2: How do we begin to plan our participatory research project?

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This chapter provides a clear and logical set of stages which comprise the research cycle. The rest of the book is organised around each of these stages of research. Working through these stages step by step gives a practical framework to support you and the co-researchers to plan a research project. The chapter provides an overview of what each of the ten stages entail and there is a later chapter focused on each one in more depth. Each of these stages could be the focus of a conversation with your group, or could comprise a workshop and set of formal activities – how much depth and formality is appropriate is entirely up to you.

Chapter overview

Now we know what research is, we can start to think about what it involves and how we plan it. Just as work with people, groups and communities is rarely straightforward, similarly research can have the same uncertainties to challenge us. Therefore, it can be helpful to have a clear and logical set of stages to support you and the co-researchers to plan the research. These can act as check points that can help to guide you in your research journey. Thinking all these steps through before you start, or referring back to them along the way, can help to make the project go as smoothly as possible, just like making a good cup of tea.

Figure 2.1:
Figure 2.1:

Let’s make a cup of tea!

Let’s start with a cup of tea!

When you make a cup of tea you know there are certain things that you will need, and you know they need to be put together in a certain order – for example boiling the water before putting it onto the tea. But there are also lots of choices involved in making a cup of tea too – what sort of tea? Will it need milk and sugar? What should it be served in? Those are design choices, and it might depend on what the situation is and who you are with as to which type of tea is appropriate. Designing research is similar in that there are a range of stages that usually happen in a set order and each involves a lot of choices, but once you have the hang of it, it comes naturally.

So research design involves thinking through the steps in planning your research.

The stages of research design

We are going to introduce ten broad stages in a research cycle as shown in the diagram below (Figure 2.2).

Figure 2.2:
Figure 2.2:

The ten steps of research design

Each of these stages is discussed in a chapter of this book. If you follow the stages in the diagram they will help guide you through the research project. Whilst we plan research in a step by step, or linear, approach, you will probably find you have to keep moving backwards and forwards across the steps as a decision made in one step will affect the decisions in another. It is completely normal to zigzag back and forth through the steps. As each chapter of the book tackles each stage of research, you can easily revisit a key topic or problem by dipping into the relevant chapter. We also found that one enquiry often leads to another, so you might find yourself leaping from number ten back to number one with a new question.

A short overview of each stage is provided below to help you to see the whole picture and to navigate from one step to another.

Deciding on your purpose, aims and questions

You would be amazed how often people set off on a research project without really knowing why they are doing what they are doing. Knowing your ‘why’ is helpful to come back to if (or more likely when) you get bogged down in some of the details to follow. This is your bottom line, your back stop, your point! It could be that you really need to know more about x before you can do y; you want more information on people’s opinions of xx; or it just all comes back to xxx. There are some big questions for you and the co-researchers to answer in this chapter, such as why we are doing this research, who will it benefit, what we hope it will achieve. These will help you work out the research purpose, what you hope to achieve by doing it (the research aims) and what you specifically want to know (the research questions). These are your foundations, so it’s worth spending time on getting them as solid as possible. This step can also involve reading around the subject to work out what is already known about the topic you want to research and how it is viewed by other stakeholders such as the government, media and other researchers, communities or organisations.

Identifying your core beliefs

We all have core beliefs about the world which we rarely put into words. We might all, for example, believe that the world is round and that we won’t ‘fall off it’ if we travel to another continent, but we never say so. There are some important patterns and sets of beliefs that influence the way in which we go about research – they are our foundations from which we can build. There is some complex language surrounding this, such as ‘research paradigms’, but we use the term research philosophy. Whilst these are slightly different, we think more practitioners will relate to the word philosophy and so we are sticking with that! For example, some people think that we can prove that everything is either ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. This is one common pattern of belief or philosophy that researchers have. We will unpack the other patterns that might apply to you in this chapter. Understanding and stating your (you and the co-researchers) beliefs is important as it influences how you do your research, what tools you use and how you analyse your data. This in turn will then influence what sort of information or ‘data’ you collect. To keep things straight forward, we’ll focus on three main types of data – number data, word data and visual data. These types of data fit into different patterns of beliefs and so identifying your core beliefs will also help you decide which of these three, or which combination of these three types of data, you will use.

Working out how to go about the research

Once you have your foundations in place, the logical next step is to consider how you ‘do’ the research with your co-researchers. We call this the research approach and it includes the methods you use – a bit like the ‘method’ part of a cookery recipe; it maps out how you go about the research. There are many options here, and this chapter gives you an outline of each and how to decide between them. Some of your choices will be directed by your core beliefs, but you will still have options no matter what your foundations are. If you believe black tea to be the most refreshing you may, for example, reach for a kettle at this point. However, if you believe iced tea to be the best, you may be reaching for some ice. Both types of tea are delicious and may be refreshing to different people, and the choice between them will dictate very different methods in the kitchen.

Working out who and what will be involved in answering your questions

Now you know what you are going to research and how you will do it, you are able to think about where or who you and the co-researchers get data from. You may start by thinking of the best places or people to get this information from, who will know the most about it or whose ideas and beliefs are important to include. Often, but not always, this involves research participants, but sometimes can involve other sources, such as observations or archived sources of information. You will start to consider things such as how many participants you need, who they will be, what characteristics or demographics they will have. Practical decisions now kick in as you work out where these people are, how you can get information and an invite to them and how you can best engage them.

