1: Just what is participatory research?

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This chapter introduces the concept of research generically and then participatory research as the focus of this book. The chapter explains how participatory research is situated amongst many other types of research, in order to ease the complexity. The chapter presents a clear definition of participatory research along with its benefits and challenges. Key roles of researcher, co-research and participant are explained. Attention is drawn to the way participatory research aims to contribute to social justice. The chapter is designed to help the reader to understand and in turn communicate to others why this type of research is so important.

Chapter overview

This chapter will introduce you to what research is generally, before specifically introducing participatory research to you. The benefits and challenges of participatory research will be outlined with reference to social justice. This chapter will help you to understand and in turn communicate to others why this type of research is so important.

Just what is research?

We have a very straightforward and broad definition of research – it is any activity that is focused on exploring a question or questions. There are many different questions we could ask about the world and equally many different types of research to explore these questions. All are useful but choosing the right one can sometimes make research seem very complicated.

As research is about exploring questions, all research will have a research purpose – something it is trying to achieve – and one or more research questions. Exploring these questions will help you achieve your purpose. All research has a research approach – a way of doing something – as well as an output and end product. In this respect, it is a little like making a cup of tea. At the beginning you intend to make a drink (your purpose), you consider what type of tea you want (questions), you have a set of ingredients, decisions and instructions (your approach) and you end up with a nice cup of tea to drink (your research output). Just as there are many types of tea and ways to make tea, so there are different types of research and ways to go about it. No single tea or way of making tea is right or wrong, but you might serve the wrong type of tea to the wrong people – with milk when they normally take it without! In a similar way, no single type of research is ‘wrong’, but you could use the ‘wrong’ type of research for the questions you are trying to answer.

And what about the participants? You might think that all research needs to involve people, but in its widest sense, research can also include objects, animals, microbes and existing data, and so may not have any participants at all. However, if you are reading this book, you are most likely going to be working with people and so we focus on those types of research throughout the book.

You may have noticed our definition here focuses on exploring questions and not answering questions. This is deliberate because research doesn’t always lead to answers! In some instances, it leads to more questions and the exploration continues. Some research does lead to answers, but not always, and so for this reason we just focus on the exploration and having an output.

Key types of research

We like to think of the different types of research as the branches of a tree. We start with the trunk of the tree – all research. At the top of the trunk the tree separates into two large branches. One of these is about proving things – called ‘positivistresearch as the people who do it want to prove a theory is positively right or wrong. The other branch is about exploring and understanding things rather than saying something is right or wrong. We call this ‘post-positivistresearch as it grew after (or post) the positive branch.

The proof (positivist) branch is broadly characterised by testing or running experiments so that you can definitely say that A led to B. Measurement and numeric data is central to this type of research, as well as the idea that the researcher is objective and has no influence on the research.

In contrast, the ‘exploring’ (post-positivist) branch is broadly characterised by open questions and rich varied perspectives. What people say – word-based data – is typically central to this type of research, as well as the idea that the researcher is subjective and will have an effect on or in the research. The different branches of research are shown in Figure 1.1 below.

Figure 1.1:

At this point of the book, we follow the post-positivist branch as we are interested in a wide range of things that happen in the world, why they happen, how they happen and what that means. A ‘yes’ or ‘no’ is not very helpful in answering those types of questions but is brilliant for testing medicines!

The ‘exploring’ branch divides into multiple different branches, with more growing every day. Each branch is a type of research. We won’t go into all of these branches in this book, but we will signpost some of the main branches in Table 1.1, so you have a sense of the breadth of exploratory (post-positivist) research and where participatory research fits in.

