Stages of PAR

Capacity-Building Stage

This stage is all about establishing relationships and laying the groundwork for a strong, trusting research collective with a clear project vision.

Identify the issue(s)

Many PAR projects are started because there is already an issue or a problem within a community that community members are interested in resolving. They tend to be most successful when building on previous and ongoing efforts to examine and change systems, institutions, and processes that fail to include and support all members of a community. 

For example, in the Carleton-Faribault PAR project, community members in Faribault including parents and teachers and Carleton staff, faculty, and students had been working to provide better opportunities for students in Faribault. When an opportunity to apply for a grant that focused on PAR came up, the college and various stakeholders in the community in Faribault were able to come together and decide to focus on the issue of education. Deciding on a specific focus involved negotiation and compromise and an attention to funding possibilities. In initial discussions about this project, for example, Faribault community members expressed the need for data on the daily lives of Faribault’s Somali and Latinx community members in a broad range of settings. The director of Carleton’s civic engagement suggested that the focus should be narrowed down to look at one specific context of experiences–the schools–given the particular expertise of the faculty member involved and the long history of the college being involved in educational issues in Faribault.

Latinx parent team exploring the root causes for the problem of the low high school graduation rates of Latinx students in Faribault

Identify partners and stakeholders

For a PAR project to be successful, it needs to involve those who are most affected by the problem being investigated. 

In university-initiated PAR projects that involve working with community partners outside of the universities, these questions are important to consider:

  1. Who needs to be at the research table?
  2. Who needs to “buy in” to the project?
  3. How do we frame the project? Who’s the ‘we’?
  4. What involvement/role do community members have?
  5. How do we recruit community researchers? How will community researchers be compensated fairly for their time and expertise?

For the Carleton-Faribault project, initial conversations between the Carleton team members and various community partners led to a focus on the educational experiences of Somali and Latinx youth in Faribault and the experiences of the mostly white teaching staff working in schools that have undergone a dramatic demographic shift in the last ten years. Since the focus was on the lower rates of high school graduation rates among the town’s Somali and Latinx communities in comparison to the white community, the initial partners and stakeholders involved Somali and Latinx students and parents as well as white teachers and administrators. The Carleton team involved an educational studies professor and staff of the college’s civic engagement center. The initial people involved in crafting the grant application all had ongoing and long-term relationships with each other through their work on various community-based projects in Faribault.

Establish relationships and reflect on group dynamics

Building relationships and a sense of community is central to the PAR process. Because the process involves deep collaboration, research teams have to develop community norms and democratic decision-making processes. Because the problems being investigated in PAR projects are often deeply personal for those involved, trust is key to ensuring that people feel safe enough to share their experiences and ideas. 

All the community teams in the Carleton-Faribault spent time at the beginning of their work together getting to know each other and there were ongoing check-ins to ensure that team members could continue to get to know each other. During Year 1, for example, all teams used The Story Stitch game, developed by Green Card Voices, to get to know each other:

Another community-building activity is the “cultural artifacts” activity:

Please bring one cultural artifact to the first day of the workshop (some kind of symbol or object that represents you, your family, your heritage, your environment, etc.). Be ready to share a story about why this artifact is meaningful to you and how it helps explain who you are.
As you choose your item, consider the things and ideas that you value. For our purposes, a cultural artifact can be something that represents some important aspects of your social identities (e.g. ethnicity, gender, race, religious tradition, sexuality, socio-economic class) or that represents where you come from, what’s important to you, your worldview, etc. There is no right or wrong way to decide on your item. Whatever direction you take it will be perfect.

All research team meetings can start with a check-in question that can range from the silly (e.g. What’s your favorite breakfast food?) to the substantial (e.g. share a high and a low from this past week). 

Teams also created community norms and ground rules for themselves, which helped establish the norms for their meetings:

As PAR scholars have noted, PAR projects take time and the process is often messy and unpredictable. There will be inevitable conflicts of interests, ideas, and identities. The principles of participatory action research encourage everyone involved in the research endeavor to “excavate and explore disagreements and disjunctures rather than smooth them over in the interests of consensus” (Torre, 2009). Coming back to the ground rules and established community norms can support a team in resolving conflicts and moving forward. It’s important to have real conversations about power, not just between marginalized groups within a community and those in power, but also interpersonal power within a research team who might share cultural identities and backgrounds. For example, how does the group account for differences in communication style, levels of comfort with conflict, conflict resolution styles, and so forth? It’s important to reflect regularly on these dynamics.

Power Mapping Tool

This tool created by researchers at University of Denver provides a concrete way for PAR teams to name their values and make power dynamics explicit. You can find an editable Word version of the power mapping tool and more information here.

Collaboratively determine research questions, methodologies, and roles

In PAR projects, answers to questions about building knowledge, gathering and analyzing data and sharing findings should be collectively decided. Questions to consider:

    • What will our process of collective decision making look like?
    • How will we ensure that different knowledge, experiences, perspectives, and expertise are all acknowledged, valued, and used in ALL PARTS of the research process?
    • What do we want to know? Who do we want to be our audience for the research? What do we hope to get out of the research? (And always: who’s the WE?)

According to Torre (2009), central assumptions of PAR include: “All people have valuable knowledge about their lives and experiences” and “All people have the ability to develop strong critical analyses (of the world, data, social experiences, etc.).” Collectively generating knowledge about the context and the problem is a key part of the PAR research process.

Because PAR is an approach to conducting research and not a methodology, PAR teams can use a range of methodologies in generating research questions and data pertaining to what they want to investigate. The community research teams in Faribault learned about various research methodologies as they worked together to determine what methods were best suited for what they wanted to find out. It’s important to ground research methods and analyses in cultural norms of groups that have been historically marginalized from academia, even as groups learn about mainstream ways to do research.  

