‘I was not interested in writing a step-by-step instruction manual to reinforce the myth that research methods are linear, simple, and neutral tools,’ argues Prof. Caroline Lenette in this blog describing some of the motivations, thought processes, and challenges she encountered in writing her book Participatory Action Research: Ethics and Decolonization. Writing from her “perspective of a brown woman scholar in a white-majority academic context,” Prof Lenette describes how her own positionality changed through writing the book and how she hopes the book can counter some of the tokenistic ways in which participatory research is both interpreted and put into practice.
If you find this piece of interest please access our Critical Approaches to Research page or our Reflections from the Field series or access the recommended reading at the end of this piece. You can also access the Southern Responses to Displacement research project’s ‘Thinking through the Global South’ series here.
Participatory Action Research as a decolonial method
by Caroline Lenette, Associate Professor, School of Social Sciences, and Deputy Director of the Big Anxiety Research Centre at the University of New South Wales.
In my early work, I was tentative about naming concepts such as cultural safety and reflexivity as central to my research approach. My commitment to these principles was implicit, but I lacked the confidence to put forward strong arguments on the ethics and politics of research, and the need to decolonise methodologies. I didn’t feel it was my place to “confront the [w]estern academic canon” (p. xii) as Linda Tuhiwai Smith describes it. I was trying to ‘fit in’ among (predominantly white) refugee studies scholars in the western academy. I had rarely accessed scholarship from the perspective of a brown woman scholar in a white-majority academic context, so I didn’t know how to speak from my own standpoint. The process of writing my book, Participatory Action Research: Ethics and Decolonization, led me to broaden my perspectives and overcome these apprehensions.
The book deliberately focusses on the nuances, politics, and complexities of participatory approaches and highlights PAR’s potential as a decolonial research method. It addresses contemporary debates on collaborative research using practical examples from diverse contexts. I was not interested in writing a step-by-step instruction manual to reinforce the myth that research methods are linear, simple, and neutral tools, with afterthoughts on working effectively in cross-cultural contexts. I wanted to keep decoloniality at the heart of my writing. My main aim was to counter scholarship that uses terms such as participation and co-research without fully engaging with their meanings and what they imply in practice, and that overlooks the importance of reflecting on positionality, privilege, cultural safety, power dynamics, and harmful research lenses.
When I began writing this book, I realised that:
- I thought I understood and could explain key concepts linked to PAR very well, until I tried to write about them.
- I was referring to the ‘usual suspects’ (coined by Alison Phipps) from the whitewashed literature on PAR, dominated by uncritical western perspectives.
- I had not yet questioned my complicity in reinforcing colonialist-infused approaches in past research and how I readily adopted normative standpoints.
Key concepts: Simple and clear explanations of concepts such as participation, co-production, feminist standpoints, and agency (re)emphasise the fundamental principles on which PAR models are built. Rather than assume shared understanding of these concepts—which often proves unwise—I focussed on explaining debates relating to decolonial research, intersectionality, meaningful participation, co-production, co-dissemination, ethics, mess in research, gender equality and diversity, and feminist policy analysis in plain terms to frame ethical PAR practice. These discussions disrupt the uncritical use of ‘trendy’ approaches, such as co-design (in research, government, and institutional processes) when practices are far removed from its collaborative ethos. There is a general lack of debate in research teams on shared understandings of these concepts, which inevitably leads to tensions and diverging agendas when implementing and evaluating projects.
Politics of citation: The book’s emphasis on PAR’s decolonial potential highlighted western academia’s tendency to appropriate and whitewash methods and, in the case of PAR, minimise its roots grounded in reflexive practices in majority-world contexts as Paolo Freire, Orlando Fals-Borda, Marja-Liisa Swantz, or Muhammad Anisur Rahman described. Instead, the PAR literature amplifies the scholarship of white, English-speaking researchers and those based at western institutions. This problem of erasure is not unique to refugee studies or to PAR alone. There are increasing calls to pay attention to citation practices, not just to diversify reading and reference lists as a token gesture, but to intentionally (re)centre the knowledge of Indigenous and majority-world scholars and decolonial intersectional feminists. My exploration of rich Indigenous and majority-world scholarship that remains at the margins, enriched my understanding of PAR in significant ways. There is much to learn from research accounts across diverse contexts and it is no longer acceptable nor practical to apply learnings from stable, affluent, white-majority countries to vastly different settings.
