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Can research students do participatory research?

This week, the first edition of Research For All journal has been published - a new journal for people interested in public engagement with research. Dr Kris Southby, a Research Officer in the Centre for Health Promotion Research at Leeds Beckett, has contributed an article for the journal, reflecting on his experience of conducting participatory research as a research degree student. In this blog post, Dr Southby discusses this issue, breaking down the benefits of participatory research as well as its challenges.

Participatory research involves including erstwhile research participants in the research process as more than just sources of data. Because it deviates from more ‘traditional’ methodological approaches, participatory research can present additional challenges. The question is whether research students can, or should, undertake participatory research that is likely to make an already challenging endeavour more complicated?

What is participatory research?

The idea of ‘research’ is to study a phenomenon in order to establish facts, develop insight and reach conclusions about it. The default route for most research conducted in the social sciences is for trained researchers to draw on their learned expertise to develop methods to establish facts and draw conclusions. Along the way, the objects of their enquiries – people – consent to allow investigators a glimpse into their lives. This approach, however, can be seen as detached, hierarchical and exploitative of those involved, and possibly not the best way to truly understand peoples’ lives. An alternative involves those being researched not simply been seen as sources of data but as integral parts of the research process, possibly contributing to decision making, project planning, research design, data collection and analysis, and dissemination.

The notion of involving participants in the research process can be traced back to the work of Kurt Lewin in the 1940s. ‘Participatory research’ emerged as a distinct methodological discipline in the 1970s. Since then, participatory methods have been applied in many different fields of study and now encompass a range of individual approaches. Although it may not quite be part of the academic mainstream, participatory research can be thought to have ‘come in from the cold’ and chimes with contemporary policy discourses of giving users a voice in decisions affecting their lives.

Why do participatory research?

The appeal of participatory research is two-fold. On the one hand, involving research subjects is thought to lead to more valid and insightful data that better captures the realities of their lives and is more likely to lead to change. On the other, participatory research is thought to be less exploitative of, and more beneficial for, research participants.

I first became aware of participatory research as a MA student, reading Barnes & Mercer’s (1997) book ‘Doing Disability Research’. As someone interested in social justice, it was revelatory to me to learn of a research paradigm designed to include and empower research participants and it was in this mode that I wanted to conduct my upcoming PhD study.

Whilst I felt I was forging a new path, I was, of course, not the first postgraduate student to be attracted to participatory research’s promise of meaningful collaboration with marginalised groups. Khobi & Flicker (2010), for example, describe having an interest in health inequalities and social justice and were motivated to become allies of, and undertake community-based participatory research with, young people with HIV/AIDS and young trans-gender people in Ontario, Canada. Likewise, Klocker (2012) was concerned about being a “colonising western researcher” investigating child domestic work in Tanzania. Participatory methods emerged as a way towards culturally relevant, sensitive action alongside three former child workers who were trained and employed as co-researchers.

The challenges of participatory research

Because participatory research deviates from the norm – from ‘traditional’ research conducted and managed exclusively by trained researchers – it can create challenges on top of those generally expected from doing research. For research degree students, and for less experienced researchers more generally, these can be especially significant. The challenges can broadly be grouped into two categories:

Academic. Participatory research subverts the construction of knowledge within academia. Knowledge and power is traditionally deemed to be held by individual ‘experts’ who have their expertise bestowed upon them via recognised training and qualifications. This top-down approach juxtaposes the bottom-up approach of participatory research, which focuses on locally defined priorities and perspectives. The competing agendas of an apparently individualistic academy and participatory research creates a dilemma for research students; research students retaining too much power in the research process potentially compromises the participatory nature of the research, whereas realigning power too far into the hands of participants runs the risk of a student’s work being regarded as lacking vigour, reliability, academic credibility, and failing!

Practical. Giving up power to participants also involves giving up control of the research process, which itself is hard to manage. The majority of reported examples of participatory research in literature are completed by experienced researchers or those with experience in the field. Participatory research requires researchers to work with and be accountable to community members, which can introduce different competing interests and priorities that are not present in more traditional approaches to research. Not only does participatory research subvert the researcher-researched relationship but also the supervisor-researcher relationship; supervisors may become embroiled with a whole community of ‘researchers’. Whilst all research requires an investment of time and effort, participatory research requires a greater investment; time and effort to develop relationships, maintain contact, and sustain involvement. Finally, despite the professed benefits of collaboration, communities may not always want, or be able, to participate in research. Communities rarely see the world in terms of research questions and students should not expect to corral members of the public into involvement.

Can research students do participatory research?

The appeal to do participatory research is strong but the additional challenges can make the already difficult process of a research degree even harder. When I set off to do my PhD research exploring the social inclusion potential of football fandom for people with a learning disability I aspired to a highly participatory process in which people with a learning disability were involved in key decisions along the way. However, when it came to doing the work, I was not willing and did not feel able to hand over control to participants; a steering group made up of participants was not set-up and I decided how the research would go. I was very aware that the process was testing me; that I was the one who would pass or fail at the end of the three years.

I do not consider my endeavour to include participants as more than just sources of data as a failure, however. Participatory research needs to be viewed as a continuum of potential involvement rather than binary ‘participatory’ and ‘non-participatory’ categories if it is to reach the lofty goals ascribed to it. A key principal of participatory research is the attitude of the researcher. Throughout the process participants were treated with respect and their contribution valued. I did not present myself as a wholly detached, impartial investigator and participants appeared to enjoy and value being involved.

I now work in the Centre for Health Promotion Research. Participation, co-construction, empowerment and enablement – the keystones of participatory research – are fundamental principles of health promotion research. Without the ‘lesser experience’ gained as a research degree student, the work I have since been able to do with colleagues alongside members of the community.

And so, whilst some might conclude that participatory research is not appropriate with research degrees, I do not believe this to be the case. Whilst some researchers – student or otherwise – may exhibit great skill and effort in engaging members of the community in the research process, others may fall short of such ambitions but still produce research that is useful and meaningful. Considering that research degrees are supposed to be training ground for future researchers, any attempt at participation should be encouraged.

About the Author

Dr Kris Southby

Kris is a Researcher Fellow in the Centre for Health Promotion Research.

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