Make a difference: Impact of participatory arts-based methods

Categories: Action Research, Creative Methods, Other, Research

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The MethodSpace focus for October is on Action Research. Our Mentors-in-Residence this month are Ernie Stringer and Alfredo Ortiz Aragon, co-authors of a new edition of the text Action Research. You can find the unfolding series of posts through this link.

The post below complements an article, “Making a Difference: Participatory Health Research With Unemployed Citizens and Policymakers” in the special issue on Participatory Action Research: International Perspectives and Practices. We were able to make this issue of the International Review of Qualitative Research open access for the month of October.


by Tineke Abma, Barbara Groot, Alie Weerman, Frederiek Overbeek

“If we talk about impact, this research had an impact. Everywhere I come [in the department of Participation and Employment in the municipality], people refer to this study.” Local official

“I am glad that they listened to our story. People with the power to change policy did spend time with us to discuss the report. But… hope they also act and not only listen.” Person without paid work


These quotes come from a Dutch participatory research project called The Workplace which set change in motion—beginning with a change in how stakeholders viewed each other. Policymakers, civil servants, and people without employment came together as co-researchers to share their perspectives on local government attempts to stimulate unemployed people’s participation in society. These co-researchers not only talked about but also creatively expressed their experiences and emotions (see Figure 1, the cover image, for an example of an object produced by a co-researcher).

The Workplace process included several performances and exhibitions of creative objects in a small theatre in the center of the city, which inspired dialogue on themes like social exclusion and feeling humiliated that are often experienced by unemployed people. By sharing personal knowledge, and presenting this knowledge in a dialogical process, the team created interest, empathy, and the political will to listen and act in response to needs. The gap between the system world of social services and the lifeworld of unemployed people was made very clear. 

Trying to make a difference is key to participatory action research. Its goal is not just to describe or explain reality, but to foster change contributing to social justice. Change is brought about by collective actions of the people involved in the research. Local change starts with engaging people whose work and life matters in all phases of the research. Together, they decide what the study’s focus will be, and jointly they start the inquiry, ultimately developing actions to improve their lives. As a result, change occurs in and through the research.

In the Workplace study, participants took action for change by sharing stories, and learning from these stories. It is important to note that change was not linear, and the actions were not preordained. For example, when one person told a story about her experience of the treatment of officers of the municipality, another person recognized the topic and started to sing a song about her experience. This song brought about other stories, which deepened the insight of structural marginalization experienced by the co-researchers.

In retrospect, the main action taken was the dialogue itself, where local officials met people they otherwise would not meet. Their artworks represented previously silenced knowledge, and this perspective opened the eyes of officials. For example, the artwork in figure 2 highlighted that although people wear masks (in the sense of their personas, not literal Covid masks), they have a desire to be seen, and not only the users, but also the officers of the employment services. Both sides need to work ‘to see each other’. Do you also see the little traumatized girl behind the question marks?

Learn more!

In this video (in Dutch, choose auto-generated translation for subtitles in English by Settings) one of us tells more about the background of the participatory arts-based study.

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