Table 1.1:

Types of research

Broad description Aims to … Types of research (not exhaustive)
Action orientated Focus on creating learning and change through and during research Action research

Participatory action research

Appreciative enquiry

Practitioner research
Evidence orientated Show how good something is or describe what something is like Case study


Comparative studies
Involves others Support people who are affected by issues to do their own research Participatory research

Community-based research

Indigenous research
Culturally orientated Identify the key features of a culture, group or situation Ethnography

Auto ethnography


Hermeneutic research

Indigenous research
Creative orientation Carry out research in creative ways Visual research

Performance research

Narrative research

Arts-based research
‘Power’ orientated Identify the way power affects society Feminist research

Critical research

Socially just research
Unobtrusive orientation Collect data as normally or naturally as possible Naturalistic research
Open orientation Develop meaning from what people say rather than from ideas the researchers might have Grounded theory
Hybrid research Use a range of methods which are all of value in answering the question Mixed-method research
Commercial orientation Find out what people will buy/use and why Market research

User research

None of these types of research are better or worse than another, some are just more suited to some research questions more than others. Although you might think you have this problem solved because you are doing participatory research, you will have to support the group or community you are working with to choose which type of research they want to use to do their research. This is where things get exciting! Whilst participatory research is most certainly post-positivistic, participants could choose quantitative tools (such as a survey that produces numerical data), which stems from positivism. Therefore, you need to be aware of the whole tree and where the different branches meet. There are plenty of online resources to support you to learn about positivist types of research.

It is worth noting at this point that researchers have different ideas about things (have you ever experienced someone putting milk in peppermint tea – very unexpected!). Therefore, not everyone will agree with how we present research in this book, and that is okay. We encourage you to come up with your own ways of thinking about research.

The importance of participatory research

Given there are so many types or approaches to research, why are we focused on participatory research? Let’s return to the cup of tea. Participatory tea making, and participatory research, is about the person who is going to drink the tea choosing what kind of tea they want to drink, what they want to drink it out of and how they want it made. Another approach would be to just make the tea for them without involving them (or planning a research project without involving people), but this risks the tea (or research) being the wrong type, presented in the wrong way and/or tasting horrible.

The starting place of participatory research is a little more complicated than other forms of research. We simplify this into three possible scenarios:

  1. 1.You may go to members of a group or community wanting to do some research with them;
  2. 2.Members of a group or community may come to you wanting you to do some research with them;
  3. 3.You may decide together that you want to do some research as you are engaged with other activities with the group or community.

Therefore, if we extend our tea metaphor further, in participatory tea drinking, the group may instigate, you may instigate or you may all decide together to have a cup of tea. However, following this you’ll collectively be figuring out how you’ll make it.

Banks and Brydon-Miller (2018: 3) provide an excellent definition of participatory research as:

a collaborative effort in which people whose lives are affected by the issues being researched are partners in designing, undertaking and disseminating research to influence socially just change. The process aims to be democratic, participatory, empowering and educational.

We like this definition as it says who is involved, what they do and how they benefit. Participatory research is about research ‘with’ people, not ‘on’ people, and there are many reasons for this. A lot of research used to be done by ‘experts’ who, very generally speaking, were white, well educated, privileged males from the Western hemisphere. Of course, that is a huge sweeping statement which is becoming less true every day. However, many faulty conclusions were drawn by researchers who did not understand the people they were doing research on. Arguably these people are not best placed to research circumstances, situations, people and cultures that are very different to their own. So, the first reason for participatory research is that the people whose issues need researching should be the people to do (or at very least be involved in shaping) the research, as they understand their worlds best of all. For this reason, we refer to co-researchers throughout this book. Co-researchers are different from research participants in that they make research decisions with you, whereas participants ‘just’ provide data in research projects led by researchers. As a research team, you as the participatory researcher and the co-researchers may identify other participants to take part in the research and to explore the research questions. And just to add a layer of complexity, you and the co-researchers may also be participants as you ask each other research questions.

The second reason for participatory research is that groups and communities have insider knowledge about which questions need to be asked and how to best explore them. As experts in their own lives, groups and communities therefore need to be involved in planning and doing the research too. An outside researcher may never be able to fully understand or appreciate a context or community that is not their own.

Researching in this participatory way hopefully means better questions, approaches and understandings, all of which benefit everyone in society. It also means that the knowledge from research is created by everybody rather than just certain types of people, which is fairer. Participatory research therefore has an aim of making knowledge more equitable by deliberately encouraging people who might not usually do research to be involved.

