Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

Consistency and Change in Participatory Action Research: Reflections on a Focus Group Study about How Farmers Learn

Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

Consistency and Change in Participatory Action Research: Reflections on a Focus Group Study about How Farmers Learn

Article excerpt

Our research team is in the middle of a three-year, multi-phase, multi-state participatory action research study to discover more about how farmers learn. We hope to use our findings to help Extension agents and other agricultural educators develop more meaningful ways to communicate information to farmers about sustainable agriculture. The purpose of this paper is to reflect on our efforts to balance consistency in our research methods with the need to adapt our research protocol based on what we are learning along the way.

Our method is participatory on a number of levels. In Phase One of our study, in Virginia, we surveyed 48 Extension agents and specialists who helped us shape the questions we used in focus groups with farmers from distinct groups (e.g., alternative agriculture producers, traditional dairy farmers, young farmers, female farmers). Then a steering committee of four farmers and four Extension agents and specialists helped us shape and conduct our research, analyze our data, and disseminate our findings. After our farmer focus groups, we conducted a focus group of Extension agents and specialists to determine their perspectives on how farmers learn. In additional sessions with agents and specialists we asked them to reflect on our initial findings and the meaning of these findings for their own work. In the second year of the project, we are replicating our participatory steering committees and focus group methodology in two other states, Tennessee and Louisiana. In Year Three we will develop scholarly products and educational materials, disseminate those products, and conduct education workshops for Extension educators.


Why Participatory Action Research?

In participatory action research, researchers empower participants to become research partners (Piercy & Thomas, 1998). The advantages of a collaborative, less hierarchical approach to research is that the practical knowledge that emerges is usually a better fit for those for whom it is intended, since they themselves helped generate and make sense of the findings. In this case, since farmers, Extension agents, and specialists have been part of the planning and research processes, they are also more invested in the dissemination and implementation of the findings, and feel empowered in the process.

Participatory action research is based largely on Paulo Freire's (1970) Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and has been extended through the work of many others (e.g., FalsBorda & Rahman, 1991; Hall, 1994; Park, Brydon-Miller, Hall, & Jackson, 1993). Participatory action research (PAR) was initially used to empower oppressed groups in Third World countries, but it is increasingly being used in developed countries (Reason, 1994). In PAR, one seeks to know the needs of the community and to translate them into actions that may be used directly by the community. The participatory process itself raises the consciousness of participants so that they might move toward constructive action. Participatory action research emphasizes collaboration between researchers and participants that empowers, motivates, increases self-esteem, and builds solidarity (Piercy & Thomas, 1998).

Focus Groups

While PAR research methods can be diverse (e.g., community events, puppet shows, video productions), in the present study we used focus groups within our participatory framework to understand how farmers preferred to learn and how Extension agents and specialists might better meet their needs. Focus groups involve an interactive group discussion of four to 12 people on a particular topic within a permissive, nonthreatening environment (Krueger & Casey, 2000). Researchers use focus groups to understand participant opinions on a particular topic (Kitzinger & Barbour, 1999; Morgan, 1992). The open-response format and synergistic, snowballing effect of group discussion often results in rich ideas that would be impossible through individual interviews or more quantitative methods (Stewart, Shamadasani, & Rook, 2007). …

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