Participatory Action Research

People sitting at a desk reading

Meet Sean Peacock, who researches how children and young people can be more involved in making the places around them, using an action research methodology.

Participatory action research (PAR) is a research paradigm centred around involving participants as collaborators in research to enact social change. Emerging as early as the 1940s and gaining relevance during the 1970s cultural turn, PAR seeks to radically subvert the inherent power dynamic in traditional research approaches by critically assessing the participant-researcher relationship and “paying attention to ordinary people’s knowledge” (Fals-Borda, 2006:28). Scholars such as Swantz (2007) assert that PAR practices emerged not from one single disciplinary origin but rather through a cultural moment which acknowledges the importance of standing beside those experiencing oppression and inequality and recognising their equal partnership in knowledge production.

PAR asks reflexive questions about whose ‘voice’ matters in the research process through methodological innovation and infusing community expertise with academic tools and research methods (Kindon et al., 2009). The level of involvement of research participants varies according to context, aims and project resources. That said, PAR studies share several underlying assumptions:

  • Formal education is not necessary to take part in valuable research.
  • Those who have lived experience of an issue or system are experts and therefore are best placed to contribute to related research.
  • Involvement of non-academics in research design and production can improve research by reducing biases and bringing new insights and perspectives (Organizing Engagement, 2021).

Theoretically, participatory action research unifies and transcends social psychology, feminism, Marxism, anarchism, phenomenology, and classical theories of participation and centres the idea of science as socially constructed (Fals-Borda, 2006). It is used across a range of disciplines including Human Geography, Creative Arts Practice and Public Health and can involve both qualitative and quantitative research methods. Commonly used methods within PAR include participatory workshops, group analysis techniques and photovoice.

Key benefits of conducting PAR include the ability to incorporate the lived experience of individuals and communities within social change and thus better address community-identified concerns (Balazs and Morello-Frosch, 2017). PAR calls for a breakdown between subject and object in research, viewing those involved in research as 'thinking-feeling-persons' rather than merely 'participants’ (Fals-Borda, 2006).

There are also many considerations within PAR, including the high financial and time cost (Raynor, 2019) and the reliance on strong rapport and community relationships. Building trust and rapport with community partners can result in more ethical and equitable knowledge production however requires careful ethical negotiation and should not be pursued as a token of ‘collaboration’ or in a transactional manner.

An example of Participatory Action Research can be found in the work of Rachel Pain and the Paper Dolls Research Group, a project investigating chronic trauma and domestic abuse through group discussion and creative methods.



  • Balazs and Morello-Frosch, (2017) The Three Rs: How Community-Based Participatory Research Strengthens the Rigor, Relevance, and Reach of Science, Environmental Justice, 6(1), pp.9-22.
  • Fals-Borda, O., (2006). Participatory (Action) Research in Social Theory: Origins and Challenges, in Bradbury, H., and Reason, P., eds, (2006) Handbook of Action Research: Concise Paperback Edition, London: SAGE.
  • Kindon, S., Pain, R. and Kesby, M. (2009) 'Participatory Action Research', in Kitchin, R. and Thrift, N. (eds.) International Encyclopedia of Human Geography. Oxford: Elsevier, pp. 90-95
  • Organizing Engagement, (2021). Participatory Action Research and Evaluation, Available at: <> (Accessed 11th February 2021)
  • Raynor, K., (2019). Participatory Action Research and Early Career Researchers: The Structural Barriers to Engagement and Why We Should Do It Anyway, Planning Theory & Practice, 20(1), pp. 130-136
  • Swantz, M., (2008). Participatory Action Research as Practice, in: Bradbury, H., and Reason, P., eds, (2006) Handbook of Action Research: Concise Paperback Edition, London: SAGE. 2nd ed.

Page edited by Kieran Cutting – PhD Candidate, Open Lab.