Thursday, June 17, 2010

Participatory Action Research: A Window For Possible Ethical Dilemmas

By: Erica Hutton

The method(s) utilized to conduct research varies and often depends on the fundamental elements associated to inquiry. The process for developing a qualitative study necessitates an understanding of the assumptions that are related to the qualitative research design (Creswell, 2009). Such assumptions are comprised of (a) the knowledge of the research design, (b) the researcher’s role, (c) data collection, (d) procedures implemented for data analysis, and (e) methods in verification. In utilizing qualitative methodology to conduct research, the researcher integrates their own worldview, paradigms, or beliefs into the research project (Creswell, 2007).

Empiricist paradigms encompassing traditional and experimental beliefs are classified as quantitative research methods in which a deductive form of logic is utilized to form hypotheses and theories that are tested. Therefore, quantitative methodology employs a predetermined set of variables and concepts that are examined throughout the process of conducting research (Creswell, 2009). However, in qualitative research, the researcher is actively involved in the interpretation of data collected. Through the data analysis process, the researcher examines the meaning of the information, a process that is considered to be an inductive form of research in which the exploration of comprehending the meaning of data is assigned to a particular social or human dilemma.

Participatory Worldview of Qualitative Research Methodology

Qualitative research methods concentrate on the subjective interpretation of meaning related to social context and knowledge (Popay et al., 1998). Tesch (1990) asserted that there are three prominent areas of exploration when conducting qualitative research to include: (a) communication patterns and the interaction of individuals, (b) describing the interpretations of subjective meaning, and (c) constructing theory through data analysis. A paradigm within the realm of research may be portrayed as a set of ideas, a world view, or a system that is utilized within a community of researchers to engender knowledge (Fossey, et al., 2002). Kuhn (1996) claimed that scientific paradigms are established to supersede existing paradigms.

Participatory action research is a fairly new paradigm in which research is achieved on behalf of the participants versus on participants (Meyer, 1993; Denscombe, 1998). With regard to the establishment of participatory action research, the participatory worldview became a prominent approach to research during the 1980’s and 1990’s in which researchers did not concur that society and sociological concerns could be appropriately addressed with postpositivist and structural implications pertaining to theory (Creswell, 2009). The advocacy/participatory worldview is an approach that can be utilized in quantitative research methods; however, this perspective is most often utilized to conduct qualitative research in the promotion of inquiry, collaborating participants into the development of the research study. The advocacy/participatory worldview can be applied to those populations within society that may be marginalized or disenfranchised in which reform and change is directly implemented into the research process (Creswell, 2009). The advocacy/participatory worldview approach permits participants to be actively involved with the development of the research questions, the research design, the collection of data, the process of data analysis, as well as directly benefiting from the research conducted.

In other words, the participants are active collaborators in the inquiry of the research being conducted with emphasis being placed on political issues that can be modified through reformation and policy change. Oftentimes, participatory action research is a method utilized to further assess the need for empowerment and release of constraint that participants are often subjected to in various situations. The goal of facilitating participatory action research is to recognize an action agenda for change within society, addressing problematic areas that directly pertain to irrational constrictions (Creswell, 2009). In evaluating whether or not the participatory worldview is an appropriate strategy to utilize to conduct research, the level of oppression associated to individuals is a vital aspect in determining if participants can directly relate to the issue based on personal experiences.

