For me, participation is an approach, a way of working and being, not a tool or a method.
I have been a practitioner of participatory methods for some 15 years. Initially it was an intuitive way to work with people. As my practice grew I found my way to the literature and methods which constitute the body of knowledge around participation, eventually becoming an active contributor to this discourse myself.
While I find that the language of participation pops up most everywhere I turn, I’m often troubled by the superficiality in which this approach is understood and practiced. Two years ago I wrote and published an article which examined how participation in research processes can be transformative and creates change on at least 5 levels. While parsing out these kinds/levels of change is useful, I think there is more to understand about how change happens when work is approached in a participatory/co-generative way.
In this 3 part piece I will explore three ways of understanding change through participation. First I will delve into the idea of transformative knowledge and the different levels at which change occurs through participatory processes. In the subsequent installments, I will explore the idea of participation as embodiment and as the regeneration of knowledge systems.
Participation and Transformative Knowledge
Several years ago I was the evaluation and learning facilitator for a global research program called Participate. The aim was to co-generate a bottom-up, citizen-led articulation of what the then still-undetermined Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) should prioritize from the perspective of poor and marginal communities. The program brought together 18 participatory research organizations from around the world. The overall process was highly diverse and many heterogeneous methods were used in the creation of the data for the project.
Those of us involved in the research felt that the methods used and created for Participate deserved attention in their own right. We created an anthology which documented the many innovative practices used in the program. My contribution was a short conceptual chapter on the idea of how participatory processes create a unique form of ‘transformative knowledge’ which is different from the knowledge produced through conventional kinds of research processes.
5 Levels of Change Through Participation
The anthology article posited that participatory processes facilitate knowledge creation which enables transformative change at potentially five different levels:
1) transforming of research practice,
2) transforming of practitioners engaged in the process,
3) transformation of the organizations carrying out the process,
4) transformation of communities where the work is carried out
5) transformation of policy, based on a clearer understanding of
people’s lived experiences.
I have included the full article at the end of this piece.
I wrote this chapter in early 2014. Through my various consulting, research and teaching activities since then, I have continued to reflect on this idea of transformative knowledge. Indeed helping to co-create transformative knowledge has become the mission statement of Empyrean Research. I find it a compelling concept which I think begins to capture the full range of impacts created by participatory practices.
Missing the Larger Point?
Encouragingly, I run into people at many universities and organizations who say they use participatory research methods, particularly participatory action research (PAR).
Discouragingly, I find that their understanding and practice of such methods leans toward only the instrumental/policy outcomes end of this spectrum. It is evident to them that participation creates better data about the nuances of people’s lives, situations, challenges, etc. This information can be quite helpful in developing new procedures, protocols, policy, etc., and certainly this is quite valuable.
However, I find that these same practitioners often miss the other possible levels of transformation. For them, participatory methods are simply a tool for better data, what Argyris and Schön would call a form of ‘single loop’ learning, enabling a practitioner to ‘do things better’. I find many academics and development organizations ‘doing participation’ because it is a better way to gather information, giving them better data/results, which is of course a positive outcome. Nevertheless, I would argue that participation in research, understood more deeply, opens up the potential for ‘double loop’ learning. For Argyris and Schön double looping learning is transformative and fundamentally shifts one’s original understanding. Instead of learning to ‘do things better’, you learn how to ‘do better things’.
Participation in research redefines and expands the research endeavor from an instrumental, linear process driven by a quest for answers to a process of learning and empowerment for all involved. The outcome of an exogenous policy change based on empirical data is only one potential end result. Indeed, results at the other levels I have described are also possible even when the policy outcomes do not occur.
Seeing the Unexpected in Appalachia and India
Last week I traveled to the University of Kentucky in Lexington to meet with a coalition of researchers and community organizers who will be launching a new Appalachian land ownership study, a follow up to the landmark Who Owns Appalachia participatory action research study carried out in the region in the late 1970s/early 1980s. The study was landmark because it clarified a very obfuscated picture about absentee, corporate land ownership in the region and showed how extreme the problem was.
Three decades on, the study has not resulted in fundamental policy change or marked change on the ground. Land ownership in the central Appalachian region remains massively unequal and swayed toward corporate holding of land. As well, the opacity about what groups own what tracts of land remains.
However, as researcher Dr. Shaunna Scott has documented, the land ownership study did create other positive changes in the region. It generated connections and networks in the Appalachian region which are still active today, facilitated the creation of organizations in the region such as Kentuckians for the Commonwealth (KFTC), and opened the door for other political/policy outcomes not envisioned when the study began, such as the end of property tax exemptions for coal companies in the state of Kentucky. Further, the study put participatory action research on the map as a powerful tool for research and social change. Appalachia remains a hotbed for participatory action research, where organizations like the Highlander Research and Education Center continue to use and teach participatory action research as one of its core approaches. I will post and video interview with Dr. Scott in the coming weeks where she describes these unanticipated outcomes on of the land ownership study in greater detail.
As the land ownership study demonstrates, the instrumental/policy outcome of a participatory project is a limited lens through which to see. Because of the transformative, empowering aspects of the work, many other changes are also possible at other levels, and over long spans of time.
Next week I will post an interview with Dr. Anita Patil-Deshmukh of PUKAR (Partners in Urban Knowledge, Action and Research), a community-level, participatory research think-tank which operates in Mumbai. In describing the work of PUKAR’s community-based researchers, Dr. Anita also breaks down the various levels of change that participatory research has catalyzed for her ‘barefoot’ researchers—practitioner-level, family-level, community-level, and policy level.
Whether in my native Appalachia region or in India, engaging with participatory practitioners around the world has only further clarified the importance of recognizing these different levels of change generated by these processes.
But Also How
As I noted at the beginning of this post, my reflections on my recent work have led me to probe more deeply not only into the levels of change created by participation, but also to think more about how change happens through the participatory approach. In part 2 of this post, I will explore participation as embodiment and congruence. The final post will return to the idea of transformative knowledge and how participation is not only about co-generation of knowledge but also about the regeneration of knowledge systems.
 Shahrokh, T. and J. Wheeler (eds.) (2014) Knowledge from the Margins: An anthology from a global study on participatory practice and policy influence. Brighton: IDS.
 Shaunna L. Scott. (2012) “What Difference Did it Make?: The Appalachian Land Ownership Study Twenty-Five Years Later.” Academics and Activists: Confronting Ecological and Community Crisis in Appalachia. Stephanie McSpirit, Lynne Faltraco and Conner Bailey, eds. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky
Felix is the founder and director of Empyrean Research. Based in Tennessee, he travels widely with his work for Empyrean.
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