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Disrupting power imbalances in research: what is Participatory Action Research and why is FLEX using it?

May 8, 2019

Written by Lara Farrell, FLEX Research Consultant.

No one has better insight on working conditions than workers themselves.

However, as our CEO Caroline Robinson recently pointed out, workers are rarely consulted on the legislation that impacts their lives so profoundly. At FLEX, we think policy should be shaped by those with lived experience so we are using research methods which overturn traditional hierarchies and work ‘with’, rather than ‘for’ or ‘on’, at-risk workers.

Listening to the real experts through participatory research approaches

Policy-making can fail to solve problems adequately or can create unintended consequences. One cause of this may well be the top-down nature of the processes used in its development. There is a profound lack of ‘voice’ of those most likely to be affected by laws and policies relating to working conditions. This applies not only to the process of law-making itself, but to the data often used to inform the process. How can we expect laws and policies to work well if they aren’t based on lived experience?

Participatory Action Research (PAR) aims to turn this structure upside down, re-centring the expertise and agency of those most directly affected by the issues. PAR is an approach to qualitative research with two core features:

  1. It is community-led – those most affected by the issues are supported to lead the research, framing the agenda and shaping the entire process.
  2. It aims to generate knowledge which can bring about social change.

Whilst traditional research seeks to fulfil a pre-determined research agenda, PAR does not: instead the research travels to where the community itself wishes to take it. This creates space for community-led action, fostering opportunities for those most affected by policy to frame the issues and communicate their perspective directly to policy-makers. This approach is something FLEX embraces, for example through the project described in this previous article, aiming to engage women workers in the quest to find effective solutions to tackling abuse and exploitation at work. PAR is particular relevant for those working on feminist approaches and topics: within the history of the feminist movement, ‘the primary means of empowerment has been women’s telling of their own stories’. Sandra Harding observes that ‘‘feminists pointed out how the conceptual frameworks of…public policy…clearly represented easily identifiable social interests and concerns, and these were rarely women’s.”

Overcoming the idea of the ‘subject’ in research

Qualitative research is vital – it fosters rich, nuanced knowledge and the potential to better represent the complex reality of those experiencing exploitation. Such research can be invaluable for exposing the structural causes of labour exploitation and highlighting potential solutions. However, research tends to identify ‘subjects’ and is understood as being performed on individuals or communities. This is, ultimately, an extractive process which sees ‘expert’ outsiders sent to collect data from often oppressed or marginalised ‘subjects’ in a one-way, short-term arrangement.

Disrupting this dynamic through PAR seems especially poignant within the realm of labour exploitation, where denial of agency is inherent to labels such as ‘victim’ or ‘modern slave’. As opposed to outsiders giving voice to those who may have been marginalised, oppressed or exploited, participatory or community-led methodologies facilitate opportunities for people to take power themselves, choose how to use their own voice and lead and shape research and advocacy. A growing movement of research by those traditionally perceived as subjects holds great potential in recognising the agency of individuals most affected, and the opportunity to create a space in which they can become empowered to address their experiences of injustice on their own terms.

Turning research into change, led by those who need it most

The ‘Action’ element of PAR makes this explicit: it involves actively participating to identify and solve a problem, driven by data collection in the research phase. In our current project, workers are speaking to their peers about their experiences of work, identifying what needs to change and collaborating to form a plan of action to instigate positive change, for example, through organising or communicating their findings with policymakers. Instead of subjects being acted upon, the research participants are agents of policy change themselves.

There has been a ‘participatory turn’ in recent decades in the form of citizen engagement – a trend of bringing together expert and public knowledges within academia, policy and the public sphere. However, such approaches are diverse and participation exists on a spectrum – from the shallow and tokenistic, through consultative or collaborative, to deep participation and ownership. True PAR entails ownership by research participants of all stages of the process, including research design; data collection; analysis; dissemination and activism.  It is often a messy and complex endeavour, presenting challenges to everything from funding frameworks to accepted wisdoms around advocacy but, done well, it presents a deeply meaningful vehicle for social change. Perhaps most importantly, it requires those formerly considered the experts to step down from their plinths and recognise the expertise of those living in the reality which we seek to understand. In this way, FLEX is pleased to be the catalyst of our PAR projects, but not the agents leading the change.