Participant Action Research: A Case Study of Community Economic Development in Chicago

By Fine, Helene S. | Public Administration Quarterly, Spring 1994 | Go to article overview

Participant Action Research: A Case Study of Community Economic Development in Chicago


Fine, Helene S., Public Administration Quarterly


Economic development took an interesting turn in Chicago in the early 1980s. With the collapse of the steel industry on the city's South Side and the neighboring communities of South Chicago and Gary, it was clear that the old industrial base had disintegrated. Chicago's first black Mayor, Harold Washington, tried to make good on his campaign promise to tailor economic development programs to community needs. In keeping with this goal, he brought progressive political economists, urbanologists, and community organizers into his administration to create such programs and to establish linkages with the neighborhoods.

As elected officials and staff searched for new approaches to urban reindustrialization, community-based organizations also focused their attention on job retraining, retention, and even generation. One such organization, the Jane Addams Center (JAC), decided to amplify its youth training programs with a more direct type of intervention in the local economy. To establish this goal JAC spun off another agency, the Jane Addams Resource Corporation (JARC) and charged it with creating and ultimately housing new economic development programs.

In the summer of 1985, I became the Director of Research for JARC. In that capacity I began a sectoral analysis of local industry. We began the economic development project with clear goals. We would:

1. Obtain a clear picture of the industrial concentration in the agency's service area;

2. Select an industry on which to focus;

3. Enlist people from that industry as participants in that project; and

4. Outline a program that would help channel economic development resources to that industry and thus help stabilize it.

What really distinguished JARC's economic development project was its particular approach to change. Not only was JARC planning to intervene in the local economy, but it was determined to do so in such a way as to involve those within industry in the effort. This meant involving participants in every facet of the project from its inception to its end, drawing them in as researchers as well as actors. Beyond this, JARC intended to play a continuing role within the community once the initial project was complete.

The project in its early stages succeeded to the extent that it deepened the understanding of the subeconomy that it was immersed in, tapping a nerve within it that was receptive to a new vision for the future. It also uncovered internal and external barriers to change. It failed to the extent that it could not begin to remove the barriers that were uncovered nor could it bring its own analytic skills to bear on the barriers within its own (or affiliate) organization(s).

This article will describe the project, paying particular attention to the methods and the barriers to change. It will begin with a description of the methods and will end with some recommendations for change in future attempts to intervene in a local economy.

METHODS: THE THEORY

With my own doctorate still in progress at the time the project began, the influence of my teachers was still strong. Sociologists Howard Becker, Arlene Kaplan Daniels, and Arnold Feldman as well as systems theorists Gus Rath and Barry O'Neil shaped my own work, guiding the choice of methods. In addition, I was immersed in literature that included works by Chris Argyris (1982), Paul Feyerabend (1982), and William Foote Whyte (1982).

Not surprisingly, my own background shaped both substance and method. The tools I used were qualitative and I relied on direct observation in the field. The project itself was action oriented in that it assumed an intervention in the local economy. It was participative, bringing industry members into both the research and action phases of the project. The method was iterative in nature in that it went from theory construction in order to account for observed behavior to further contact and observations to test the theory and, finally, to a reconstruction of the theory. …

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