What is 'Participatory'?

  • 'Participatory' ensures not only that all voices are heard, but that they are also understood in every stage of arriving at a public outcome;
  • 'Participatory' is clear about who contributes to a public decision and who later evaluates the results of that decision;
  • 'Participatory' is fair, inclusive and free of status—no matter the source;
  • 'Participatory' elucidates the social construction of perspective; and,
  • 'Participatory' calibrates future action against previous on the ground observable experience.

What is Participatory Research?

Participatory research is direct conversation with real people about their community and landscape.  Participatory research involves on the ground reflective inquiry with real people on their 'home' turf and in spaces that are comfortable for them to explain what they know.  Participatory research is effective in eliciting sociocultural patterns to inform public planning. 

Gaining access to local knowledge requires trust, rapport and sound ethnographic approaches. The resulting scientific evidence reflects local mental models of community, individuation and the landscape. Information is gathered through the act of narrative—the recounting of actual experience.  Telling one's story or a community's shared story and being heard is a critical missing link in much of what constitute's survey research. Survey research generally begins with a deductive theory and rarely captures the range of factual evidence required to reach scientific consensus by all parties affected. 

Participatory research is largely qualitative research, but not exclusively so.  Evidence may also be quantifiable.  Participatory research relies on inductive reasoning to make sense of observable evidence as experienced by a community and stakeholders in joint inquiry.  Sound protocols [link] exist to ensure credible, valid, reliable and confirmable results by third parties.

PAR is the missing link.  A synthesis of secondary sources and PAR results can greatly improve the information base used to make public decisions.

For a library of PAR tools:  See PAR Resources[cross check this link]

Origins and Philosophy

PAR emerges from several concurrent efforts to bring academic inquiry into practical application to solve real world problems.  A primary catalyst has been the good will and insight of international development and public health professionals grappling with practical tools for community engagement in a wide range of cultural and physical settings.  PAR achieves something quite essential in good public decision-making; PAR is a means to validate 'intellectual' effort that includes the intricate knowledge developed through shared, lived experience in a particular setting (Paolo Freire, 1921-1997).  Ideally, PAR practitioners and their clients …

  • Build and mutually protect trust above all else;
  • Are clear about who owns the results;
  • Are clear about who contributes to and who evaluates the results of a public decision;
  • Give over the tools for describing conditions and possible futures;
  • Are positive, optimistic, solution-oriented;
  • Believe that trying for the best of worlds is better than not trying;
  • Create 'uniquely local'™ solutions;
  • Find the missing voices and make sure they are heard at the ‘table’ of public deliberation;
  • Are involved in direct conversation one-on-one and in groups;
  • Engage each other ‘in the field’ of real peoples’ spaces and outside of “built” environment unless locally intrinsic in style and architecture;           
  • Are time sensitive and aware of natural rhythms without a dependence on watching the clock or looking at a calendar;
  • Engage each other where people naturally gather and where members of social networks overlap their presence at particular times in the same place;
  • Embrace stillness and reflection on our ‘selves;’
  • See beyond status  (They are authentic and not pretentious);
  • Brings to life a perspective on what is ‘real’ that includes the social construction of belief, habit and action;
  • Look at the relationship between actions in community and the landscape as well as the material results;
  • Explore how meaning is expressed and created in a social and physical setting;
  • Become attuned to what matters most, what works and are sensitive to way of life and the voice of experience;
  • Do no harm;
  • Are forward looking to what might work so as to avoid the trap of what is not working;
  • Accentuate strengths in the community and individuals;
  • Are holistic and systems oriented;
  • Highlight place-based notions and outcomes;
  • Listen at least once deeply to all the ideas–new and old–and from all the generations;
  • Clearly discuss bias and consensus; and,
  • Seek to jointly apply neutral rigorous research protocols to reach neutral science-based results.

epi's Participatory Strategies Group (PSG)[link] plans to host an illustrated wiki entitled:  'Principles of Best Practice in Participatory Research' to refine these stated ideals.

Note: The Institute employs the terms PAR, participatory research and participatory action research interchangeably to refer to a common set of field practices.