Participation and Participatory Action Research (PAR) in Environmental Education Processes: For What Are People Empowered?

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Action research has an extensive history and its evolution is characterised by several generations of action research. Kemmis and McTaggart (2005, p. 560) identify four generations of action research in relation to education. The first generation begins with the work of social psychologist Kurt Lewin and its introduction into education in the United States by Stephen Corey. The initiative in the United States was, however, thwarted by efforts to interpret action research in positivist terms. A second generation of action research was influenced by the British tradition of action research in organisational development championed by researchers at the Tavistock Institute. This tradition began with the Ford Teaching project directed by John Elliot and Clem Adelman. The third tradition is the Australian tradition of action research. This tradition recognised the practical character of the British tradition but further called for an explicitly critical orientation. Kemmis and McTaggart (2005, p. 560) argue that the critical impulse in the Australian tradition was also paralleled in Europe at the time. A fourth generation of action research emerged with the fusion between critical emancipatory action research and participatory action research (PAR)--the latter referring to participatory research that developed in the context of social movements in the developing world, spearheaded by among others Paulo Freire, Orlando Fals Borda, Rajesh Tandon as well as Northern American and British workers in adult education and literacy. In this paper I shall refer to the fourth generation of action research as PAR (for more detail see Bhana, 1999; Fals Borda, 2001; Kemmis & McTaggart, 2005).

PAR was adopted by some Australian environmental educationists in the 1980s because it resonated with an emerging approach to environmental education called socially critical education for the environment. One of the chief protagonists of PAR in Australia, Stephen Kemmis, was at Deakin University and also was the doctoral supervisor of environmental educationist Ian Robottom, who took a leading role in advancing participatory approaches to environmental education. In South Africa PAR and socially critical education had great appeal among some South African environmental educationists/educators in the 1990s because these approaches resonated with political discourses taken up my many South Africans in the struggle against apartheid. Between the years 1992 and 2004, 29 environmental education theses using action research as a methodology were produced in southern Africa (see Irwin, 2005).

It is the democratic impulse, critical orientation and grass-roots action approach of PAR that environmental educators have found particularly appealing. However, more recently PAR has been co-opted by supranational organisations which could change the way in which participation within this research approach is understood and enacted. In this article I therefore discuss some of the challenges associated with this development. I shall argue that action research generally has undergone processes of deterritorialisation (that is, it has left home) and has become reterritorialised (redefined in new places). Like all other constructs action research has the potential to become something other than what it is--its deterritorialisation and reterritorialisation over the years provides evidence of this. Furthermore, I argue that it is in its potential to become an entity other than what it is that the lines of escape from its co-optation lie. In this paper I: 1) briefly outline the key features of PAR and the meaning(s) of participation associated with it; 2) discuss why environmental educators/educationists (particularly those in South Africa) have found PAR an attractive proposition; 3) discuss the cooption of PAR by international organisations in a milieu where neoliberal politics is gaining ascendancy; 4) register possible vectors of escape from the debilitating effect(s) of neo-liberalism/colonialism on PAR processes. …