Questioning my positionality: My point of departure for this book was that I had to be honest about moments of complicity in my academic trajectory. When I was a junior researcher, it was easier to follow what senior and eminent colleagues deemed appropriate, even though I could identify problems with their approaches, and I often felt uncomfortable with their lack of reflexivity. I was often (and still am) the only brown person on the team. I see things from a different perspective, and I don’t always speak up. I have taught research methods courses since 2013, and most of the time, I used a western lens (I thought this was what I was expected to do) as these narrow approaches dominate the literature on the topic. It was crucial to question my ‘internal colonialism’—I grew up and studied in two former British colonies—and my privileges as a researcher in a white-majority setting, to avoid simply regurgitating colonialist-infused research frameworks. I included the word ‘decolonization’ in the book title to remind myself of Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s “invitation to stimulate the work that is possible for research when we as researchers decolonize our minds, our discourses, our understandings, our practices and our institutions” (p. xiii) throughout the writing process.
The way forward
The tensions I outline above are not new and I do not claim to have resolved them fully. There is a long way to go to decolonise research methodologies in meaningful ways, given how deeply colonial values and practices are imbued in majority-world and western contexts alike. These approaches continue to cause harm under the guise of ‘participation’ and result in tokenistic research outcomes and superficial change (if any).
Scholarship on decoloniality has often been criticised for being too dense and inaccessible. Although researchers might be committed to decolonising research methodologies and the academy, they lack applied guidelines on how to do so in practice. The discussions in this book on PAR speak to the need to broaden conversations on research methodologies in clear and simple terms; on our responsibilities as researchers, irrespective of backgrounds, to decolonise research methodologies and the academy; and on the importance of finding a community of similar-minded scholars and practitioners to foster meaningful and sometimes painful conversations about our research approaches.
Research that seeks to counter the colonial origins of methodologies and methods and disrupt colonial principles can only enrich disciplines such as refugee studies. The Refugee Hosts project stands out as a best-practice example because of its explicit commitment to methodologies that challenge the politics of knowledge production and collaboration. This model worked precisely because it amplified the perspectives of people at the centre of research, grounded in day-to-day experiences that outsider gazes have continuously failed to grasp. It is an example of the kind of scholarship that is needed to challenge outdated standpoints and offer alternative pathways to the next generation of scholars, especially those who bring their experiences of marginalisation to research settings. It is my hope that the discussions in my book also add to this critical scholarship on participatory research.
As a migrant settler, I acknowledge the benefits that accrue to me because of colonisation and dispossession. I pay my respects to the Traditional Custodians of the Lands where this reflexive writing took place and acknowledge that sovereignty was never ceded.
Caroline Lenette lives and works on colonised and unceded Bedigal land. She is Associate Professor, School of Social Sciences, and Deputy Director of the Big Anxiety Research Centre at the University of New South Wales. Caroline is the author of Arts-Based Methods in Refugee Research: Creating Sanctuary (Springer, 2019) and Participatory Action Research: Ethics and Decolonization (Oxford University Press, 2022).
If you find this piece of interest please access our Critical Approaches to Research page or our Reflections from the Field series or access the recommended reading below. You can also access the Southern Responses to Displacement research project’s ‘Thinking through the Global South’ series here.
Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2020) Introduction: Re-centering the South in Studies of Migration
Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2018) Shadows and Echoes in/of Displacement
Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2017) Representations of Displacement Series
Greatrick, A. and Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2017) The Roles of Performance and Creative Writing in Refugee-Related Research
Harsch, L. (2018) Historical Photos of Hamra, Beirut
Lenette, C. (2020) ‘Behind each work there is a story of pain;’ Nedhal’s art work makes her happy.
Qasmiyeh, Y. M. and Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2019) The Third Voice and Third Eye in our Photo-Poetic Reflections
Featured image: Detail of tree at Centennial Park, Gadigal land, where I reflected on this publication, 2022. (c) C. Lenette