Participatory Action Research FAQs

Do evaluator partners in PAR need specialized skills and sensibilities?

They do, indeed. “Human skills on the part of evaluators are necessary but not sufficient,” said a foundation officer who has funded the technique. The aim, in the words of the director of an intermediary PAR organization, is “research in the service of the goals of all stakeholders.” That demands facilitation, consensus building, and team-building skills on the part of the evaluators. It demands patience. As the director of an intermediary working to change practice in schools explained, PAR evaluators “must have a deep respect for people from all walks of life.”

Evaluators also must be flexible as the work unfolds; as questions change through collective work, so do appropriate inquiry techniques. “You might start by assuming you’ll do a survey,” said a researcher, “then shift gears to decide it’s better to talk with ten key informants in the community.” Several said that the evaluation team should, to the greatest extent possible, look like the community. But the ability to bridge difference — the necessary cultural competency — is about something more profound than ethnic background alone....And there is a further demand on the evaluators. Newly trained grassroots researchers are often at the bottom of their own community hierarchies. In the words of an evaluator: “You are asking people without a lot of power to interrogate an institution about what has been haunting it. You must protect them” whether that means protecting participants from negative repercussions, ensuring confidentiality, or doing what’s possible to make the experience a positive one.

What does the approach demand from the community-based practitioners as members of a PAR evaluation team?

They must be willing to overcome their own preconceptions about trained evaluators, willing to learn about the value of evidence and accepted techniques for gathering it, willing, in the words of a program officer, to distinguish “what constitutes legitimate evidence for different people.” As a program director who supports PAR for youth development in civic life explained, “Data are the king. Young people feel things passionately, but what you want is a speed bump, in which their intuition and passion are tested in the crucible of fact.”

There must be a degree of community acknowledgment that something needs improvement, that a change is necessary. This is rarely an issue for low-income, immigrant, or otherwise socially marginalized groups. Problems are all around them. But there can be initial reluctance to become actors in a long-term, research-oriented process of change: “We are just housewives,” said the mothers involved in what eventually became a successful PAR project to improve their children’s schools. A good PAR evaluator can help to overcome such reluctance by assisting people as they learn to identify root causes and promising strategies toward lasting change....Here is where the facilitation skills of the intermediary evaluators pay off. As the director of an organization that works with teachers to “build an inquiry culture that is embedded in existing patterns of interaction” recounted, “we started by doing some reading together with a group of leaders. Only then did we ask them what their questions were.”

Takeaways are critical, bite-sized resources either excerpted from our guides or written by Candid Learning for Funders using the guide's research data or themes post-publication. Attribution is given if the takeaway is a quotation.

This takeaway was derived from Participatory Action Research.