation 141(10):2417-2431. doi: 10.1016/j.biocon.2008.07.014
[4] Arnstein, S.R. 1969. A ladder of citizen participation. Journal of American Institute of Planners - JAIP 35(4):216-224.
[5] Biggs, S. 1989. Resource-poor farmer participation in research: a synthesis of experiences from nine national agricultural research systems. OFCOR Comparative Study Paper 3. International Service for National Agricultural Research. The Hague.
[6] Norman, D.A. and S.W. Draper (eds.). 1986.User-Centered System Design: New Perspectives on Human-Computer Interaction. Lawrence Earlbaum Associates, Hillsdale, NJ.
[7]Norman, D. (1988). The psychology of everyday things. Doubleday, New York.
[8] Blank, S. 2013. Why the Lean Start-Up changes everything. Harvard Business Review. 91 (5): 63–72.
[9] Ries, E. 2011. The Lean Startup: How Today's Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses. Crown Business, New York.
[10] Morrison, E. 2012. Strategic doing for community development." in N. Walzer and G.F. Hamm, ed. Community Visioning Programs. Ch. 9, 156-177. Routledge Publishing Group, New York.
[11] Ahmed S., B. Beck, C. Maurana, and G. Newton. 2004. Overcoming barriers to effective community-based participatory research in US medical schools. Education for Health (Abingdon). 17(2):141-151.


Created on 11 Oct 2016 09:05 by Barron Orr
Updated on 11 Oct 2016 09:05 by Barron Orr

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