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16 Tenets of Participatory Action Research

Robin McTaggart (1989)

The 16 tenets of Participatory Action Research outlined in this short note were presented to the 3er Encuentro Mundial Investigacion Participatva (The Third World Encounter on Participatory Research), Managua, Nicaragua, September 3 – 9, 1989. They represent an important reflection and distillation of the praxis of participatory action research, by one of its leading practitioners, during the 1980s. The Caledonia Centre for Social Development, as part of its on-going work in the field of participatory development, wishes to make these tenets accessible to a new generation of social activists and to re-stimulate older practitioners.
See Also:
bulletVillage Appraisal - Is this a Case of Elegant Power?
bulletParticipatory Reflection and Action Methods

Participatory Action Research

  1.     is an approach to improving social practice by changing it
  2.     is contingent on authentic participation
  3.     is collaborative
  4.     establishes self-critical communities
  5.     is a systematic learning process
  6.     involves people in theorising about their practices
  7.     requires that people put their practices, ideas and assumptions about institutions to the test
  8.     involves keeping records
  9.     requires participants to objectify their own experiences
  10.     is a political process
  11.     involves making critical analyses
  12.     starts small
  13.     starts with small cycles
  14.     starts with small groups
  15.     allows and requires participants to build records
  16.     allows and requires participants to give a reasoned justification of their social (educational) work to others

1.    Participatory action research is an approach to improving social practice by changing it and learning from the consequences of change.

2.    Participatory action research is contingent on authentic participation which involves a continuing spiral of planning, acting (implementing plans), observing (systematically), reflecting and then re-planning and so round the spiral again. The process can be initiated in different ways:

bulletCollect initial data in an area of general interest (a reconnaissance), reflect on it, and then make a plan for changed action;
bulletMake an exploratory change, collect data on what happens, reflect, and then build more refined plans of action.

In both cases, if the Lewinian action/reflection spiral is thoughtfully and systematically followed, preferably in a group context, then issues and understandings on the one hand, and the practices themselves, on the other, will develop and evolve.

3.    Participatory action research is collaborative: those responsible for action are involved in improving it. The collaborating group is widened from those most directly involved to directly involve as many as possible of those affected by the practices concerned.

4.    Participatory action research establishes self-critical communities of people participating and collaborating in the research processes of planning, acting, observing and reflecting. it aims to build communities of people committed to enlightening themselves about the relationship between circumstance, action and consequence, and to emancipating themselves from the institutional and personal constraints which limit their power to live by their legitimate, and freely chosen social values.

5.    Participatory action research is a systematic learning process in which people act deliberately through remaining open to surprise and responsive to opportunities. It is a process of using critical intelligence to inform action, and developing it so that social action becomes praxis (critically informed, committed action).

6.    Participatory action research involves people in theorising about their practices. This involves them in being inquisitive about and coming to understand the relationship between circumstances, action and consequences in their own lives. The theories that participatory action research develops may be expressed initially in the form of rationales for practice. These initial rationales are then subjected to critical scrutiny through the participatory action research process.

7.    Participatory action research requires that people put their practices, ideas and assumptions about institutions to the test by gathering compelling evidence for substantiation.

8.    Participatory action research involves not only keeping records which describe what is happening as accurately as possible but also collecting and analysing the groups judgements, reactions and impressions about what is going on.

9.    Participatory action research involves participants in objectifying their own experiences. This can be done by keeping a personal journal in which participants record their progress and their reflections about two parallel sets of learnings: (a) about the practices themselves (how the individual and collective practices are developing) and (b) about the process of studying the practices (how the action research project is going).

10.    Participatory action research is a political process because it involves people in making changes that will affect others. For this reason it sometimes creates resistance to change, both in the participants themselves and in others.

11.    Participatory action research involves making critical analyses of the institutionally structured situations (projects, programmes, systems) in which people work. The resistance to change felt by a researcher is due to conflicts between the proposed new practices and the accepted practices (eg concerning communication, decision-making and educational work) of the institution. This critical analysis will help the participatory action researcher to act politically by (a) involving others collaboratively in the research process and inviting them to explore their practices, and (b) by working in the wider institutional context towards more rational understandings, more just processes of decision-making, and more fulfilling forms of work for all involved.

12.    Participatory action research starts small by working on minor changes which individuals can manage and control, and working towards more extensive patterns of change. These might include critiques of ideas of institutions which might lead to ideas for the general reforms of projects, programmes or system-wide policies and practices.

Participants should be able to present evidence on how they articulated the thematic concern which holds their group together, and on how they established authentically shared agreements in the group.

13.    Participatory action research starts with small cycles of planning, acting, observing and reflecting which can help to define issues, ideas and assumptions more clearly so that those involved can define more powerful questions for themselves as their work progresses.

14.    Participatory action research starts with small groups of collaborators but widens the community of participating action researchers so that it gradually includes more and more of those involved and affected by the practices in question.

15.    Participatory action research allows and requires participants to build records of their improvements:

Participants must be able to demonstrate evidence of a group climate where people expect and give evidence to support each other’s claims. They must show respect for the value of rigorously gathered and analysed evidence – and be able to show and defend evidence to convince others.

bulletrecords of their changing activities and practices,
bulletrecords of the changes in the language and discourse in which they describe, explain and justify their practices,
bulletrecords of the change in the social relationships and forms of organisation which characterise and constrain their practice and
bulletrecords of the development of their expertise in the conduct of action research.

16.    Participatory action research allows and requires participants to give a reasoned justification of their social (educational) work to others because they can show how the evidence they have gathered and the critical reflection they have done have helped them to create a developed, tested and critically examined rationale for what they are doing. Having developed such a rationale, they may legitimately ask others to justify their own practices in terms of their own theories and the evidence of their own critical self-reflection.

Source and Further Information

These participatory action research tenets are published on page 79 of Everyday Evaluation on the Run, Yoland Wadsworth, (2nd Edition), Allen and Unwin, Australia, 1997

For a fuller description and elaboration of Robin McTaggart’s approach to Participatory Action Research readers are advised to consult The Action Research Planner, Stephen Kemmis and Robin McTaggart (Eds), 3rd Edition, Deakin University, Victoria, Australia, 1988.

Robin McTaggart, Deakin University, Geelong, Victoria 3217, Australia,

Fax (61) 52 442 777.



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