Methods in Action: Participatory Action Research

Categories: MentorSpace, Qualitative

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MentorSpace: The How of Methods

Mary M. Somerville approaches leadership in her role as university librarian using participatory design, which creates learning systems and professional practices that support information sharing and knowledge creation for informed action throughout the workplace. This in turn creates fertile conditions for workplace learning, she happily explains, for and with other campus stakeholders.

She explains that particular library based use of participatory action research, or PAR, in her 2015 book, Informed Systems: Organizational design for learning in action, and also in the case study — “Participatory Action Research: Improving Professional Practices and Local Situations” — she wrote for the SAGE Research Methods Cases series. As part of our Methods in Action series, we asked Somerville – who in 2010 received the Distinguished Scholar Award for a lifetime of applied research accomplishments from the School of Library and Information Science at San José State University — a few questions about her case and about PAR in general.

Mary Somerville
Mary Somerville

Somerville is the university librarian for the University of the Pacific Libraries, which has campuses in the California cities of Sacramento, San Francisco, and Stockton. She’s also an adjunct professor in the School of Information Systems, Science and Engineering Faculty at the  Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia.

Would you explain what ‘participatory action research’ is, and how it expands on traditional action research?

Both participatory action research and action research intend to produce practical knowledge that is useful to people in their daily lives. To accomplish this, these approaches involve practitioners, as subjects and co-researchers, learning to improve professional practices and local situations. Deeply rooted in participation, PAR expands traditional action research aspirations through strong emancipatory intentions, characteristically equated with empowerment. In its most ambitious expression, PAR participants co-create an enabling workplace environment, to ‘get and give’ information to make informed choices — which lasts beyond the life of a specific participatory action research initiative. This requires encouraging participation, acknowledging and sharing power, building relationships, establishing open communication, and negotiating change.

You explicitly state that PAR does not necessarily add to the theoretical baseline of a discipline, but it should create a learning cycle. Could you detail that process?

Although there is considerable variation among participatory action research approaches, they have in common a cyclical learning process consisting of situation diagnosis, action planning, and action taking (intervention), followed by evaluation and reflection. Inherent in PAR, therefore, researcher-practitioners act as both practitioners and researchers engaged in re-inventing how they learn and reconsidering what they think about. Complementary learning and information-intensive theories and methods can offer guidance, which transfers existing theory to practice.

For instance, in my PAR endeavors, I look to informed learning theory, advanced by Christine Bruce in Australia, and soft systems design, advanced by Peter Checkland in England, to (re)design workplace systems, relationships, and practices in response to re-visioned organizational purposes and re-invented workplace outcomes. Through progressively more complex experiences using information within ever-expanding workplace information landscapes, participants change their ways of seeing, being, and knowing.

What was the work underlying this specific case about? What kind of dataset did it create? And what did you find out?

The local question, “How can we improve the situation?” catalyzed this participatory action research initiative when campus leaders recognized the need to renovate a 35-year-old library building, given transformational changes within higher education and academic publishing ecosystems.  Campus stakeholders initially explored the question, “What is an academic library?” because it naturally followed that ‘form follows function’. Over time, more-focused questions emerged, such as “What type of physical environment, technology, and services are needed to support and enhance the learning and research experience of the campus community?” and “How could the library PAR project further involve campus students, faculty, staff, and administrators in co-creating the re-design concept?”

A wide variety of data were collected for analysis by groups representing several campus constituencies as well as library staff members. Mixed methods included online and ‘paper and pencil’ surveys, semi-structured interviews, student focus groups, formal constituency meetings, and participant observation logs. These data sources were supplemented by service usage models, library white papers, and library program plans. In addition, students studying human factors, architecture, and landscape architect were invited to conduct studies and generate recommendations. These ideas informed a capital funding proposal to the state legislature which secured a $26.7 million multi-year appropriation. Success was attributable to the large number of participants in the visioning process, which ensured engaged advocates for funding at all levels of the campus.

You’ve mentioned the workplace aspect of PAR. Did you involve the workplace after the ‘formal’ portion of the research?

To ensure broad and deep learning within the library organization, research status updates were regularly offered in monthly library group meetings. Data and analysis, as well as PAR working group meeting minutes, were posted on the organizational intranet. In these various ways, research and design conversance – as well as shared understanding – was intentionally furthered throughout the library organization.

As co-workers learned to adopt and adapt, create and recreate, contextualize and recontextualize through wider and wider circles of consultation, cooperation, and collaboration, more effective professional practices emerged. Rich opportunities for reflection on experiences as well as formulation of concepts and generalizations permitted, in a cyclical action research fashion, testing these ideas in other situations, which lead to more experiences that initiated other cycles of collaborative inquiry-based decision making and action taking. In addition, deep learning revealed patterns, interconnections, and interrelationships that, over time and with practice, furthered organizational capacity to refine and adapt workplace learning processes.

The traditional image of librarians supporting research is helping other academics in discovery. Could you talk about librarians participating as researcher-practitioners as you describe here?

This participatory action research case illustrates the benefits of engaging librarians in research so they can better anticipate and fulfill the research needs of their local campus constituencies. In this way, PAR anticipates the rapidly changing role of academic libraries and librarians, as well as higher education institutions more generally. In this changing landscape, librarians, often work collaboratively with other academic or industry professionals to better understand how researchers really work. Such studies intend to enable design of services to fit in researchers’ workflow, rather than requiring that researchers need to fit into ours. Related explorations have developed evidence bases for design of user-centered systems and services in academic libraries, with the practical aim of improving researcher productivity and workflow. These inquiries sometimes also improve library website efficacy as portals for discovery, access, and fulfillment. In other words, there is tremendous value for librarians to be actively engaged in the research activities which they aim to promote for others. In addition, transferring theory to practice and generating theory from practice – to amplify library services, programs, expertise, and impact – aligns well with the knowledge creation mission of the university.

2 thoughts on “Methods in Action: Participatory Action Research

  1. PAR deserves new attention in our time! Thanks for the post.

    I’ve been in many conversations lately about research impact. What happens to our results- are they translated into improvements in policies or practices, or do they live in journals the public can’t access? Also, if researchers live in separate universes, how can we expect the public to support universities, scholarships, etc.? PAR focuses on actionable results, and by engaging other stakeholders hopefully the importance of research activities can be emphasized.

  2. Thanks – I have twittered this, highly relevant and interesting to researchers investigating higher education as a field

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