Public Health Participatory Action Research
Jane Springett
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 March 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 March 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756797-0156


Participatory action research (PAR) is an umbrella term covering a variety of participatory approaches to action-orientated research that seek explicitly to understand the world and then bring about social change. This is achieved through an emergent process of collective knowledge production involving iterative cycles of reflection and action and through the democratization of research. Thus, the people whose everyday reality will be affected by the outcomes of research and understanding are seen as key stakeholders in the research process, alongside other relevant social actors such as local professionals and agencies. Local people are actively engaged in all aspects of decision making in the research process: identifying health issues, formulating research questions, contributing to data analysis, designing solutions, evaluating them, disseminating outcomes, and taking action. PAR values all forms of knowledge and brings together local contextual knowledge and experiential ways of knowing alongside more traditional scientific forms. With its emphasis on the process of knowledge production for change, it pays attention to the relational, the dialogical, and the reflective components of research, in which learning and action are not seen as separate activities but integrated components of the cyclical process of reflection and action. The popularity of this type of research approach has increased substantially in recent years as the knowledge generated tends to be more relevant to local contexts and more able to directly affect local action. As an approach it is particularly seen as crucial for addressing health inequalities, as the voices of the marginalized are actively encouraged to be heard. As research “with” people rather than “on” them, professional or” outside” researchers seek to encourage equitable relationships with their fellow knowledge producers throughout the research process, acting as facilitators. Thus, capacity building and empowerment are seen as crucial elements so that when these researchers leave the community of people they have been working with, the research process and its outcome have a lasting positive influence on the lives of those involved. As participatory action research is an approach to research, it uses traditional qualitative and quantitative methods as well as specific participatory methods and tools such as photovoice and participatory statistics. Any research method is seen as being used in service to the primary objective of PAR as a process and a vehicle for co-inquiry and social change.

Origins and Development

There are several interpretations as to the roots of contemporary PAR. Although its philosophical underpinnings can be traced back further, various strands in its lineage come from action research in the early postwar period, adult education in 1960s and 1970s and the struggles faced by many in resisting colonialism and arguing for the inclusion of local knowledge in development. In development context as well as in indigenous research, its practice has been seen as a counterpoint to the colonization of research and knowledge production by Western science and perspectives. The action research strand is reflected in the early work of Reason and Rowan 1981. Reason was influenced by the work of transpersonal psychologist John Heron, who has subsequently developed thinking on the more spiritual aspects of critical consciousness of this approach initially through cooperative inquiry (Heron and Reason 1997). A major influence from adult education has been the writings of Freire (see particularly Freire 2010), who was an emancipatory educator in Brazil and concerned with social justice. PAR challenges common notions as to the nature of knowledge and science. Fals-Borda, a prominent critic of Western dominance, explores the convergence of the two perspectives in Fals-Borda 2001. Developments in PAR in Asia and elsewhere are explored in Rahman 2008. Freire, Fals-Borda, and Rahman all reflect the emancipatory tradition in PAR. Another significant influence has been the development of a postcolonial feminist critique of research for which PAR is seen as a solution. Hall 1992 contextualizes this critique in the wider development of PAR in Europe, Canada, and beyond. Finally, Wallerstein and Duran 2008 provides an overview of the tradition within a North American and specifically US public health context, where it has developed its own specific tradition of community-based participatory research (CBPR).

  • Fals-Borda, O. 2001. Participatory (action) research in social theory: Origins and challenges. In Handbook of action research. Edited by P. Reason and H. Bradbury, 27–37. London: SAGE.

    Argues that a researcher that engages in PAR is not simply engaging in a participatory method: they are joining a movement. The PAR researcher gets directly involved in “processes of social action,” and a “praxis-inspired commitment,” to use knowledge for the improvement of practice, in contrast to the mass of redundant information produced by conventional science” (p. 29).

  • Freire, P. 2010. Pedagogy of the oppressed. London: Bloomsbury.

    This classic text provides an understanding of the key values and philosophy that underpin PAR. Its main argument is that by teaching people to question they can be the source of change themselves. This book remains a must read for anyone trying to understand the true basis of PAR.

  • Hall, B. L. 1992. From margins to center? The development and purpose of participatory research. American Sociologist 23.4: 15–28.

    DOI: 10.1007/BF02691928

    An excellent overview of the origins and development of participatory action research, including the founding of the International Participatory Research Network in New Delhi in an effort to counter the dominance of North America. It examines the underlying theories, such as feminism and Gramsci’s theory, as well as the core principles. It outlines some of the challenges including co-option by academia.

  • Heron, John, and Peter Reason. 1997. A participatory inquiry paradigm. Qualitative inquiry 3.3: 274–294.

    DOI: 10.1177/107780049700300302

    Outlines participative inquiry and its key dimensions, distinguishing it from constructivsm in qualitative inquiry. Links cooperative inquiry (as developed by Heron) to this new paradigmatic way of thinking and demonstrates how it works.

  • Rahman, M. A. 2008. Some trends in the praxis of participatory action research. In A handbook of action research: Participative inquiry and practice. 2d ed. Edited by H. Bradbury and P. Reason, 49–62. London: SAGE.

    Looks at trends in Asia and elsewhere and at how PAR evolved into a global program under the International Labour Organization. Reflects on how concepts such as people’s liberation and power, the “animator,” and the validity of PAR as research challenge Western assumptions about science.

  • Reason, P., and J. Rowan. 1981. Human inquiry: A sourcebook of new paradigm research. Chichester, UK: J. Wiley.

    This early book provides examples of the foundations of participatory action research that forms part of the northern European experience and the early debate on new paradigm research. In their introduction, Reason and Rowan set out their basic thinking about different types of knowledge: propositional, presentational, experiential and practical, and the essence of participatory inquiry.

  • Wallerstein, N., and B. Duran. 2008. The conceptual, historical, and practice roots of community based participatory research and related participatory traditions. In Community-based participatory research for health: From process to outcomes. Edited by M. Minkler and N. Wallerstein, 27–52. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

    Provides a good overview of the conceptual, historical, and practice roots of participatory action research and is a good starting point for anyone wishing to get to grips with the variety of traditions that inform the practice. It covers both southern and northern traditions, including Lewin, who is seen as the person who originally coined the term “action research.” Introduces the key concepts of participation, power, and theories of knowledge while referencing feminism and Paulo Freire.

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