Historical Application of Participatory Action Research

The participatory action approach to conducting research was integrated into the field of psychology during the 1960’s and in the examination of social problems in the 1940’s (Lofman et al., 2004) in which participants were directly involved with the research process with emphasis being placed on the practical and applicable benefits of conducting research for those within certain communities or organizations (Calhoun & Karaganis, 2001; Fals-Borda, 2001; Susman & Evered, 1978; Whyte, 1991; Kidd & Kral, 2005). Alinsky (1971) is accredited for integrating participatory community organization among members of society who were experiencing oppressiveness; Frantz Fanon (1963) and Paulo Friere (1970) were writers during this time period that established a liberationist ideology for those members of society that were deemed to be disempowered (as cited in Kidd & Kral, 2005). Swantz (Hall, 1997) utilized participatory action research in the early 1970’s to examine the Tanzania population, while Fals-Borda applied the action research approach to communities in Colombia, and Tandon concentrated on various locations throughout India (as cited in Brydon-Miller, 1997). Participatory action research is comprised of an anthropological component (Jackson, 1987; Ornelas, 1997; Reason, 1994; Reed-Danahay, 1997) of inquiry pertaining to the ethnographic or autoethnography to culturally examine individuals within a particular community or organization (as cited in Kidd & Kral, 2005).

Early efforts of utilizing participatory action research were related to community-based research that concentrated on education, agricultural progression, and economic reformation. Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970; 1993), is a monumental work that introduced the principles of conducting research from the perspective of radical educational reform in which cyclical patterns of action and reflection were deemed to be critical elements associated to the transformation of knowledge (Brydon-Miller, 1997). The cycle initiates with the collection of information through engaging with the community of inquiry. Next, defining the problem and the construction of research questions are pertinent to knowing what type of research design is most appropriate in addressing the questions that are being contemplated. Subsequent to the identification of the research design, the method of data collection and data interpretation may lead back to the problem for further evaluation as to the most appropriate area of inquiry, or the implementation of action is executed (Chataway, 1997).

Although the participatory action research approach was initially implemented in research studies that pertained to community psychology (Rappaport, 1977, 1990; Zax & Specter, 1974), this strategy has been advantageous in the examination of indigenous communities (Fisher & Ball, 2003), action research for social justice (Fondacaro & Weinberg, 2002), and tribal participatory research (as cited in Kidd & Kral, 2005). Toulmin (1988) asserted that human and social science research paralleled with qualitative research methodology due to the level of subjectivity associated to the collection, interpretation, and application of data inquiry (as cited in Kidd & Kral, 2005). Hill and Kral (2003) claimed that participatory action research is a philosophical transition within research in which practicality dominates areas of social science such as feministic, linguistic, interpretive, reflexive, historical, cultural, and critical frameworks respectively (as cited in Kidd & Kral, 2005). Participatory action research implements an action agenda (Fay, 1987; Heron & Reason, 1997) for reformation among members of society with the goal of attending to injustice experienced by individuals of a marginalized group (as cited in Creswell, 2007).

Theoretical Framework of Participatory Action Research

Two of the prominent research paradigms that are incorporated into qualitative research methodology are the interpretive and critical research paradigms. From a theoretical perspective, Brydon-Miller (1997) addressed the influential components of participatory action research to include Marxism (Oquist, 1978), feminism (Maguire, 1987), and critical theory (Antonio, 1981; Bernstein, 1976; Cornstock & Fox, 1993; Fay, 1975; Habermas, 1971; Held, 1980). Critical theory originated in the 1920’s (Creswell, 1998) in which Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, and Herbert Marcuse were theorists at the Frankfurt School (Ponterotto, 2005). Smith (1997) classified participatory action research as being “liberatory” in which Freire’s (1970; 1993) use of “conscientization” is accomplished (as cited in Brydon-Miller, 1997, p. 660). Participatory action research is based on the critical perspective in which participants are appointed to assist in the research design and in conducting the research (Fossey et al., 2002). The epistemological paradigm of critical theory is one that confronts the scientific comportment associated to empowering others with the goal of eradicating social inequities (Kidd & Kral, 2005).
Four theoretical tenets that frame the organization of community-based research are (a) participation, (b) attaining knowledge, (c) empowerment, and (d) social change (van der Velde et al., 2009). Subsequent to gathering data, assumptions are discussed and theorized in relation to the participant’s lives and experiences (Reason, 1994); however, these implications incorporate a political perspective throughout communities to implement change and social equality (Sommer, 1987). Critical theory is a methodological approach in itself that espouses a critical standpoint in inquiry. The philosophical assumptions of critical theory incorporate a stance reflective of a political and ideological dimension (Alvesson & Skoldberg, 2000), rejecting a perspective of objectivity and apolitical research (as cited in Sumner, 2003). Horkheimer (1972) claimed that the potential opportunity and expectations of one’s future relies upon the continuation of a conscious critical attitude; this conceptualization is revealed in the progressive expansion of society (as cited in Sumner, 2003). Critical theory embraces positivistic thinking and examines theories with the purpose of not verifying the theory, but rather confirming action in relation to the participant’s interpretation of subject matter.

