Whilst traditional research is justifiable in many situations (such as academic research and controlled studies), it makes the assumption that research is the job of a researcher; and that the people or community being researched are the object of the research. This assumption often means that research findings are published in a way that makes them inaccessible to the people who the research is on. Traditional research also risks findings being based upon the interpretation of a research professional; and can fail to understand and present the true experiences of real people.
Participatory Action Research
In contrast Participatory Action Research is underpinned by the idea that:
• Research takes place in real life situations and acknowledges that there is a need for change when real life problems are identified.
• It seeks to pursue action (change/ improvement) and research (understanding).
• Action Research is the process of acting (implementing plans), observing and measuring, reflecting, re-planning; and repeating until the group is satisfied with the outcome.
• Research should be an inclusive process that includes stakeholders as ‘co-researchers’.
• People interpret and explain their own perceptions, avoiding professional interpretation and assisting in co-production
• Offers the ability to identify outcomes, whilst also scanning for new opportunities based upon past and present experiences.
• Can be used to establish an initial baseline.
• Ongoing evaluation process.
How Might Action Research Work?
First of all it is necessary to understand that Participatory Action Research is not a one size fits all approach, it is flexible and can involve different methods depending on your project. A first time Action Research Project will probably require some help from someone with some experience or training in research methods or Action Research, but once your project is set up and members get a better understanding of how Action Research works in practice, the group should be able to self-sustain.
The Role of the Researcher or ‘Facilitator’
• Support the work of co-researchers and offer methodology advice if necessary.
• Oversee the process to ensure that deadlines are met and that the terms of engagement are understood by all involved.
• Communicate and construct findings, without removing them from their intended context; this might be done through presenting narratives or findings that have been approved by the participant.
• Helping to ensure that the necessary questions are asked and encouraging local participants to reflect upon relevant issues.
• Relating the local situation to the larger external situation.
• Share findings with the right people, this includes the participants and any relevant decision makers.
Some Key Principles
Action Research involves identifying a problem and deconstructing the problem to understand how people perceive it. It then seeks to overcome the problem by re-forming actions in a new way; based upon your consultation. The process of Participatory Action Research is underpinned by the idea that services and actions should be co-designed or co-produced by the community, group or service user they are intended for.
Co-production: to develop a service, strategy or project with an equal relationship; and shared responsibility between professionals and service users/ the community.
Identify Your Problem: Seek to involve all stakeholders and affected parties in identifying problems, and as each participant explains their experience a more holistic picture is created.
Define Your Research Method and Identify Participants: It is important that when designing your research that the methods are guided by consultation with the people who the research will affect. Identify who your stakeholders are and find out what is important to them!
Your research can include both ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ outcomes, and although Action Research is usually qualitative, it can incorporate quantitative measures.
Quantitative: Refers to research data that is numerical or measurable, this can be collected from closed questions (questions with pre-defined answers such as ‘yes’ or ‘no’); or counting the number of times something occurs; or number of people in attendance.
This is your opportunity to encourage people to reflect upon the current situation, find out how people feel and what they would like to see done differently. Depending on your methodology, you might use surveys, questionnaires or interviews to help you do this. By engaging with participants and ‘co-researchers’ from different backgrounds, each person helps to contribute to the bigger picture. Through describing the situation in their own context, each participant can help to offer alternative opinions and different perspectives. Engaging with the exercise as a ‘co-researcher’ opens up the opportunity for organisations and individuals to question and reconsider their own current actions and beliefs on the subject.
Time to Formulate a New Action or Change
The De Bono’s 6 thinking hats tool works well as a guide to help you structure your inquiry and proposed action. Remember to document how and why you have come to your conclusions. This process should be agreed upon by your participants.
Carry Out your Action/ Change
Having decided and agreed upon your new action it’s time to put it into action. Not forgetting to continually monitor how it is affecting the people and situation.
Circulate and Further Evaluate
Provide feedback of the findings to everyone involved, this can be done by creating a ‘peoples Literature’ or hosting a publicity event that consolidates agreed upon findings and offers an opportunity to feedback or propose future actions. This is an important part of Participatory Action Research as it demonstrates the shared ownership and accountability of the project.
As the Action Research Process is a continual process, presenting findings can highlight areas for further development; leading on to the next ‘loop’ of the cycle. Ultimately, by solving small problems around a major issue makes the major issue easier to tackle.
#StrongerRhondda Listening Project
The #StrongerRhondda Listening Project is a Participatory piece of Action Research that intends to improve educational attainment by building confidence, skills and aspirations in young local people (age 14-25).
The project will use young people in the local area to carry out Action Research by engaging with other young people to discuss and document their experiences using a tool called SenseMaker®. It seeks to understand what it is like for young people living in the Rhondda, what is available to young people, what are the barriers to achieving personal goals and what might they like to see different. It will then use these experiences’ to create evidence and address issues such as a lack of opportunities for young people; based on what people think, feel and need.
Who are the respondents/ co-researchers and why?
In this case, co-researchers are young people from the local area, including volunteers, members of local community groups and students working towards their Welsh Baccalaureate. These people have been identified as co-researchers as young people tend to have better access to their own peer groups and often (not always) it is less intimidating for respondents to discuss issues with their peers rather than an adult. Also by young people taking part in the project, it is intended that they will gain valuable experience, confidence and awareness about issues affecting young people.
This project uses a tool called SenseMaker®, which works by asking open questions to get respondents to discuss and explain what it was like for them growing up in Rhondda. The individual telling the story then proceeds to explain what their story means to them, how it makes them feel and why they feel that way; and what they would like to see different.
It then uses a self-signification tool that allows people to explain what the narrative means to them. This makes sure that the story can be understood the way that the respondent intended; and provides an additional tool for quantitative analysis.
The survey has been designed by a researcher who is overseeing the project, but has been tested with young people and developed in a way that it is user friendly and relevant to the issues identified by young people in the area.
Self-signification means to allow the respondent to define what their response means to them. In this case the respondent explains their experience and then plots on a chart how the experience made them feel and who they believe is responsible.
Formulate an Action
Based upon the data collected, taking into account the positives and concerns raised by young people and the requests for change; the issue has been raised that many local youth groups are not available to new members. It has been proposed that there should be more availability of youth groups that are open to all young people.
Carry Out Change
With the cooperation of partner groups, the project will seek to increase availability and access to groups to satisfy demand and increase youth engagement with organised groups.
Circulate And Further Evaluate
An event showcasing the work of the project is to be held, involving partner organisations, young people involved in the project and the wider community. This will provide the opportunity to celebrate what has been achieved so far, but will also be a chance to discuss future cycles of Action Research.
More Case Studies
Public Health Wales and Co-Production Wales (2016)Seeing is Believing: Introduction. Available at: http://www.goodpractice.wales/co-production-catalogue-from-wales (Accessed 08/02/16).
Kemmis, S. and McTaggart, R. (1988) The Action Research Planner (Eds), 3rd Edition. Victoria: Deakin University.
Tilakaratna, S. (1990) ‘A Short Note On Participatory Research’, United Nations and Government of Sri Lanka, Community Participation Programme, Colombo, Sri Lanka, 6th January. Available at: http://www.caledonia.org.uk/research.htm (Accessed 08/02/16).
Wadsworth, Y. (1997) Everyday Evaluation on the Run 2nd Edition. Allen and Unwin: Australia.