Communication Participatory Action Research
Dana E. Wright
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 March 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 March 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0257


Participatory action research (PAR) represents an epistemological framework, pedagogical approach, research methodology, and process for collaborative social action. PAR processes connect research, education, and action with the aim of addressing inequities to achieve social justice and societal transformation. By disrupting dominant notions of who holds expertise, PAR centers the situated knowledge of marginalized groups who are directly impacted by sociopolitical inequities. Central to PAR are the epistemological questions of whose knowledge counts, what counts as knowledge, who benefits from knowledge, and the purpose and audience for which knowledge is used and disseminated. One of PAR’s central tenets is that the people directly impacted by a societal issue, who must navigate systems of oppression, hold the most knowledge and wisdom regarding the complexities of the issue—and the structures, contexts, processes, and systems that (re)produce it—and how to solve it. PAR acknowledges that those directly impacted by systemic injustices have the most to lose and the most to gain in transforming the root causes of these issues and, therefore, are best positioned to motivate and lead others in partnership to address the root causes of social injustices. While PAR does not represent a collection of discrete practices, various PAR forms and approaches represent contested meanings linked to competing ideological underpinnings, societal interests, purposes, and interpretations depending on the contexts in which it emerges. For example, in some forms of PAR the purpose is to support participants in achieving greater control over their social and economic lives through intergenerational action aiming toward structural change, transforming systemic power relations, social justice that intersects with educational, socioeconomic, gender, queer and trans, disability, and racial justice. PAR recognizes that societal institutions, including schools, typically do not support historically marginalized groups in deepening their analysis of the root causes of injustices they face. The PAR process allows coresearchers to uncover the discourses and ideologies that normalize structural violence. Informed by popular education methods and social movements, PAR employs participatory pedagogical approaches that engage marginalized people in analyzing their lived experiences and contexts to disrupt grand narratives that bolster systems of domination and structural disinvestments in marginalized people’s institutions and communities. As a research methodology, PAR can include qualitative, quantitative, or mixed methods and can include creative methods such as PhotoVoice. PAR products draw on research findings and recommendations to call for new initiatives, practices, and policies and can take many forms such as a presentation to powerholders, an art exhibition, a film, an organizing campaign, or a theatrical performance. PAR allows space, opportunities, tools, and structured processes to enable marginalized groups to examine inequities and injustices and to critique the dynamics of power and neoliberal logic that may manifest in their worlds and within the research team.

PAR’s Theoretical and Historical Origins in the Global South

Hall 1992 notes that PAR’s theoretical and historical origins date back to the 1970s, when it emerged within formerly colonized nations in the Global South and was strongly informed by radical social movements. For example, Lomeli and Rappaport 2018 documents the ways in which PAR’s formation and conceptual frameworks were impacted by the 1972 peasants’ movement, in which over 600 peasant families occupied haciendas in Montería, Colombia, to fight against the ongoing encroachment of settlers’ lands into peasants’ lands. Orlando Fals Borda organized the First World Symposium of Participatory Action Research, in Cartagena, Colombia, in 1977—intentionally located not too far from the site of the peasants’ occupation a few years earlier—to study regional problems and their implications. The the symposium convened fifty-six scholar-activists from across the world and peasant leaders. Fals Borda 2013 recalls that participants in the First World Symposium of PAR were sociologists, economists, anthropologists, theologians, farmers, educators, artists, and social workers. Fals Borda 2006 observes that PAR’s first wave in the 1970s was influenced by theoretical contributions that included educator Paulo Freire’s notion of dialogical conscientization in Brazil, economist Samir Amin’s analysis of imperialism in Senegal, sociologist Pablo Gonzalez Casanova’s analysis of exploitation in Mexico, and sociologist Maria Cristina Salazar’s analysis of community action against land ownership inequalities in Colombia. In this first wave, PAR incorporated tools and techniques for research and teaching such as popular theater, drawing, music, and comics. Hall 2008 documents the early leaders in the 1970s, who included Fals Borda in Colombia, Francisco Vio Grossi in Venezuela and Chile, Rajesh Tandon in India, Yusuf Kassam in Tanzania, Budd Hall in Canada, and John Gaventa in Appalachia in the United States. Hall 1992 observes that from its inception, PAR challenged dominant positivist paradigms in social science, which assumed objectivity and scientific credibility. Hall also discusses the alignment of the PAR model and feminist critiques of traditional research paradigms and dominant epistemologies and feminist contributions calling for new research paradigms and new forms of knowledge production that shift the locus of power. Hall 2008 contends that in addition to critiquing positivism, early PAR countered the Marxist-Leninist notion of an intellectual vanguard that assumes to have a more advanced consciousness than the masses and engages in a paternalistic movement role. PAR researchers instead asserted that the role of scholars and researchers was to support everyday people’s social struggles for a more just world. Historically and theoretically, PAR represented an effort to unite social science research and social movements, engaging marginalized groups in collective inquiry and collective action toward liberation from systemic domination. This first wave of the PAR tradition that emerged in the Global South in the 1970s informs the current critical PAR work in the United States and globally.

  • Fals Borda, Orlando. 2006. Participatory (action) research in social theory: Origins and challenges. In The SAGE handbook of action research: Participative inquiry and practice. Edited by Peter Reason and Hilary Bradbury, 27–37. London: SAGE.

    The author reflects on PAR’s initiation as a discipline, its pioneers, theoretical contributions, challenges, appropriation, and its dissemination from the 1980s until the early 2000s. Fals Borda discusses the importance of social movements for initiating change in societies within nations located both in the Global South and in the Global North.

  • Fals Borda, Orlando. 2013. Action research in the convergence of disciplines. International Journal of Action Research 9.2: 155–167.

    DOI: 10.1688/1861-9916_IJAR_2013_02_Fals-Borda

    Fals Borda, professor emeritus and founder of the School of Sociology at the National University of Colombia, presents a talk at a conference as the Martin Diskin Oxfam America Commemorative Conference Speaker of the Latin American Studies Association (LASA). Fals Borda discusses the functions of PAR in the convergence of disciplines and touches on the difference between PAR and the Kurt Lewin school of thought known as action research.

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

    DOI: 10.1007/BF02691928

    Hall documents PAR’s early development and diffusion. He discusses PAR as a contribution to social change and the Participatory Research Network in Tanzania in the 1970s, along with the alignment of PAR and feminist critiques of both traditional research paradigms and dominant forms of knowledge production and feminist contributions calling for a shift in the locus of power.

  • Hall, Budd L. 2008. Gracias companero: An appreciation of Orlando Fals Borda. Action Research 6.4: 442–444.

    DOI: 10.1177/14767503080060040503

    The author discusses the First World Symposium of Action Research, held in Cartagena, Colombia, in 1977 and organized by Orlando Fals Borda, in which fifty-six scholar-activists convened to discuss PAR.

  • Lomeli, Jafte Dilean Robles, and Joanne Rappaport. 2018. Imagining Latin American social science from the Global South: Orlando Fals Borda and Participatory Action Research. Latin American Research Review 53.3: 597–612.

    DOI: 10.25222/larr.164

    The authors conduct detailed archival research of Fals Borda’s original papers in Spanish and discuss PAR’s origins, early thinkers, and the early influences of grassroots social movements in Latin America on PAR’s formation and conceptual frameworks.

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