Participation and Recognition in Social Research

By Sobottka, Emil A. | International Journal of Action Research, January 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

Participation and Recognition in Social Research


Sobottka, Emil A., International Journal of Action Research


Latin American participatory research and critical theory of the Frankfurt School are rarely associated with one another, and also have not had effective dialogues that would allow mutual enrichments. This article, however, highlights some elective affinities between them in order to explore new resources for research and social engagement. Its focus relies on the question of the attitude of the researcher and the languages that allow articulating perceptions of injustice. After reviewing intuitions and proposals from the foundational period in critical theory and the tradition of participatory research, the text examines within these traditions the difficult question of the origin of normative principles that can serve as immanent criteria of judgement in analyses of reality. Finally it takes the proposed renewal of critical theory through the recovery of the language of recognition, according to Honneth, to ask if it could contribute to participatory research today.

Key words: participatory research, critical theory, citizenship, emancipation

Latin American participatory research and critical theory of the Frankfurt School are rarely associated with one another, and have also not had many effective dialogues that would allow mutual enrichments. In this article I would like to highlight some elective affinities between both in order to explore new resources for social research and engagement. The emphasis is not on finding equivalence in concepts or in a theoretical framework, but on the question of the attitude of the researcher and the languages that allow people to articulate their perceptions of injustice.

The text consists of three parts. First, there are rescued intuitions and commitments expressed by some of the foremost exponents of the foundational period of participatory research in Latin America. Apart from their critique of pretensions of neutrality in traditional positivist research, the authors emphasise the political nature of their engagement as well as their opposition to the current structure of society.

Secondly, the discussion centres on the question about how the two theoretical traditions see the status of knowledge of the social groups living in situations of dependence or under domination. This topic seems particularly privileged to understand how seriously the democratic commitment to a relationship between equals is taken. Among the romantic enthronement of the knowledge of oppressed social groups and the vanguardist temptation of educating the masses, dialogue is highlighted as the proposal of the two theoretical schools.

Finally, two recent developments in the interface between the theoretical critical reflection and the political engagement of intellectuals are discussed. On the one hand, from critical theory the issue of recognition is maintained as a central topic. On the other, many aspirations and struggles were grouped around the idea of citizenship. Apparently both developments correspond more to languages that allow normative evaluations of concrete social situations, and to articulate perceptions of injustice than concepts that need to be thoroughly defined. The main issue is the question of the displacement of the formation of value judgements in science: from its rational-cognitive to prereflexive moments.

Putting research at the service of social transformation

Participatory research in Latin America arose in different contexts, and has been developed over a long period of time. In this sense it would be excessive to describe it as a monolithic unity; it never got to be a unified school. Nevertheless, there are some characteristics that make various experiments fit without difficulty under this common name, assumed by the protagonists. Three of them are discussed here.

In the turbulent 1960s, the Roman Catholic hierarchy in Latin America, as well as an important part of youth groups linked to it, took stronger notice of existing poverty and misery in the subcontinent.

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