Working out how to collect each bit of data: data collection tools

Surprisingly this is often where people start research design. Many people say ‘let’s interview someone’ or ‘let’s use a self-esteem survey’ before really thinking through what they are doing and why. Deciding on the data collection tools before anything else can lead to all sorts of issues and so we recommend thinking through the earlier chapters first, but if you haven’t – no big deal. A data collection tool is just a short way of saying the way you will get the information.

By now you hopefully have a good sense of what you want to know, how you will find it out and who from. This next step is about putting the details in place. You will decide how to best collect each bit of information or data. The decisions here must match up with the method you decided on and the people you have decided to work with. There is a wide range of tools to choose from and you will get an overview of these and handy tips on how to decide between them.

This step also involves planning the practical details of who’s doing what, when and where. Knowing these details is important so you are all clear.

Working out what the data says

Working out what the data is telling you is called data analysis. There are some practical step-by-step ways to make sure you get the full meaning out of the data you have collected. This is the step that people most often leave out of their planning altogether, waiting until they are sitting in front of a pile of data before they consider how to tackle it. So, taking time to plan now really helps. This will involve thinking through which type of analysis fits your underpinning ideas and data.

Planning what to tell who and how

Although you have not got your findings at the planning stage, you should have some sort of idea of what you might want to say and who you might want to listen to what you have got to say. This step involves planning how to best get your message across to those people and how to do it. Research can turn up surprising things, so you may need to adapt your communication plans as you go along, but you should have a plan in place before you start researching. The jargon for this area is planning your research dissemination strategy, but ‘communication plan’ works just as well!

Making sure everyone stays safe

Of course, we want everyone to stay safe whilst we do research! This process is called planning the research ethics. This step will ask you to consider how people’s identities are kept safe, how the data is managed so it is secure, what the benefits are to people taking part, how to check they understand what is being asked of them and so on. We plan research ethics in advance of the research to ensure everything we have in mind is appropriate. It may be that having thought through the ethics you may want to go back and revise some of your other plans.

Ethics don’t stop at the planning stage either, sometimes ethical issues crop up whilst we are doing the research even though we tried hard to avoid them. We have often learned the hard way and will give you some top tips from our experiences for managing ethics in the moment.

Doing the research

This is the bit you have all been waiting for! You have patiently and diligently planned the research following all the steps and are now ready to go live and get on with your project. This step is where you think through how you will do things, in what order and who will do each task – that will help you get everything done well according to your research design. You will walk back through each step but in a practical way delivering everything you and the co-researchers have planned – good luck!

Reviewing the research

Good research involves reviewing throughout as well as at the end – reflecting on what you are all doing/have done in order to work out how well it all went and to learn from the process. Plan this now! If you don’t agree on how, when and where you will review, it is likely you will forget it in the rush to get on with the next part, the next research project or certainly the day job! Take the time to celebrate your achievements, to identify what you have learned and how you can put that into practice.

Exploring the match between stages

You may have gathered that we think the matching up of decisions from one step to another is important. Some people set out to understand how much tea people drink in a day by asking them to take a picture of their brew because they think photo data is an original and engaging approach. This approach might be best to work out what strength people like their tea, or what cups or mugs they like to drink it from. But, unless you asked people to take a photo of every cup of tea, you would not get the number data you were looking for. Some people like how simple numbers seem and so ask people to rate how much they enjoy tea on a 1–10 scale. Whilst this might give them a rating it does not give them any information on why they enjoy it, where or with whom, which would be important in an exploratory study.

Ensuring a good match between each stage therefore makes sure we get the information we want in a way which suits the co-researchers so we can tell the story we need to the people who need to hear it. It prevents us from doing our ‘favourites’, picking and choosing what we like rather than what is appropriate, and leads to high-quality research which can contribute to change.

Reflective task and tea break two

Write down your answers to these questions:

  • How would you describe each of the ten stages to the co-researchers?

  • Can you say why each stage of research is important?

  • How much time will it take you to plan each of these before you start your research?

  • How can you ensure everyone in your team will be up for working through the design steps?

  • Where can you go if you get stuck on any of these stages – what or who could answer your questions?


This chapter has given you a map to navigate your way through research. The map has been broken down into a series of small and achievable steps to support you to design a high-quality research project to embark upon. Planning and then conducting these one at a time gives you a starting place, even if things emerge in a different way and you need to adapt. The following chapters will give you more detail on each. You have also started to learn some of the research ‘language’ in this chapter. Researchers seem to have particularly long and complicated words to say what they mean. Sometimes these words are useful shortcuts saving you a lot of explanation, but they can also be very off-putting and can stop other people understanding them. We use everyday language and research language in this book and it is up to you which you choose to use when you talk and write about your research – which to use will depend on who the co-researchers and participants are and who the audience is. This book will hopefully help guide you through the participatory research process so that you can guide your communities and organisations through it – your choice of language will be a key part of making that a success.

Whilst each step has been described one at a time you might find you need to hop backwards and forwards until your decisions all align. The summary at the end of each chapter will help you work out where to go next. If you are writing a research proposal or a research methodology to go in a report, paper or assignment then you will find each of these steps provides you with a heading and paragraph to write explaining the design choice you have made and why it was the best decision for the research.

Remember there is a glossary at the front of the book with the meanings of all the research terms as a handy guide.

Further reading

  • 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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