Participatory Action Research

The iterative cycles in Participatory Action Research

The iterative cycles in PAR

Here I will try and provide a brief introduction to Participatory Action Research (PAR) as well as some reflections on the degree to which the tenets of PAR have become embedded in the development of the mental health recovery archive. 

My attraction to PAR has come from my emerging questions on the role of the Archivist in addressing injustices and marginalisations in the historical records and the fit with PAR's starting points in seeking to take a transformatory approach to dealing with injustice.  Put simply, PAR seeks to 'transform the world by trying to change it'  (Wikipedia, 2013). PAR is cultivated directly out of difficult social realities; it weaves into the situation the potential for change; involving the very people whose lives are affected in the change process itself.  Through progressive iterative cycles (as shown in the model opposite) participants collaboratively plan, act, observe, and reflect to actively make a difference.   

Within PAR the nature of the participation is fundamental to the development of the research methodology and considerations in relation to participatory involvement come under active and continued scrutiny within a PAR framework.  The methodology demands that those involved actively reflect on issues such as who is included in the change process?  Who can benefit from the action and who could potentially loose out because of it?  What is the relationship between participants?  What is the nature of the participants’ involvement?  What degree of freedom within the project is there for the participants to shape and push the boundaries of the project itself? The methodology demands that those involved reflect on their positionality within the action; and pay attention to the subtleties of power, control and authority running through the relationships.  The methodology encourages those involved to make themselves consciously aware of the influence of the wider environment and context in which the action is embedded.  A consideration of boundaries and constraint emerges as vital to the process itself.

If typologies of 'participatory practice' are examined from across the spectrum of literature that is written around PAR then (broadly speaking) processes that can align with a 'participatory' label are those where participants have been actively involved in every aspect of the change process including:

-The definition of the injustice itself

-The emergence and construction of shared understandings and frameworks for examining the injustice

-The design of actions to address the emerging issues

-And ongoing involvement in sustaining any enacted changes

Taking this into consideration I would suggest that PAR has been pivotal in informing and infusing the process behind the development of the mental health recovery archive.  It has been one of my major frames of reference, and iterative action research cycles of planning, action, observation and reflection have been firmly embedded as the main structure around which the project as a whole has been orientated.  However, in the following sections I will begin to address the extent to which the project (especially in its early stages) has actively aligned with the 'participatory' aspect of Participatory Action Research.  To indicate the question mark I have over this I see the methodology behind the mental health recovery archive as being (Participatory) Action Research.  The participatory is bracketed to indicate that the ideology has had a major influence, yet I have reservations over the degree to which I can claim that the process of creating the mental health recovery archive has emerged as 'participatory'.