Participatory Research and Southern Pragmatic Action Research

We begin with an analysis of participatory research (PR) and participatory action research (PAR), a set of approaches that came into existence as a critique of inequality and a practice of liberation set within the framework of a model of class struggle. Though such practices and struggle exist in wealthy countries, these approaches are particularly practiced in poor countries.

The writers and schools mentioned here do not form a coherent set. These approaches differ substantially in their views of power, social stratification, and poverty. But they do share a set of fundamental disagreements with conven­tional and hegemonic approaches to development and the rationalization of organizational structures. They all build on a sharply political or economic analysis of power relations and the affirmation that significant social change occurs only if power has changed hands and reduced inequality. For these practitioners, simply getting along better or mediating conflicts is not enough to constitute sustainable social change.

Terminology is hard to manage here. Southern is an ambiguous term that has clearer moral content than it does geographical referents. In invoking the South, this group of practitioners symbolizes its alignment with the poor and oppressed of the world, wherever they are found. (North and South are not really geographical referents but really refer to the haves and the have nots and so there is a significant South in the North. See Chapter 2.) There are also ter­minological problems with participatory action research and participatory research. For some, these terms are different. For others, they are two names for the same general kinds of practice. For still others, it is necessary to add the term Southern to distinguish these practices from what has, unfortunately we think, been called “participatory action research” in the North, forms of prac­tice that many believe to have been co-opted and collaborationist with power holders.2 We have held on to the adjective Southern in this chapter mainly to emphasize the explicit political intentions of these forms of practice and to show our respect for these political agendas.


For many thinkers in industrialized countries, democratization is an ongoing process that furthers the inclusion of groups in self-determining polit­ical processes (that is, a standard liberal view). Others in the North and many in poor countries view the liberation of oppressed people as the sine qua non of democratization, however. Rather than seeing poverty as the result of a lack of inclusion, insufficient education, and inadequate infrastructure, these thinker-actors see poverty as the systemic outcome of the oppression of many by wealthy and powerful domestic and international elites. This view of the world rests on the belief that inequalities and injustices will not vanish simply because a group of people decides it wants something better or because a well- intentioned outsider comes in to encourage change.

From the Southern vantage point, international development projects, whatever marginal changes they may create in poor countries and poor regions, are not the road to meaningful social change. The only serious answer to poverty and oppression is a fundamental alteration in the distribution of power and money. This sharp and unshakable political focus characterizes Southern PAR approaches and, ultimately, links them closely to radical feminism.

These approaches rest on varieties of neo-Marxist views of the world that stress class conflict, the role of modes of production, the commodization of labor, and the depredations of international capitalism. These are the key ingredients in explaining and maintaining the poverty of most countries in Latin America and Africa, parts of Asia, and the miserably poor parts of most rich, capitalist countries. They also explain the current increasing gap between rich and poor in rich countries.

A logical consequence of these views is that Southern PAR approaches usually begin with a study of the distribution of wealth and the consequent dis­tribution of exposure to risk. Existing public institutions are distrusted and generally viewed as protectors of an unjust order, unless a detailed analysis of the case shows otherwise. The suspect institutions include schools and univer­sities, churches, governments and governmental agencies, most intergovern­mental international development programs, and businesses.

Thus, work in this approach proceeds from an externally promoted analy­sis of the conditions of poverty and oppression to the design of interventions in local settings. This local intervention often (but not always) begins as a kind of mobilization effort, with the outsiders playing the role of consciousness rais­ers and catalysts for local discussions. Sometimes, this takes the form of the outsider coming in to support insiders who have already begun to take these steps. In other cases, the outsider arrives with the agenda of provoking and organizing change.

The work involves the external agent in preliminary analyses of the causes of the local situation that are fed back to local people to create the space and appetite for their own analysis of the causes of their situation. From this analy­sis, plans of action are derived. In some situations, Southern PAR takes the form of adult education or literacy programs in which the instruction centers on dis­cussion and analysis of the conditions leading to local poverty and oppression. There are many other paths to follow, including working with nongovernmental organizations, churches, and many different kinds of local actors.