Democratization of the Research Process

Participatory action research is derived from critical theory and classified as a method used to empower others through a democratic progression to improve the disposition of participants (Lofman et al., 2004). Political and critical analyses are both components of participatory action research with reflexivity (Anderson, 1991) attributed to balancing knowledge and authority (as cited in Hagey, 1997). Pain (2004) stated that critical reflexivity is crucial to describing the role of the researcher and the goal of empowering others to implement change. Participatory action research may appear to have been conducted solely by members of a given community versus having a researcher involved in the research process (Pain, 2004). Chataway (2001) purported that the most appropriate stance for the researcher to take in participatory action research is to employ a perspective of democratization pertaining to the content and method (as cited in Kidd & Kral, 2005). Such a perspective ensures the maintenances of authentic deference and cooperative participation (Israel et al., 1998) while sincerely expressing an open relationship to the entire research process. The researcher partakes in participating in the study which proves to be a beneficial maneuver in addressing the oppressive demands placed on participants and further provides confirmation associated to the framework of action that is to be implemented (Kidd & Kral, 2005). It is ideal if participants seek out a researcher to conduct a particular study; however, this is not always the case. Authority and a form of supremacy (Yeich & Levine, 1992) may be imposed by participants who are selected to participate in participatory action research in which the researcher initiated the inquiry of research (as cited in Kidd & Kral, 2005). Regardless of how the research project initiates, allegiance and responsibility are vital to the success of the study. When the researcher is not accustomed to the problem that frames the study, the methodological and epistemological assumptions may be questioned or modified to an extent. This is primarily exemplified in the preconceptions that the researcher may or may not hold in regards to the goal, method, or action that will ultimately lead to change (Kidd & Kral, 2005).

It is vital to maintain a certain level of equitable responsibility (Rahman, 1991) pertaining to the validity of the researcher and participant’s overall knowledge on the subject being inquired and the means that are best appropriate in addressing action (as cited in Kidd & Kral, 2005). When conducting participatory action research, the researcher’s role is somewhat invasive within the lives of the participants in which an unguarded perspective is expected and at times unprecedented in relation to other research methodologies. Qualitative research methods examine and describe the interpretation of experiences of research participants (Denzin & Lincoln, 2000) which is most often conducted by concentrating on a specific area of inquiry in which participants have the opportunity to explicate their experiences of a particular phenomenon (Taylor & Bogdan, 1998). Participatory action research is based on critical theory in which prominence is placed on the liberation from oppressiveness (Kincheloe & McLaren, 1994) with the purpose of graduating to more of a repressive and democratic socialization (Tolman & Brydon-Miller, 2001). The types of oppression that are most often examined in participatory action research pertain to culture concerns, ethnic issues, and geographical location (Fals-Borda, 1991) with the goal of implementing action or sociopolitical changes (as cited in Gatenby & Humphries, 2000). In summation, the critical theory paradigm is utilized to advance consciousness of the political nature of social phenomena with the purpose of employing researchers to critically reflect upon reality. The most opportunistic technique implemented within this means of reflection is subjectively represented as the researcher becomes a part of the research process in the evaluation of social practices.

