Critical Dilemmas in PAR: Toward a New Theory of Engaged Research for Social Change
This article begins with feminist anthropologist Diane Wolf’s characterization of participatory research (PAR) as “ideal for feminist researchers” because it effectively addresses multiple dilemmas of power in the research process — particularly power inequalities between the researcher and the researched. In this article, the author reflects on her own experience of attempting to implement this “ideal” research approach across three different PAR projects, each involving a distinct population: students at an alternative high school for “at-risk” youth; undocumented university students; and low-income immigrant parents in a school reform effort. The article explores the challenges, contradictions, and possibilities of PAR as a means of disrupting unequal power relations in and through the research process. It draws on Wolf’s three “critical dilemmas in PAR” that emerged in the course of the work: dilemmas of power, authorship, and scale. Each dilemma reflects a critical tension between the principles and practices of PAR that emerged. This is particularly relevant to projects led by university-based scholars for whom PAR is the basis of an academic research program and those in which the university-based scholar occupies multiple positions of privilege in relation to the project participants. In such projects, PAR has the potential to reproduce rather than challenge unequal power relations between researcher and researched. To reconcile these dilemmas, the author re-conceptualizes PAR as a set of principles guiding research rather than a method initiated by an outside (university-based) researcher.
youth activism, equity in education, urban schooling, participatory action research, educational ethnography
Citation: Social Justice Vol. 36:4 (2009): 14-35