Because PAR assumes that everyone can and should learn and deepen their skills including facilitation, taking notes, and other tasks, it is also important to have clearly defined roles to make sure that meetings and events go smoothly. It is important to have ongoing, honest conversations about what was working and what was not. It is important to build on team member’s strengths and preferences as teams decide what roles to take on.  Equity is important, not equality.

Memorandums of Understanding, Other Collaborative Research Agreements, and Related Tools

What are Memorandums of Understanding?

  1. Research Partnership Checklist (University of Minnesota). A survey for members of a community partnership, to help collaborators begin to develop a plan of action and co-create a Memorandum of Understanding.
  2. The Community Impact Statement: A Tool for Creating Healthy Partnerships (Susan Gust and Catherine Jordan). This document explains what a community impact statement is and why it is an important tool for creating healthy partnerships, and outlines discussion points for the process of developing one.

Theory and Tenets

  1. The 6 Tenets of Community-Institutional Collaboration (Susan Gust and Cathy Jordan, University of Minnesota). Co-created by a community partner and a faculty person, this document succinctly describes six important themes in collaborative relationships.
  2. Perceptions of Partnership Study (Campus Compact). A national coalition of colleges and universities committed to the public purposes of higher education. The website provides a variety of tools and best practices for civic engagement on campus.
  3. The Phillips Neighborhood Healthy Housing Collaborative: Forging a Path of Mutual Benefit, Social Change, and Transformation (Cathy Jordan and Susan Gust). Jordan and Gust outline a successful community-based participatory research project to prevent a garbage transfer station from being built in Phillips, Minneapolis.

Reciprocity and Equity in Partnership

  1. Campus-Community Partnership: A Stubborn Commitment to Reciprocal Relationships (Darby Ray, Bates College). This article articulates the distinctions between models of partnership and models of paternalism, and describes how to move closer to the latter. You can use this resource before beginning your partnership to better understand the central tenets of ethical academic civic engagement, such as reciprocity, community voice, and reflection.
  2. Ownership, Control, Access, and Possession (OCAP) or Self-Determination Applied to Research (Brian Schnarch, First Nations Centre). An article examining colonial research practices and the principles of OCAP, advocated for by First Nations in Canada. Use this resource to understand the histories of exploitative research and theories developed by communities seeking to set standards of ethical practice and partnership for themselves.

Research Agreements and Data Ownership

  1. Data Sharing: Creating Agreements (Paige Buckland Jarquín, Colorado Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute & Rocky Mountain Prevention Research Center). A master document that develops guidelines for data sharing in community–academic partnerships, including best practices, templates, and key resources. Use this document to think about why, when, and how you might use community or partnership agreements, and find examples and templates.
  2. Considerations and Templates for Ethical Research Practices (First Nations Centre). This document, intended to be a guide for participatory research with First Nations communities in Canada, provides several helpful templates for formal written agreements between academic researchers and communities: a data sharing protocol, a collaborative research agreement, and a code of research ethics. Use this to inform your own collaborative agreements.

Research Stage

In this stage, the collective carries out the research using whatever methods they’ve decided upon.

Conduct research and collect data, analyze your findings, and reflect on potential future actions

PAR projects can use a broad range of methods: surveys, interviews, self-study, social media research, photovoice,  speaking with relevant experts and so forth. The Berkeley YPAR Hub provides a great overview and lesson plans for teams to learn more about these various methods. For example, the PAR study Our HMoob American College Paj Ntaub used semi-structured interviews, observations, artifact analysis, and autoethnographic journaling to examining the sociocultural and institutional factors that impact the college experiences of HMoob American students. You can learn more about that project here (research methods description starts at 22:20). 

You can also learn more about the various research methods used by the community teams in Faribault here

Faribault high school student research team exploring different research methods

The action aspect of participatory action research is crucial to what makes PAR projects different from traditional research projects. Researching and theorizing about systems of inequity without proposing and carrying out changes would only replicate those systems. Action researchers make a fundamental commitment to “bring about change as part of the research act” (Brydon-Miller, Greenwood & Maguire, 2003, p. 15).

Action Stage

The action stage of a PAR project can take a variety of forms.

For example, based on the research conducted by the various community research teams in Faribault, the high school administrators shifted several school policies and practices such as ending the “no hood/hat” policy that resulted in fewer disciplinary actions against students and changing morning supervision routines to ensure that every student has at least three positive interactions with an adult before first period. The school also instituted monthly meetings between high school administrators and Somali and Latinx parents and ensured that phone calls and letters to parents were sent in Spanish and Somali, in addition to English.

Many PAR teams see dissemination of their findings through presentations and creative avenues such as performances as an important action because community knowledge and education can be a crucial part of changing systems and structures. The Polling for Justice youth participatory action research team, for example, created a performance and a video to get out the word about their data about youth experiences of injustice in education, criminal justice, and public health systems in New York City. 

The community-based organization, SaLaHmo Partnership for Health and Wellness was part of a collaborative PAR project called the Hospice Stories Project that aimed to build culturally relevant awareness around hospice care in Latino, Somali and Hmong communities in the Twin Cities. They disseminated information they gathered from interviews with families as audio and video stories in Hmong, Somali and Spanish. You find links to these stories on their website under “Radio Stories.” 

You can get more ideas and information especially about the research and action aspects of PAR projects by learning more about the various examples of PAR projects on this page.

Synthesized and adapted from:

Pain, R., Whitman, G., & D. Milledge. (2017). Participatory action research toolkit: An introduction to using PAR as an approach to learning, research, and action. Durham, UK: Durham University.

Morris, M. (2002). Participatory research and action: A guide to becoming a researcher for social change. Ottawa, ON: Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women (CRIAW).

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