Participatory research also has benefits for the co-researchers. Planning, doing and writing up your own research project can be empowering. It can help communities and groups to feel more in control of their own lives and more able to shape what happens around them. In this respect, participatory research can be disruptive. Groups and communities might become more aware of their own situation, they might be dissatisfied with what they see and might want to do something about it. Disruption can be a catalyst for positive change, and so another benefit of participatory research is social justice. In order for the world to be equal, some people need more support than others to make the opportunities equitable. Participatory research is equitable itself in giving support to groups and communities to be researchers, and potentially equitable in outcome as those groups and communities may research issues of inequity that affect them. Creating a world that is more equal and equitable is called social justice. Maguire (2014: 418) defines participatory research in socially just terms as the:

  • Development of a critical consciousness of both researcher and participant

  • Improvement of the lives of those involved in the research process

  • Transformation of fundamental social structures and relationships.

The difficulties of participatory research

Just because participatory research is meaningful and beneficial does not mean it is easy. Far from it. A number of issues arise in any research, and particularly in participatory research.

One key issue is that participants may not have the skills or knowledge to take part in the project and may need training in order to be able to take part as fully as they would like. This does not mean they all need to do a research course; it’s about the practitioner–participatory researcher and the group or community working things out together, co-learning, co-designing, co-researching.

If you work with groups and communities, you will be able to draw on everyone’s different skills and experiences throughout the project. This means individuals can contribute to the research in different ways and avoids the research process becoming patronising.

Practitioners and organisations are very busy, and equally participants might have busy lives with many responsibilities to carry out. Being attentive to people’s interests, skills and availability is both respectful and practical. People may want to be involved at different levels or at different times. Participation can take many formats, and anyone engaging in any of these formats is great; one is not necessarily better than the other. To reflect this point we have drawn the different formats and roles of participation as a scale (rather than more commonly represented as a ladder) in Table 1.2 below.

Table 1.2:

Different formats for participation

One: a person giving data as a participant in research Two: co- researchers designing the research process Three: co-researchers conducting the research Four: co-researchers analysing the research Five: co-researchers creating the research output Six: co-researchers communicating the research

What is more difficult to reconcile is that the individual group or community members might have very different ideas of what to research or how to research it. Time together discussing ideas, working out criteria for which idea to take forward or voting might be necessary to resolve some of these issues. This simple point starts to shed light on the range of skills needed to facilitate participatory research with groups and communities.

It can also be difficult to convince stakeholders (for example, a funder or commissioner) that participatory research is appropriate. That is often because you may not be able to tell them exactly what the research will be on, how it will be done, when it will be done or what the final output will look like. You can’t define some elements, as the group or community need to. This is often a limitation on participatory research projects getting up and running. It does not fit well into the tightly defined and scheduled world around us.

Whilst participatory research is about involving people and shifting power from ‘academics’ to ‘communities’, it is impossible to get rid of all forms of power. Job title, gender, race and accent might all crowd into the research group, and so participatory researchers need to always be on alert for who has a voice and why, and who is left out and why. This is explored further in Chapter 10.

With all those considerations laid out, we must conclude that it is challenging for practitioners and organisations to undertake participatory research. It is, however, a deeply rewarding and meaningful type of research with power to improve people’s lives. We have never regretted a participatory project despite the stresses and strains along the way. We hope this book encourages you along and helps answer the many questions you must have by now.

Tricky terminology

Participatory research has developed many different shapes and forms over its history, which can sometimes add to the confusion we might feel reading about it. Participatory research includes:

  • Participatory action research

  • Community-based research

  • User-led research

  • Participatory rural appraisal

  • Participatory organisational research

  • Citizen science

  • Participatory arts-based research

  • Participatory evaluation

  • Critical pedagogy

  • Rights-based research.

If you do some internet searching for ‘examples of …’ each one, you will get a feel for their similarity in their aim to enable people to participate as fully as possible, and their differences in terms of the ways in which they do that.