Practical Implications of Participatory Action Research

Participatory action research is both an approach to research and action in which the main objective is twofold: (a) examining knowledge and action that would be advantageous to a particular community and (b) the level of empowerment that is associated to awareness of a particular area of oppression (Reason, 1994; Kidd & Kral, 2005). Participatory action research is not a research approach that is typically utilized on a micro level, but rather on a macro level with the focus on implementing change in the lives of the participants within a given community (Fals-Borda, 1991; Reason & Bradbury, 2001; Kidd & Kral, 2005). Wadsworth and Epstein (1998, 2001) implemented participatory action research to examine the staff and consumer experiences of acute mental health care (as cited in Fossey et al., 2002). The data was collected by (a) participant storytelling, (b) observing participants, (c) interviews, (d) dialogue, (e) group discussion, (f) suggestion boxes, (g) surveys, and (h) documentation of procedures (Wadsworth & Epstein, 1998; Wadsworth, 2001). The results of this research study proved to be beneficial in implementing policy change among the practices within the mental health system on a local, state, and national level. A study conducted by Fossey et al., (2002), utilized the participatory action research approach to evaluate participants that were diagnosed with schizophrenia and the staff members that worked with these individuals. The methods incorporated into data collection included: (a) semi-structured interviews and (b) written records of interviews. The results of this study were beneficial in addressing the ethical dilemmas pertaining to sharing the feedback retrieved from participants’ negative evaluations (Fossey et al., 2002).

There are four facets (Denscombe, 1998) that explicate the characteristics of action research: (a) participatory, (b) practicality in addressing social concerns, (c) cyclical, and (d) change-promoting (as cited in Lofman et al., 2004). Yeich and Levine (1992) examined the connection between research and empowerment from a theoretical and practical perspective of sociopolitical concerns among specific populations (as cited in Brydon-Miller, 1997). The dichotomous element in conducting research based on empowering certain populations pertains to the researcher implementing change for the participants; however, participatory action research directly incorporates the population into the study in aspiring to address the progression of empowerment. Dryzek (1995) stated that participants reflect upon theory in relation to the causes and effective relief of a problem and are active participants in the research process (as cited in Sumner, 2003). Feminist Patti Lather (1991) described this as a process of verification to that of catalytic validity, in which the research process provides a method for concentrating on the motivation of participants and their knowledge of reality of the techniques or strategies that can transform it (as cited in Sumner, 2003).

Ethical Issues in Participatory Action Research

It is crucial for all research studies to incorporate ethical considerations into the research design (Fossey et al., 2002). Due to the fact that qualitative research methods are based on the subjective interpretations of the participants, inquiry as to the level of authenticity of the data collected is always questionable (Lincoln & Guba, 1985). Another area of concern associated to qualitative research methods pertains to whether or not the data that was collected corroborates with ethical standards for conducting qualitative research (Fossey et al., 2002). Within the paradigm of critical theory, the participants are considered to be key stakeholders in developing research questions, the research design, the methods for collecting the data, and the action that may be implemented to address policy change (Lincoln, 1995); therefore, trepidation associated to ethics is at times dubious (Stiles, 1999) and based on the interpretive nature of qualitative inquiry in general.