Unlike standard revolutionary praxis or conventional labor organizing tactics, Southern PAR values and relies much more on the knowledge, analy­ses, and efforts of local people. Rather than treating them only as victims (though their victimization is not denied), Southern PAR practitioners build their work on respect for the integrity and resiliency of local people and their culture. Their premise is that local knowledge of the situation is authentic, detailed, and valuable, an idea that many external organizers, who are sure they know what is good for the “people,” routinely ignore. Southern PAR processes begin with a challenge that is initially addressed by bringing groups of local people together to discuss and analyze their situation. From these analyses emerge agendas for research and social change, but these agendas are the joint product of the outsider and the local people.

This focus on local knowledge is essential to Southern PAR. Although local knowledge is occasionally treated romantically in this approach, the underly­ing aim is to promote respect for it and, through this, to level the relationship between the outside agents and local people in a way that opens them up to collaborative efforts. That knowledge is local and grows out of intense personal experiences makes it respectable and encourages outsiders to listen to what it says and to try to build on what it offers. Put another way, this approach to local knowledge credits the poor and oppressed with having intelligence and analytical capabilities that are generally ignored. Thus, it necessarily explains their poverty not in terms of their ignorance or laziness, but in terms of oppression. In this regard, the approach is very much in line with the many other approaches to AR discussed in this book and accords with the conven­tional anthropological premise that all people everywhere have complex and well-organized understandings of the worlds they live in.

Building from this local knowledge and the interaction between the out­sider’s knowledge and local people’s knowledge, a cogenerative dialogue begins that can transform the views of both. The outsider’s view is necessarily abstract

and often wrong about a number of the concrete impediments to local action. The insider’s view is often so concrete (and occasionally homogenized by local activists) that it seems to offer only an explanation for poverty with no scope for action. The dialogue between the two perspectives can create a shared sense of locations where practical interventions are possible.

When this point is reached, the analysis often gives way to a focus on research. The outsider and the local people share some frames of reference about the problems faced and can assess and mobilize their resources for con­fronting them. Because ignorance (backed up by impoverishment) is one of the strongest weapons in oppressive systems, this phase frequently involves training local people in certain research methods and helping them gain con­fidence in their ability to investigate together the sources of their problems. They often must gather, analyze, and present evidence that supports their claims against the wishes of powerful business and political interests. Research is a weapon in this struggle, and this research is sometimes dangerous enough to have to be carried out surreptitiously.

Research training is never abstracted from the context. In the vein of adult education, the training focuses on the concrete and immediate problems that people face. Sometimes literacy training is an element in this process. In other situations, local people become social researchers by using voice recorders and video to document their conditions. No matter the form, the message is the same. Local people are intelligent, capable of rational analysis of their situa­tion, able to conduct research aimed at improving their conditions, and they have the fundamental right to change their situations for the better. Research gives them a new voice to use in their struggles.

Throughout this process, the outside action researcher plays a mixed role as instigator, process manager, advocate for groups not yet fully included, trainer in research methods, and, often, chronicler of the activities. This is a complex, high-profile role that contains many in-built conflicts. As an edu­cated person with the wealth to move around at will, this individual is neces­sarily seen as a representative of a category of outsiders with whom local experience has generally been negative and oppressive. Even when this barrier is overcome to some degree, there are still behavioral routines to be dealt with: behaviors of obeisance to educated outsiders (linked with hiding information about local situations), hostility to these outsiders, lack of confidence in local abilities, local power arrangements that are threatened by these new coalitions, racism, and so on.

As the chronicler of the process, the outsider often is in the position to influence unduly how the process is conceptualized and presented externally. The questions of voice and representation are particularly vexing in these con­texts. If the insiders are at risk for attempting to change an oppressive system, the outsider may be viewed by authorities as a troublemaker, revolutionary, or even terrorist. The process is complex, often uneven, and occasionally genuinely dangerous.

