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Participatory action research has emerged in recent years as a significant methodology for intervention, development and change within communities and groups. It is now promoted and implemented by many international development agencies and university programs, as well as countless local community organizations around the world.

"Essentially Participatory Action Research (PAR) is research which involves all relevant parties in actively examining together current action (which they experience as problematic) in order to change and improve it. They do this by critically reflecting on the historical, political, cultural, economic, geographic and other contexts which make sense of it. … Participatory action research is not just research which is hoped will be followed by action. It is action which is researched, changed and re-researched, within the research process by participants. Nor is it simply an exotic variant of consultation. Instead, it aims to be active co-research, by and for those to be helped. Nor can it be used by one group of people to get another group of people to do what is thought best for them - whether that is to implement a central policy or an organisational or service change. Instead it tries to be a genuinely democratic or non-coercive process whereby those to be helped, determine the purposes and outcomes of their own inquiry." - Wadsworth, Y. (1998) What is Participatory Action Research?

The "research" aspects of PAR attempt to avoid the traditional “extractive” research carried out by universities and governments where “experts” go to a community, study their subjects, and take away their data to write their papers, reports and theses. Research in PAR is ideally BY the local people and FOR the local people. Research is designed to address specific issues identified by local people, and the results are directly applied to the problems at hand.

PAR proceeds through repeated cycles, in which researchers and the community start with the identification of major issues, concerns and problems, initiate research, originate action, learn about this action and proceed to a new research and action cycle. This process is a continuous one. Participants in Action Research projects continuously reflect on their learning from the actions and proceed to initiate new actions on the spot. Outcomes are very difficult to predict from the outset, challenges are sizeable and achievements depend to a very large extent on researcher’s commitment, creativity and imagination.

PAR should not be confused with PRA - participatory rural appraissal. PRA is an assessment technique that could form part of a PAR process, but does not encompass the full action-reflection cycle.


PAR has many of its roots in social psychology. It builds on the Action research and Group Dynamics models developed by psychologist Kurt Lewin in the early-to-mid 1900s. At its core, PAR revolves around three sets of relationships: relations between individuals within communities and groups, relations between those groups and communities, and relations between people and their physical environment. Management of group dynamics in its many aspects thus plays a central role in PAR processes, and PAR practitioners/facilitators must have a strong foundation in this field.

PAR builds on the critical pedagogy put forward by Paulo Freire as a response to the traditional formal models of education where the “teacher” stands at the front and “imparts” information to the “students” that are passive recipients. This was further developed in "adult education" models throughout Latin America. Friere (1990) wrote,

"The silenced are not just incidental to the curiosity of the researcher but are the masters of inquiry into the underlying causes of the events in their world. In this context research becomes a means of moving them beyond silence into a quest to proclaim the world.”

PAR has very strong emancipatory leanings developed within movements such as liberation theology. Participatory methods were an intrinsic part of base christian communities (comunidades eclesiásticas del base) set up after the Second Vatican Council by more 'radical' Catholic priests within Latin America (e.g. Guttierez, the Boffs, Sobrino and many others.) This movement saw participatory citizenship as a means of challenging subordination and marginalization, and re-interpreted the role of the church in its engagement with the world.

Antonio Gramsci is less known for, yet very important in contrtibuting to PAR. Gramsci, writing in early 20th century Italy, argued that all people are intellectuals and philosophers. "Organic intellectuals" is how he terms people who take their local knowledge from life experiences, and use that knowledge to address changes and problems in society. The idea that PAR researchers are really co-learners and researchers with the people they meet in the research process promotes the validity that all people are intellectuals who develop intricate philosophies through lived experience.

PAR also has its roots in phenomenology and postmodernism. These movements validated experience as a valid way of knowing, very much the foundation of the “action-reflection” model of Experiential learning and the PAR process. PAR is part of an important shift in paradigm from the traditional, positivist, science paradigm which arose to bring certainty and verifiability to research questions, to postpositivism which recognizes and tries to address complex human and social problems.

Finally, PAR has origins within the development discourse.

Recent developments[]

PAR has evolved through the 1990s and into the 21st century as it has been applied to various fields within international development. For example, participatory plant breeding (PPB) and participatory technology development (PTD) are two techniques that utilize PAR approaches. More methods have been developed to add nuance and solidify key processes of "how" to do PAR, such as participatory development communication (PDC). Practitioners have also recently tried to move away from the word "research" because of its extractive connotations and abstract meaning to many community and group members. Thus new names (with some new elements) are being used, such as "participatory action learning", "participatory learning-action", and "participatory action development".

PAR is a popular method used in teaching adult learners in low-income communities, and others how to explore, challenge, and react to their own needs. It is gaining popularity among community youth workers, as well as middle and senior high school teachers as a successful methodology for engaging youth voice in the classroom. According to Torre & Fine (2005), "Youth PAR projects are typically centered on issues of intimate, structural violence: educational justice, access to quality healthcare, the criminalization of youth, gang violence, police brutality, race/gender/sexuality oppression, gentrification and environmental issues."


Many, such as Peter L. Berger and Robert Chambers, point out the intrinsically political nature of PAR. Participation is empowerment and empowerment is politics. Furthermore, it is very difficult for PAR to fully extricate itself from the researcher-community relationship that in itself affects local power dynamics. Community participation in such a context should be recognized for what it is - an externally motivated political act.

"However much the rhetoric changes to participation, participatory research, community involvement and the like, at the end of the day there is still an outsider seeking to change things... who the outsider is may change but the relation is the same. A stronger person wants to change things for a person who is weaker. From this paternal trap there is no complete escape." (Chambers 1983)

Some, such as Arturo Escobar, argue that concepts of participation and sustainability only help to foster a gentler image of development than usual. In some situations, as highlighted by Diane Rocheleau, participatory methods can also serve as Trojan horses to bring global and environmental restructuring processes directly to rural communities, bypassing national institutional buffers and pre-empting critical review. They can also be manipulated by various actors to deliberately affect power dynamics, often with a more centralizing effect than democratizing, as explored by Triulzi.

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