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  • Challenging Hegemonies:Advancing Collaboration in Community-Based Participatory Action Research
  • Jean J. Schensul (bio), Marlene J. Berg (bio), and Ken M. Williamson (bio)

Cultivated on the spikes of social injustice, participatory action research projects are designed to amplify demands and critique from the "margins" and the "bottom." . . . Legitimating democratic inquiry, PAR signifies a fundamental right to ask, investigate, dissent and demand what could be.

—Michelle Fine and Maria Torre, "Intimate Details:Participatory Action Research in Prison"

The "classroom" with all its limitations remains a location of possibility. In that field of possibility we have the opportunity to labor for freedom, to demand of ourselves and our comrades, an openness of mind and heart that allows us to face reality even as we collectively imagine ways to move beyond boundaries, to transgress.

—bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress:Education as the Practice of Freedom

Introduction and Definitions

In participatory action research (PAR), community residents (community action researchers) and university-trained researchers (facilitators) collaborate in research that supports personal growth, group solidarity, and social action. The approach marries group-implemented social science research methods and resident-generated local knowledge and social and cultural capital. Critical byproducts are methodological innovations favoring collaboration, and locally driven theories and models [End Page 102] for change. The intent is to use the tools of social science to give validity to local knowledge, thus reversing elitist structures that dominate the production of scientific knowledge and its uses. We have found this form of collaboration to be highly meaningful, both personally and professionally, and at the same time fraught with challenges and contradictions. As university-trained research facilitators and "scholar activists," we have struggled with our tendencies to privilege our forms of knowledge and knowledge acquisition and our own personal and institutional needs and goals for community change. At the same time our community counterparts have been challenged to learn, adapt, and invent new research methods; to go beyond their own experiential knowledge; to engage with difference within their communities; and to confront external barriers to change.

Our essay focuses on a specific form of PAR, the goal of which is to place both the research process and use of the results in the hands of community residents—in other words, to transfer the fundamentals of ethnographic inquiry to lay research activists in a process of mutual learning and knowledge co-construction so that both the process and the outcome are transformational. We (the authors) are applied anthropologists from working and middle-class backgrounds who live and work in the city of Hartford, Connecticut. Our community collaborators are groups that have been marginalized, whose voices often are excluded from the "decision-making table" (Kincheloe and McLaren 2000), and who have not had the opportunity to record, conserve, document, control, or represent their historical experiences, cultural capital, their interpretations of causality, or the futures to which they aspire. This form of PAR has an international history, supported by sociologists (Brydon-Miller et al. 2008; Hall 2005), feminist theorists (Harding 1998, 2004, 2006; Maguire 2001), popular educators (Duncan-Andrade 2007; Freire 1970, 1995, 1998; Tandon 2003, 2005), anthropologists (Berg and Schensul 2004; Fals-Borda 1987; Gaventa 1991, 1993; Hale 2006; Park et al. 1993; Reason and Bradbury 2001; J. Schensul and S. Schensul 1992; S. Schensul and J. Schensul 1978) and activists in many countries around the world.

The field of PAR has advanced significantly, especially as a result of the commitment of these social scientists to addressing health and other disparities by bringing communities into the process. Nevertheless, there remain topics that should be addressed to move the field ahead. [End Page 103] For example, how do PAR facilitators, who may themselves differ in values, class background, theoretical perspectives, and approaches to methodology build trusting relationships with each other and with community residents? What factors come into play when these same differences characterize community residents? What needs to be in place to ensure that PAR methodology builds on and strengthens rather than undermines collaboration among all partners? How do power imbalances within a PAR group affect relationships, research, and subsequent action? How and with whom can collaborative action be conceptualized in PAR projects to address the inevitable constraints of time...


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