Participatory Action Research: When Research isn’t Just for Learning

Participatory Action Research: When Research isn’t Just for Learning

Research is about learning – it helps us discover new things, form new ideas, and expand our understanding of the world. But what if research could do more than that?

Participatory action research (PAR) shows us that it certainly can. By working hand-in-hand with communities to gather information, reflect on it, and create solutions, action reearch goes beyond learning – it activates change.

There are 3 key ways in which PAR is fundamentally different from traditional research.

  1. There are no subjects here! Traditional research has “subjects”; in PAR, participants take the lead in planning, conducting and analyzing research for their own use. Rather than collecting information from participants, the process builds capacity and knowledge among participants.
  2. Will the real experts please stand up? Traditional research calls for detached and objective experts; in PAR, participants themselves are seen as the experts because they have deep knowledge and insight – and a stake in gathering relevant, practical data.
  3. Research can BE the change. The goals of PAR are not just to gather and analyze information, but to engage the community in thinking together to find practical solutions. Not only does the process create ownership and commitment to address issues of common concern, but it can itself change attitudes and perceptions.

PAR has been used around the world to work on issues ranging from health and environment to community development and occupational safety. Here is an example of a project I worked on to combine participatory action research with social marketing to prevent intimate partner violence.

There are a range of ways to gather information in PAR. Some are similar to methods used in traditional research, such as surveys, interviews, focus groups. Others are less structured, informal means of getting insight.

  • See for yourself: Observation in natural settings provides deep insight into behavior and culture.
  • Ask the experts: Every community has formal and informal leaders, those who understand what makes people tick, how things work, and how to get things done.
  • Dive deep: Case studies allow us to take a deeper dive into a particular issue, effort, or community.
  • Map it out: Mapping is a great tool for understanding how a community is organized and how different areas are perceived.
  • Draw it out: Diagramming can identify important individuals and institutions within in a community and their relationships and influence.
  • Act it out: Participatory theatre, photo/video projects, and other art forms can be used to identify and analyze problems as well as explore solutions.

While PAR may not be as expensive as formal research, it can be resource intensive because it requires time, engagement, and broad community effort. But, it can be very impactful for those very same reasons. To learn more about PAR and how to use it to create change in your community, contact

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About the Author:

Aparna Ramakrishnan has 20 years of experience developing and evaluating social sector programs. As Principal at Devi Partners, she provides expertise and technical assistance in strategy, communications, partnerships, research and evaluation to nonprofits, government agencies, and other organizations that do good.
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