Ethical issues in participatory action research include: (a) the concern of the researcher’s role, (b) confidentiality and protection of participants, (c) appropriate informed consent, (d) the level of ownership of the research, and (e) the flexibility associated to balancing the authority amongst the participants of the study and the researcher (Lofman et al., 2004). In a research study conducted by Gatenby and Humphries (2000), emergences of ethical concerns were related to the level of involvement for participants with the researchers. Such a concern is practical in participatory action research; however, emotional attachment or commitment to the research study may directly affect the data being gathered. Additionally, the researchers noted the level of reflection that was necessary in evaluating subjectivity throughout the research process (Gatenby & Humphries, 2000).
Informed consent may be problematic when conducting action research because the participants are collaborators in the research process and even deemed as being key stakeholders within the process of designing the study and implementing change to address social or political issues. However, the researcher should provide appropriate informed consent to ensure that the participant is aware of the right to withdraw from the study at any time (Lofman et al., 2004). Informed consent should also convey to the participant that action research permits the active collaboration of participants within the research process. It is plausible that participants may misconstrue exactly what is expected in a study that involves participatory action research; therefore, the researcher(s) are ethically responsible in providing appropriate informed consent to attend to any ambiguous areas within the research process (Lofman et al., 2004). Fine (1994) addressed the level of complexity pertaining to participatory action research due to political affiliation and the organization of the many roles of the researcher (as cited in Gatenby & Humphries, 2000).

Another ethical dilemma in conducting participatory action research is the level of confidentiality that is awarded to the participants of the study. Lofman et al., (2004) purported that it is not as complicated to ensure that confidentiality and anonymity is appropriately proffered to participants of a standard research study; however, with action research this task can be daunting for the researcher. Another problematic area related to ethical considerations that should be integrated into participatory action research pertains to the ambiguous role of the researcher(s). With the circumstances of inquiry being collaborative, there may be an asymmetrical shift of power between the researcher and the participants in which patronization may unintentionally occur (Lofman et al., 2004). An ethical concern associated to the ownership of the results from the research study should also be addressed because lack of ownership may directly or indirectly influence the relationship between the researcher and the participants (Lofman et al., 2004).

Disadvantages and Advantages of Participatory Action Research

With participatory action research based on mutual inquiry, there are constraints that directly affect the research process. Oppressed populations may be unmotivated to participate in a research study based on their personal experiences and adjustment to the inequities that affect the given population (Chataway, 1997). Nonparticipation in participatory action research is a concept that is often overlooked (Bartunek, 1993); it is almost assumed that oppressed populations would be motivated to participate in the evaluation of injustice(s) (as cited in Chataway, 1997). However, there are instances in which individuals have adapted and possibly even conditioned to the social or political circumstances that subjugate their communities. In all, the fundamental elements of ethics in participatory action research endorse equity, restitution, independence, and procedural justice for the disadvantaged (Hagey, 1997).

Upholding ethical considerations can be strenuous in conducting participatory action research if certain concerns are not addressed prior to the research inquiry process. Because participants are able to join the research study willingly based on their interest to address the social concern and implement policy change, it is vital that the researcher(s) stress that informed consent must be received from each participant and ensure that there is no question of what concern is being addressed in the study (Lofman et al., 2004). Participatory action research directly involves the participants in the entire research process; therefore, it is probable that a participant may overlook that they are participating in a research study. Consent should be provided to the researcher(s) in order to record and report findings and to share and reflect upon certain information (Lofman et al., 2004). Pain and Francis (2003) stated that the method(s) utilized to collect data is not as important as the researcher(s) engaging with participants. In participatory action research, the researcher should have a certain level of knowledge pertaining to the population being inquired in which collaborative research would be an appropriate research strategy to utilize (Chataway, 1997).

The length of the research process may also be a negative aspect associated to participatory action research. Political and societal concerns are not typically subjected to immediate resolutions; therefore, the researcher(s) and the participants alike may become discouraged over time. Both maintain an immense interest to address concerns from an action agenda perspective which takes time to execute (Chataway, 1997). Another restraint pertaining to participatory action research is that there may be indecisive and wavering judgments associated to the design and barriers that are believed to exist within the community (Chataway, 1997). It should not be assumed that the interpretations of societal or political constraints are interpreted in the same manner by all that reside within a given community.

