Engaging in participatory action research (PAR) is, in many ways, a straightforward enterprise….. perhaps not altogether straightforward, but for a PAR researcher it makes absolute sense. It is part of her “everyday conduct” (Bradbury and Reason, 2008) to work with an inclusive ethos, to seek to collaborate with others and to share ideas and tackle issues in a democratic way. The challenge to this is not the co-researchers (although of course researcher relationships can be complex), nor is it the multi-paradigmatic minefields that try to categorise the wide and diverse field that is PAR/Action research/participatory research (these can be theorised and explained). It is the linear research and funding structures which bind and constrict PAR from being the mobile, agile and fluid methodology that it can be and should be. Allowing for “mess” (Cook, 2009) in PAR allows for the space within which collaborative and democratic enquiry can germinate and flourish. Without this freedom, this permission to create chaos as part of the research process, PAR loses the potential of its transformative power.
In a participatory research workshop I recently attended, I found my attention diverted by the words being used in our discussions; words that play a large role in research evaluation, funding and assessment processes….words such as “sample size”, “qualify” and “measure”. These were not words that were being embraced by participatory researchers around the table; rather these were words that we felt had to be navigated in order to fulfil criteria set for a world in which research is linear, produces quantifiable outputs and draws a neat conclusion. As a PAR researcher I have an aversion to the alleged orderliness of this type of research. If it involves others in an equitable way, how will it be neat? If it is multi-directional rather than forward-moving, how can it be linear? More importantly, if it is scaleable, generalizable and sits comfortably within a single paradigm, is it research I wish to engage with?
The answer, clearly, is no. I am drawn to PAR because I have the need to engage creatively and collectively in my research. I prefer to work as “we”, connected with others. This often means making a significant personal investment and taking a risk. The involvement of others and desire for change invariably leads to some confusion and, maybe even failure, certainly at the outset. But following one’s instinct to allow the mess and complication to be re-framed through collaborative discussion and reflection can lead to some of the richest and most surprising research findings. As one of my co-researchers on my doctoral project said “That crucible of research development with colleagues in cooperative endeavour is indispensable to the project”. I cannot make any promises that my reactions to words I object to will diminish, nor that my quest for messy collaboration and complicated transformation will falter. Sorry. Not sorry.
Thoughts following a UKPRN meeting held at Nottingham University where the issue of the ‘impact agenda’ was the topic for the afternoon.
References: Reason, P., Bradbury, H. and Bradbury, H., 2008. Concluding reflections: whither action research. Handbook of Action Research, pp.695-707. Cook, T., 2009. The purpose of mess in action research: building rigour though a messy turn. Educational Action Research, 17(2), pp.277-291.