Re-signifying participatory action research (PAR) in higher education: What does 'P' stand for in PAR?

Year: 2012

Author: Santos, Doris

Type of paper: Abstract refereed


Purpose - Participatory action research emerged in the 1970s as a development of action research in the context of social movements in the developing world. While carrying out a doctoral study aimed at understanding the contribution of participatory action research (PAR) to the political realm in contemporary higher education, a problematic situation was found in the literature review in the field of participatory action research. This problem concerns the intermittent appearance of the 'participatory' component, (P), in the acronyms used by PAR practitioners. To flag this problem, a decision was made to use the parentheses around the 'P' in PAR, i.e., (P)AR.Method - In order to address how the concept of 'participatory' in participatory action research was an intermittent feature of the research carried out by PAR practitioners in higher education, I utilised German philosopher Hannah Arendt's political theory and phenomenology as a means of uncovering 'the political' component of four (P)AR initiatives that I had led in the Colombian higher education sector. This unfolding process of 'the political' was accomplished through a new storytelling of these four (P)AR initiatives, based not only on what I had previously published about them, but especially on the untold and contested stories behind the research. Results -It is argued that the intermittent appearance of (P) in the literature of AR is linked to one of the main findings in the study, namely, the existence of contested views of 'action' and 'politics' in action research. To resolve this problematic situation, it is claimed that the relevance and the meaningfulness of (P) is different in those research experiences referred to in the literature with the acronyms AR, P(A)R or PAR. It is proposed that, besides foregrounding the (P) component in the acronym AR, it is important that we, (P)AR practitioners, reflect critically upon the notion of 'participation' to be able to renew our political commitment with our university communities. Conclusion- As a result of my reflection process and drawing from Arendt's notion of natality, central in her political theory, it is suggested that the participatory aspect of PAR, i.e., the 'P', be resignified on the basis of six imbricated 'P' notions: people, plurality, publicity, participation, power and politics. This, together with the resignification of the action, 'A' and the research, 'R' components of PAR constitute some of the implications derived from the findings of the phenomenological study aimed at contributing to the re-humanization of contemporary higher education.