There is a familiar refrain that comes out of many of the meetings, conversations and workshops we have been having with people and organizations from civil society since the Inquiry began, and it goes something like this: “we are fed up with people doing research on us, taking information from us and then nothing happening”. Of course, there are many reasons why research may not lead to ‘something happening’ but an inquiry focused on the future of civil society must focus on those people involved in creating it. Participatory action research (PAR) aims to do just that.
PAR starts from the people at the centre of the research and is oriented from the outset towards social justice and social change. As an approach to investigating and understanding what the future of civil society could look like it works with people to understand and move towards the sorts of things that they want. So it’s not just observation. It doesn’t seek simply to explore what is out there, take the data back to the university and leave the research subject just as it was found. Far from it, PAR starts out with the intention of working with the research subjects to identify what change might look like and then to help them bring that change about.
In essence PAR attempts to be a democratic approach to doing research that is both critical and collaborative. It tries to be research that is flexible enough to adapt to participants’ needs and desires; to recognize when it might be best to alter the direction of travel, to reconsider if the research questions are really the right ones, to recast intended outcomes to best suit those who will be most effected by the process. The idea is that in the process both the researchers and the research participants learn something.
PAR puts the researcher in the fray. Rather than working from the outside looking in it PAR is about working with people to see what would make change possible. So although it may use traditional methods – facilitated discussions, interviews, workshops – these are organized around questions that allow us to consider the distribution of power, resource and voice both within groups and the wider society.
All this sounds pretty good and all very ‘civil society’ but it is difficult to do well. It requires an ongoing commitment from researchers and research participants and often needs a timeframe longer than research funding will allow. This is not research that ends up in a fusty report that few people will read; this is research that seeks to embed modes of practice that can lead to change.
The research that we are doing as part of Civil Society Futures is inspired by a participatory action framework. We began by taking a broad look at the research on civil society that already exists and then taking account of exogenous trends; focusing in on issues that allowed us to take a more systemic critique of power and the possibilities for change. This review also includes a call for contributions from the research community broadly conceived to tell us what they think we ought to know about. We have brought futures thinking into the fold to ensure that we are not just thinking about how change happens but also what transformation might look like. We’ve taken (or in a couple of cases are about to take) these questions into 9 different locales across the country: Peckham, Marks Gate in Barking and Dagenham, Mansfield, Shirebrook, Newcastle, Sunderland, Oldham, Epsom and Penzance. We’ve worked with civil society in these locales to hold workshops to discuss the changing nature of civil society, how to maximize the prospects for the positive effects of civic action and to consider how a roadmap might emerge to realize these opportunities. Out of these workshops community researchers have come forward to take this conversation to others in the area and hopefully to bring about broader and more inclusive discussions. Where none currently exist we will be working with people in these locales to encourage self-organising groups to emerge focused on key issues identified by the people involved.
Of course, the research team is limited and can’t be everywhere at once, so we have also invited people to hold their own ‘Conversations’ wherever they are and to feed this material back to us to stimulate as wide and as inclusive a debate as possible with Civil Society as the beating heart at the centre of everything we do. All of this provides us with a mass of ‘data’ that we are trying to make sense of so that we can then feed that analysis back to the places it came from and stimulate further conversation and action in an iterative and dynamic process.
It is a challenging and at times frustrating approach that forces each of us constantly to break down boundaries and barriers to our thinking and our practices; to consider what it really means to work together. In the true spirit of PAR we don’t yet know where we will end up but we will be sharing snapshots of the journey along the way and hope, very much, that you will join us for the ride.