Reflective task and tea break one

  • Write your own definition of participatory research that would make sense to colleagues or to people in your group or community.


Research is about the exploration of questions. All research has a purpose, research questions, approach and output. There are many different types of research and this book focuses on participatory research. We focus on this type of research as it supports people in groups and communities to find out about things that are important to them and to become knowledge creators themselves. This grounded and lived experience, we feel, is much needed as the basis for decision making in the world, contributing to it being a fairer and more socially just place. However, there are challenges in doing participatory research, and this book hopes to guide you through these to make your project as successful as possible.

Further reading and resources

  • Aked, J., Marks, N., Cordon, C. and Thompson, S. (2008) Five Ways to Well-being, London: New Economics Foundation.

  • Aldridge, J. (2016) Participatory Research. Working with Vulnerable Groups in Research and Practice, Bristol: Policy Press.

  • Banks, S. and Brydon-Miller, M. (2018) Ethics in Participatory Research for Health and Wellbeing, Abingdon: Routledge.

  • Bell, P. (2000) ‘Content analysis of visual images’, in T. Van Leeuwen and C. Jewitt (eds) The Handbook of Visual Analysis, London: Sage, pp. 1034.

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  • The Community Alliance for Research and Engagement (2021) ‘Beyond scientific publication: strategies for disseminating research findings’, Available at: https://www.idaea.csic.es/sites/default/files/CARE-Beyond-Scientific-Publication-Strategies-for-Disseminating-Research-Findings.pdf

  • Cook, T. (2009) ‘The purpose of mess in action research: Building rigour though a messy turn’, Educational Action Research, 17: 27791, doi:10.1080/09650790902914241

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  • Flicker, S., Travers, R., Guta, A., McDonald, S. and Meagher, A. (2007) ‘Ethical dilemmas in community-based participatory research: recommendations for institutional review boards’, Journal of Urban Health, 84(4): 47893, doi: 10.1007/s11524-007-9165-7

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  • Grint, K. (2008) ‘Wicked problems and clumsy solutions: the role of leadership’, Stockport: BAMM Publications.

  • Lundy, P. and McGovern, M. (2006) ‘The ethics of silence. Action research, community ‘truth telling’ and post-conflict transition in the North of Ireland’, Action Research, 4(1): 4964.

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  • Maguire, P. (2014) ‘Feminist Participatory Research’, in A. Jaggar (ed.) Just Methods – An Interdisciplinary Feminist Reader, Abingdon: Routledge, pp. 41731.

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  • Mannay, D. (2016) Visual, Narrative and Creative Research Methods, London: Routledge.

  • Maynard, L. and Stuart, K. (2018) Promoting Young People’s Wellbeing Through Empowerment and Agency: A Critical Framework for Practice, London: Routledge.

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  • National Institute for Health Research (2021) ‘Payment guidance for researchers and professionals’, Available at: https://www.nihr.ac.uk/documents/payment-guidance-for-researchers-and-professionals/27392

  • Office for National Statistics (2021) ‘Surveys using our four personal well-being Questions’, Available at: https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/wellbeing/methodologies/surveysusingthe4officefornationalstatisticspersonalwellbeingquestions

  • Schubotz, D. (2019) ‘Participatory action research’, in P. Atkinson, S. Delamont, A. Cernat, J. Sakshaug, and R. Williams (eds), SAGE Research Methods Foundations, London: Sage, https://doi.org/10.4135/9781526421036

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  • Springett, J., Atkey, K., Kongats, K., Zulla, R. and Wilkins, E. (2016) ‘Conceptualizing quality in participatory health research: a phenomenographic inquiry’, Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung [Forum: Qualitative Social Research], 17(2): https://doi.org/10.17169/fqs-17.2.2568

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  • Statista (2020) ‘Annual per capita tea consumption worldwide’, Available at: https://www.statista.com/statistics/507950/global-per-capita-tea-consumption-by-country/

  • Stuart, K., Maynard, L. and Rouncefield, C. (2015) Evaluation Practice for Projects with Young People: Creative Research Methods, London: Sage.

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