Participatory research

As the first center for participatory action research in Hungary, the School not only engages in research that support the work of social movements and organizations working for social change, but also operates as a Hungarian language knowledge center and offers consultation and supervision in this field. The School will develop both its own research projects and engage in commissioned work by progressive think tanks, universities, social movements and civil society organizations.

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What is participatory action research?

Participatory action resreach (PAR) provides a space for questioning social exclusion and inequities and transforms research from “the gaze of the privileged” into a tool for social change. As a methodology, PAR gained significance in Latin America, Africa and Asia in the 1970s as a form of inquiry where, in the words of Mohammad Anisur Rahman “ordinary, underprivileged people … collectively investigate their own reality, by themselves or in partnership with friendly outsiders, take action of their own to advance their lives, and
reflect on their ongoing experience”. Born out of a combination of Marxist theory, critical pedagogy, action research and feminist critiques of the structures of dominance, PAR radically changes the ways in which knowledge is produced and puts research at the service of social transformation.

PAR’s philosophy of social change is rooted in Paulo Freire’s critical pedagogy, which poses a direct challenge to the reproduction of marginalization and privilege by mainstream education as well as the hierarchical relationships embedded in conventional academic (research) practice. Defining social transformation as a pedagogical process, Freire maintained that marginalized groups have to undertake a process of radical self-humanization by understanding and subverting the structural roots of oppression. Freire’s theory of social change is important because of its focus on process and methodology – how social
transformation is achieved is just as important as its actual outcome – and the recognition that marginalized groups have to participate actively in changing the social conditions that oppress them.

PAR aims to connect personal experiences with the broader context of structural inequalities through the co-construction of the research process and the development of critical consciousness. Critical consciousness or
conscientization refers to the process by which members of oppressed groups cultivate abilities to perceive and deconstruct the prevailing ideologies and practices that veil inequalities as legitimate and how they progressively work to change the conditions of their lives through action aimed at restructuring hierarchal power relations. In other words, critical consciousness is not a mental state, but the catalyst for critical reflection and practice.

While Freire dismissed reflection for its own sake, Kurt Lewin advocated against research for purely academic purposes: “research that produces nothing but books will not suffice”. Lewin maintained that it is not enough to use research to understand social relations; it also has to contribute to improving them. For research to be an effective tool for social change, it cannot take place only in the isolated setting of the university but must be embedded in the practice of social movements and organizations. PAR brings together the commitment of social movements, their members’ experience and expertise and scholars skilled in the craft of research with access to the resources and privileges of academia. By establishing a democratic and critical process of knowledge production, PAR is able to produce results that are both theoretically significant and politically transformative.

PAR aims to collect information, offer a critique of the status quo, encourage individual and collective learning, dismiss stereotypes and prejudices while also realizing concrete actions and building community. PAR creates a space for theorizing by those who are dehumanized and silenced by hegemonic institutions such as academia, the media and social services and plays a critical role in challenging dominant discourses of personal blame and failure. In all, with its commitment to “speaking back to power,” PAR is a tool to produce the cultural or discursive power necessary for viable political representation. As a political alliance between formally trained researchers and those directly affected, PAR can be used in different contexts including public policy, academia and social movements.

Photo: István Várady

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