Ideology must be taken into consideration during the data collection process pertaining to the construction of the research study and the interpretation of data as it applies to action. Due to the level of bureaucracy integrated into participatory action research, this approach may not be perceived as the most appropriate method if the researcher(s) is not familiar with the community’s history of oppression and competent in the area of political analysis (Hagey, 1997). The risk in conducting action research is that the participants could possibly construct goals and methods of action that are different from that of the researcher (Seymour, 1997); this may be prevalent in relation to the cultural differences among individuals as well (as cited in Kidd & Kral, 2005).
Addressing the Limitations of Participatory Action Research

Limitations pertaining to participatory action research involve the classification of appropriate projects (Hart & Bond, 1996) as well as the level of flexibility (Kelly & Simpson, 2001) associated to research inquiry, design, methods of data collection, and interpretation of data analyzed to execute an action agenda (as cited in Lofman et al., 2004). Providing informed consent in participatory action research may be problematic when individuals have the right to leave or join the experiment at any given time (Lofman et al., 2004). Therefore, it is recommended to set parameters on when participants can be added to the population interested to address the societal issue(s) at hand and to eliminate further complications and comprising ethical standards in conducting participatory action research. The emergence of practical challenges in conducting participatory action research are directly associated to the relationship between the researcher(s) and the participants (Gatenby & Humphries, 2000). Judgment held by the researcher(s) could directly influence the study and hamper the research process while further inquiry into an area is considered (Chataway, 1997). Additionally, participants of an oppressed population may interpret researcher participation as a connotation of pity, debilitating the process of empowerment and action in confronting the social and political inequities experienced.

The ethical concern pertaining to the issue of upholding confidentiality and anonymity for participants in action research may be countered in addressing the method in which data is collected (Lofman et al., 2004). If the researcher(s) is conscientious of the problematic concerns in maintaining the privacy of the participants, proactive measures could be implemented to ensure that feedback is given within a concealed manner and data is not shared among participants to expose the personal information of each participant but rather the overall consensus of the group’s concerns are presented. To attend to the plausibility of patronizing participants in action research studies, the researcher(s) should make participants aware of problematic areas pertaining to power, authority, and the importance of the emancipation of participants (Lofman et al., 2004).

Maguire (1987) and Tandon (1981) believed that organization of the relationship among the participants and the researcher(s) is a significant facet to participant commitment and responsibility (as cited in Brydon-Miller, 1997). In addressing the constraints that are often experienced from mutual inquiry, Caulfield (1979) suggested that both the researcher and the participants should be transparent as to their personal dispositions pertaining to the topic of inquiry and their expectations associated to implementing change (as cited in Chataway, 1997). The reciprocated participation in a research study among a politicized community with a history of oppression can be overwhelming on the research process; however, establishment of mutuality and collaboration during the research process, can counter previous disproportion of power experienced by members of the community (Chataway, 1997). Even if members of an oppressed population have the ability to overcome their history of inequity during the research process, focus on their placement could psychologically victimize these individuals even more due to the repetitive reminder of the disposition within society as a whole (Chataway, 1997).


In conclusion, the goal of conducting qualitative research is to examine the applicability of findings to generalize lived experiences (Rice & Ezzy, 1999) while endeavoring to understand a phenomenon (Popay et al., 1998). There are three prominent components of participatory action research (Hall, 1981) in which research, education, and actions are on the forefront of addressing sociological issues from a political perspective (as cited in Brydon-Miller, 1997). The results of participatory action research directly affect families, communities (Gaventa, 1988), and organizations (as cited in Brydon-Miller, 1997). The goal of participatory action research is to address the exploitation of oppressed individuals with a commitment to implement social change throughout a given community (Maguire, 1987).

There are ethical concerns associated to participatory action research in that informed consent, confidentiality, demonstrative power and democratization of the mutual inquiry is challenged. However, there are limitations and ethical considerations that should be addressed in any research study. Participatory action research is an applicable approach to conducting research when social or political areas of oppression are evaluated and reflected upon. Social and political injustices distress communities and cultures throughout the world; the integration of participatory action research is utilized to research, educate, and change these inequities in a democratic fashion.


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