Despite these difficulties, there is much to show for efforts that have been conducted in this way. One of the most important and well-known practition­ers is Orlando Fals Borda. Building on his own commitments as an intellectual and an academic on the side of democratization and social justice, Fals Borda moved out of the university system into direct action in rural communities in Latin America. He has provided a public record of both his thinking and some of the many projects he and his colleagues have engaged in (Fals Borda & Rahman, 1991; Hall, Gillette, & Tandon, 1982; Park, Brydon-Miller, Hall, & Jackson, 1993). Not only do his writings document a theory of practice and a set of cases of interventions that have had desirable effects, but he has taken the attempt further by linking his own views and experiences to those of other practitioners working in Latin America, Asia, and Africa. As a result, through Fals Borda one can gain a view of the practice of liberation-oriented PAR that is applied to the lives of the poor.

Other practitioners who have written effectively for a general audience on these issues are L. David Brown and Rajesh Tandon (1993). They attempt to clarify the value of some distinctions among conventional research, participa­tory research, and PAR, and they base their analysis on long familiarity with concrete situations of poverty and oppression around the world. Hall, Gillette, and Tandon (1982), Freire (1970), Park, Brydon-Miller, Hall, and Jackson (1993), and Gabarr6n and Hernandez (1994) can all be read with profit.


The reader should be aware of the problematic relationships among Southern and Northern practitioners. The recent rapid resurgence of AR in the North has caused many Southern activists to worry legitimately about co­optation of their perspectives in the North for the purpose of obscuring and blunting democratic initiatives. This is not an idle concern. We have all wit­nessed the co-optation of what were originally left-wing critiques and methods by oppressive forces (for example, participatory development, sustainable development, human rights, and feminism, all of which have been relentlessly subjected to efforts at co-optation and domestication).

For example, in the private sector in industrialized countries, one way of achieving the currendy fashionable goal of total quality management is by involving the workforce more fully in the business. This is often framed as increasing participation, and recently, some conventional organizational devel­opment consultants have begun calling their work “participatory action research.” In most cases, participation means only that workers and other subor­dinates take on greater and broader responsibilities while gaining little or no greater control over decision making. Under these conditions, allusions to participation and to AR are disingenuous because they are not built on an inten­tion to democratize the organization or to increase social justice. One of the greatest benefits to Northern practitioners arising from interactions with Southern practitioners is to make us more alert to these processes of co-optation.

Having acknowledged the value of the Southern perspective, though, we do not accept an equation between work in the North and co-optation and work in the South and freedom from it. If we believed that all AR in the North was necessarily co-opted, we would not be AR practitioners. Our experience is that AR in core sectors of industrialized societies can engage issues of partici­pation and democratization as seriously as in the South. In these cases, the strategies differ to a degree (reflecting different levels of literacy and poverty), the issues are focused differently (advocacy, public awareness, use of existing institutions for new ends), and the results much more often involve ameliora­tive rather than revolutionary change. Still, the social changes are real and the analyses of power relations and oppression are not dissimilar. Being controlled by a wealthy group of executives, even if the worker has a tolerable standard of living, is still being oppressed. To ignore or deny the rights of these oppressed people simply because there are poorer people elsewhere in the world is callous.

Of course, situations of oppression in parts of the South are terrifyingly bad in many cases. Poverty, oppression, and death under conditions of pro­found governmental corruption, the use of a national military to oppress local communities, the interests of foreign and domestic capital in maintaining a cheap labor force, ongoing colonialism, illiteracy, and starvation all make the problems of the North appear less severe. But the racially oppressed, the homeless, the drug addicted, the abused, and the illiterate in the North are oppressed, as are the workers in factories run by executives who use participa­tion as a cover-up for speed-ups, downsizing, union busting, massive executive compensation, and the use of company resources to corrupt the political sys­tem, as are middle managers who are being replaced with cheaper labor that is more easily manipulated. Oppression is oppression everywhere it is found, South or North.

Source: Greenwood Davydd J., Levin Morten (2006), Introduction to Action Research: Social Research for Social Change, SAGE Publications, Inc; 2nd edition.

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