Participatory research: An approach for structural social workers
“Participatory” and “Participatory Action” are increasingly entering the vocabulary of social work researchers and consultants. Research studies and evaluations claiming to be participatory action research may fail to transfer power to research subjects, or engage the participation of the community in research activities. Given this, how can social workers wanting to do participatory research know whether or not the research they are doing involves people in a way that facilitates the transformation of oppressive structures and social relations? Examination of the historical development of the concepts of participation and participatory research gives some guidance, with discussions of aims, principles and case studies. However, there are no clear guides to aid researchers or students in choosing an approach to client or community involvement which they can feel comfortable calling participatory. This paper fills this gap by providing a quadrant continuum representing two dimensions of participation which researchers can use to locate their research. The two dimensions are: (1) who directly controls decision making concerning the research; and (2) who actively conducts the research activities. With the quadrant continuum, research can be located along two dimensions and categorized as being somewhere within one of four squares. These squares are: the question/response approach, the hired researcher approach, the representative committee or delegates approach and the ideal participatory approach. The concept of a continuum allows researchers to locate their work without being constrained by overly rigid definitions of ideal participatory research. It also serves to identify research which claims to follow the participatory approach, but which has little resemblance to it. The paper then discusses how participatory research can inform the work of structural social workers.