Study on Participatory Action Research


Participatory action research is a form of action research in which practitioners engage

subject-related people as collaborators in the research process to shape the research

process, methods and theories. Participatory action research (PAR) is different from

action research in several aspects. Action research is not as orientated towards social

change (Stoeker, 1999) and does not necessary engage participants directly in the

research process (Kindon et al., 2007). But PAR projects engaged in collaborative

processes aimed at improving and understanding their worlds in order to change them.

(McIntyre, A. 2007). Therefore, by engaging in the participatory action research process,

both practitioners and participants reflect on and learn from, what they act will feedback

to the design process. Thus figure 1 illustrateds that actions and reflections are a mutual

process for participants in PAR.

Figure1: Participants in PAR (Figure made by the author)

· How PAR works:

One of the theories based on Paulo Freire’s epistemology study is that “human

consciousness brings a reflection on material reality, whereby critical reflection is already

action”(Freire, P. 2020). Freire’s theory is valuable for our understanding of the action and

reflection in PAR. From an academic research perspective, PAR emphasises dialogic

engagement with co-researchers and the development and implementation of

context-appropriate strategies oriented towards empowerment and transformation at a

variety of scales (Kindon et al., 2007). Figure 2 is a new empowerment model, the voice

of each participant is equal, the actions and reflections of the participants play a direct

role in the research process and the process is repeated until it is perfected, in what is

called an iterative reflective cycle.

Figure2: New empowerent model(Figure made by the author)

However, positioning of dominance bias is always a potential concern because, in

such a participatory model, it is difficult to achieve an equitable distribution of rights. As

Málovics et al. (2021) advised, “Cooperation shifts from discussions to actions and

theories-in-use start dominating the process, PAR might become a complex and fuzzy

process, characterized by numerous pragmatic and ethical challenges and


PAR, Action Research and Participatory Design:

PAR is closely related to Participatory Design (PD) and Action Research (AR) in that they

can be used differently for specific scenarios. Previous research on PAR has not dealt

much with its links to PD and AR, but it is still possible to get a glimpse of PAR through a

case-by-case analysis of PD and AR perspectives.

· Participatory design:

D Schuler and A Namioka write in their book that when people pursue the issues of PD,

they need to make sure that participation involves decision-making (Schuler & Namioka,

1993, p.11). On the contrary, Claus Bossen and two other researchers on previous

studies for PD revealed that formal evaluations of PD are researcher- and not

participant-led (Bossen et al., 2016). For three decades, there has been much debate

among practitioners about whether to activate participants in decision-making. When we

look at PAR through the lens of PD, the principles of behavioural influence are used

simultaneously in PAR, this means re-empowering participants and bringing them into

the evaluation, and decision-making process.


In most cases, Participatory Design is about the direct involvement of people in the

co-design of the technologies they use (Simonsen & Robertson, 2013). Looking at PAR

through this lens of PD reveals that PAR places the same emphasis on participant

selection. Specifically, PAR focuses more on engaging experienced individuals as

co-researchers(Lenette, C. 2022). It is essential to note that the lived experience of the

participants needs to be linked to the design project first and foremost. Because the

participants’ knowledge of the context related to the topic determines their behaviour

and directly affects the iterative reflective cycle of PAR.

· Action research:

PAR, as a form of AR, has a lot in shared with AR and has a lot to offer. Technically, AR is

defined by a constant cycle of taking and giving in the form of planning, acting, observing

and reflecting (Foth, M., & Axup, J. 2006). So that the same circular reflection can be

found when looking at PAR from the perspective of AR. For both, which encompass

behavioural research, the feedback resulting from participant behaviour is crucial in

shaping the design process.

Therefore, as shown in figure 3, it is possible to construct the basic contours of PAR

under the dual perspective of AR and PD.

Figure3: PAR from the perspective of AR and PD(Figure made by the author)

Apply PAR to design innovation:


· Case Study:

This design example is about the redesign of the Mckeldin Library of the University of

Maryland based on value co-creation (Foster, N. F. 2012). As shown in figure 4, In

selecting the participants, they chose library staff and experienced people who use the

library. The research methods used were mainly interviews, stakeholder workshops and

ethnography. In the course of structured library research, participants’ perceptions

improve through the act of practice, and gradually they develop ideas and refine design

solutions in response to information data. Eventually, the participants conducted several

reflective design cycles through informal communication to determine the final solution

for the spatial redevelopment of the Mckeldin Library. PAR also played a big role in

pushing the envelope during the project compared to PD, the case is consistent with it in

terms of participant selection, participant understanding enhancement and reflective

action cycle.

Figure4: Co-creation of Mckedin Library(Figure made by the author)


Whether you look at PAR as a design methodology from the perspective of AR or the

perspective of PD, you can see one side of it or the other. But PAR is not the product of a

random combination of the two, it is the result of the need for participants to be involved

in the design process and to reflect on their actions to sharpen the process and

decision-making. In this day and age, PAR provides us with a unique application of

participatory reality and the results address the needs of the community of interest in

every way. On the other hand, the more complex constraints and the more lengthy

participatory process have led to a greater investment of time and effort on the part of

the researchers involved in PAR. Another bias is whether equilibrium in decision-making

can be achieved in an affirmative model, which has become a limitation and a drawback,

leading more researchers to turn to alternative approaches.


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