10 tips on How to Design a Participative Research Process

Participative research (PR) is a research style, or as Peter Reason and Hilary Bradbury described it, “an orientation to inquiry” (2008, p.1) applied to make a positive social or organizational impact by involving the object of the research in the process.  PR is a bottom-up approach that aligns the power relations within the research process: the objects under study become research partners with rights in the decision-making. We can call it a knowledge-production process with the principles of openness, communication, empowerment, and collaboration. Citizen Jury, World Café, Participative System Mapping, Scenario Planning, and Rapid Rural Appraisal are some examples of the most used models, but it is important to underline, that PR is more an approach, than some concrete methodologies. Although the degree and the points of participation might vary, the consultative, collaborative and collegiate nature of PR makes it significantly different from conventional research methods. But how to build up a great PR process? Here are some tips!

  1. Use design thinking!

Design Thinking is a structure that urges you to use your creative abilities and transform difficult challenges into opportunities. It prioritizes the consumers’ needs above all else, thus it focuses on the people the process is creating for. Its five phases navigate the researcher through the challenges of development, while the process itself oscillates between divergent and convergent thinking modes to make new ideas available throughout the pathway. The first stage (Discovery) is about understanding the challenge and preparation. The second (Interpretation/Definition) is a convergent step in searching for meaning and telling concrete stories. The third phase (Ideation/Development) is divergent again, which is followed by the Experimentation/Delivery in form of making prototypes. Finally, there is a learning/ tracking phase, which gives the possibility to start an iterative cycle of feedback.

2. Plan your fieldwork precisely!

Before you start a session, create a step-by-step guideline containing also brain-energizers or ice-breakers. If it is a frontal event, thus the participants gather physically in a room, it is useful to check and prepare the location in advance. You can rearrange the desks and chairs in the room, if it is possible, and check out the digital equipment. In case of a bigger, event-like session, pay attention to the logistics, and brief the assistants, and the hostesses carefully. Prepare a precise agenda, and keep the time (if it is possible, you can ask a co-facilitator to be the timekeeper). At the beginning of the session set the ground rules and set the scene. As the facilitator, you will be responsible for getting things flowing, so prepare with some facilitation techniques! Keep up the momentum and energy, listen, engage and include all the participants as much as possible. Be conscious of how much control you want to exercise (PR works with a low level of control in general). Ask a colleague to be a rapporteur or use a recorder during the session to help the process of documentation.

3. Be reflexive and flexible!

In contrast to the linear and rigid conventional design, PR is reflexive and flexible. Since all the participants bring their knowledge and perspectives into the knowledge production, the researcher has to pay attention to subjective differences, so a continual self-reflection and reflective dialog becomes a necessity. Personal reflexivity can focus on personal assumptions, values, and experiences that shape the research. Unlike the conventional research processes, where the researcher remains objective and keeps distance, in the case of PR subjective is incorporated into the process (which is also a common criticism against this research style). In order to create trust, this is sometimes inevitable, so being self-reflexive becomes also important.

There is room for epistemological reflexivity too, which is more process and methodology-related (Borg et al, 2012). Flexibility means that compared to a linear structure, the procedure has to be aligned and shaped together with the participants. The researcher doesn’t work on a group, but with a group, so the level of control is shared with the participant.

4. Pay attention to engagement!

Don’t just involve participants as subjects of the research project! In the case of PR, the participants will have equal rights to make decisions, and be co-producers of the whole process. In order to engage the participants, identify the community interest, get to know the community setting and culture. Identify stakeholders and develop relationships with them! Be conscious of the communication! You can even design a communication campaign to increase engagement.

5. Ensure ethics and a safe space!

Anonymity and respect are very important because PR usually incorporates personal opinions, views, and experiences that can be in connection with sensitive or hurtful topics. In order to achieve openness, creating an atmosphere of trust is critical. Safe space means that the participants feel, that anything they say will have no harmful consequences for them. This results in responsibility for the researcher. Important to note, that even if a researcher guarantees ethical principles of justice and respect, there can be several unintended disadvantages for those who participate. PR can challenge established power in the community, it can affect the participants negatively through association with the project, but other consequences might also arise, like heightened awareness and increase unhappiness.

6. Foster empowerment of non-academic participants!

PR is about empowering those who are researched, giving them the possibility to share their often ignored knowledge or opinion and take action. PR can involve people who belong to vulnerable groups and marginalized communities, whose voices are rarely heard. PR gives the possibility to get out of the academic worldview and make better policy and better decisions related to a community, just by asking their members directly. Handling the participants as members of the project is an asset, that can lead to the discovery of hidden aspects, untold stories, and unforeseen cause-effect relationships. Pay attention to equitable participation: ensure mutual respect and shared responsibility negotiated among academic and non-academic partners.

7. Dare to be creative!

PR processes can involve different types of qualitative methods, and colorful facilitation techniques. Since knowledge production is collaborative, it is important to have a team spirit and a good atmosphere during the discussions. There are several models that have different strengths and weaknesses depending on the topic. Dare to experiment with different techniques, involve collaborative visual methods, and utilize ice breakers or brain energizers.

8. Prepare for unplanned situations!

A common critique against PR is, that exact planning is not possible, because of the less control over the process compared to the conventional scientific research methods. You have to prepare, that you might have to improvise and things might go in a different direction you planned. It can seem uncomfortable and risky, however, it is unavoidable, when it is about PR.

9. Validate your results!

Validating findings is the last step before closing a project or starting an iterative cycle before you make conclusions. Validation can happen with triangulation (applying other research methods for the same questions) or with a new participative session together with stakeholders. Some PR models like appreciative inquiry contain by default a validation round, where the questions under investigation are taken to a wider community by reaching out to the wider network of the participants.

10. Translate research knowledge into action!

Although PR does not equal Action Research that gravitates around collaborative action, and critical reflection, PR is also impact-oriented. It aims to bridge the knowledge-to-action gaps, thus, translating the results into practice. Utilizing the results and communicating them to the community (dissemination) are important steps to guarantee, that the PR process ends up in meaningful action, a positive impact on the community, or an effective change.

Recommended literature:

Bergold, J., & Thomas, S. (2012). Participatory research methods: A methodological approach in motion. Historical Social Research/Historische Sozialforschung, 191-222.

Borg, Marit, Karlsson, Bengt; Kim; Hesook Suzie & McCormack, Brendan (2012). Opening up for many voices in knowledge construction. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 13(1), Art. 1

Cornwall, A., & Jewkes, R. (1995). What is participatory research? Social science & medicine, 41(12), 1667-1676.

Heron, J., & Reason, P. (1997). A Participatory Inquiry Paradigm. Qualitative Inquiry, 3(3), 274-294.

Reason, Peter & Bradbury, Hilary (2008). Introduction. In Peter Reason & Hilary Bradbury (Eds.), The Sage handbook of action research. Participative inquiry and practice (2nd ed., pp.1-10). London: Sage.