Critical Dilemmas in PAR: Toward a New Theory of Engaged Research for Social Change

By Nygreen, Kysa | Social Justice, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

Critical Dilemmas in PAR: Toward a New Theory of Engaged Research for Social Change


Nygreen, Kysa, Social Justice


FEMINIST ANTHROPOLOGIST DIANE WOLF (1996: 37) ONCE CHARACTERIZED participatory research (PAR) as ideal for feminist researchers because it effectively addressed multiple dilemmas of power in the research process, and particularly power inequalities between the researcher and the researched. In this article, I reflect on my experience of attempting to implement this "ideal" research approach across three PAR projects, each involving a distinct population: students at an alternative high school for "at-risk" youth; undocumented university students; and low-income immigrant parents in a school reform effort. My purpose is to explore the challenges, contradictions, and possibilities of PAR as a means of disrupting unequal power relations in and through the research process, l borrow from Wolf's (1996) notion of "feminist dilemmas in fieldwork" to identify three "critical dilemmas in PAR" that emerged in my work: power, authorship, and scale. Each dilemma reflects a critical tension between the values of PAR and the practice of PAR that emerged in my experience. I believe these dilemmas are particularly relevant to projects like my own: led by a university-based scholar for whom PAR is the basis of an academic research program, and in which the university-based scholar occupies multiple positions of privilege (including white privilege) in relation to other project participants. (1)

My first exposure to PAR was in reading Wolf's (1996) chapter as a doctoral student. I was immediately drawn to it as a model of engaged critical research for social change. I had begun to develop a critical consciousness of the oppressive and reproductive tendencies of traditional social science research, including the reproduction of a colonial-like relationship in the research process, the "other-ing" and objectification of research subjects in a text, and the pursuit of knowledge for the sake of "science" or publications (or dissertations), rather than collective empowerment or anti-oppressive social change. (2) Hoping to avoid these dilemmas in my work, I sought a way to do scholarship that squared with my political and ethical values. In "discovering" PAR, I believed I had found a way to move forward as a scholar while avoiding these thorny dilemmas. I saw in PAR both a justification for and a model of doing research differently--doing it with rather than on other people. Inspired by its promise, I committed myself to using PAR as the basis for my dissertation.

My first experience with PAR was mixed at best. Although the project I designed for my dissertation achieved some positive outcomes, I also believe it largely undermined rather than upheld the political and ethical values that inspired it. At various times and in multiple ways, the project reproduced rather than challenged the unequal power relationships I hoped it would disrupt. At times, subjugated knowledge was marginalized in favor of claims to traditional expertise, and the goal of transformative social change was ultimately abandoned in favor of goals I considered largely reproductive. In reflecting on these unintended outcomes of my first attempt at PAR, I believe they resulted partially from my lack of experience and the mistakes I made facilitating the project. Despite a supportive doctoral committee and many supportive colleagues, my graduate program offered little formal training in how to carry out a PAR project on the ground. I began my work well equipped with abstract theories of agency and democracy, but I had little experience translating such theories into practice. As such, I had to learn by doing--often by failing--while also learning to satisfy the expectations for writing a doctoral dissertation. Clearly, one lesson learned from my experience is the importance of training and mentoring doctoral students in the practice of PAR, and not just the critical theories that inform it. But this point, which should be obvious, is not the central focus of this article. …

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