Theorising Social Work Research

Doctoral and advanced studies in Social Work Seminar topics

Doctoral and advanced studies in social work 15th November 1999, Warwick

Daring To Transgress: Involving Participants in Assessment of Participatory Research in Doctoral Programs Wanda Thomas Bernard PhD


Inclusion of 'first voices'2 is an integral part of participatory research (PR). Qualitative research methodologies, particularly PR, have the potential to empower those that are marginalized and oppressed. Feminist researchers (Ralph 1988, Kirby and Mckenna 1989, Maguire 1987, Maynard and Purvis 1994) have argued that critical theorists have not gone far enough, and suggest that a more fundamental change is required. That fundamental change has been conceptualized by some as the active involvement of 'subjects' in all phases of the research, the basic rubric of PR. Despite these goals, however, few researchers write about the experience of involving participants in PR. Few publicly examine the issue of participants' voice, what I call 'first voices' in conducting, evaluating and disseminating results of research.

This paper explores the question of doing participatory research (PR) in a doctoral study, and subsequently involving participants in the evaluation or assessment of the work. Using my doctoral research as a case study, I examine some of the challenges that emerged as I tried to involve participants in the research process and tried to bring PR from the margins to the center of academic research.

My Doctoral Research

My doctoral study, Survival and Success: As Defined by Black Men in Sheffield, England and Halifax, Canada was an exploratory cross-national participatory action project with Black men from the two countries that explored their experiences and conceptualizations of survival and success. The project involved ten Black men, from the two sites, who worked with me to develop an understanding of the survival strategies that Black men used to survive in societies where they are normally expected to fail. The research also sought answers to the question 'how do Black men define success?'.

Ten Black men formed the Research Working Group (RWG) (a snowball sampling method was used), and they interviewed from three to four other Black men. We used a questionnaire, to provide some consistency in the data that was gathered using this method. We also used focus groups in each site, to collect data, and to assist with the analysis. The RWG's also functioned as a focus group, and were involved in each stage of the research. And finally, conferences on Black masculinity were organized in each site, which provided opportunities for more voices to be heard in the research. The conferences served as sites for data gathering, analysis, and finally, as a way to report the research findings to a wider audience. I used a feminist participatory research methodology in my doctoral study.

Feminist Participatory Research

Participatory research (PR) originates in activist work in developing countries ( Freire 1972, Hall 1992, Maguire 1987, Reason 1988). Most proponents agree on the following as key components of PR: active involvement of participants, raising their consciousness; participant empowerment, which leads to the reconceptualization of problems; and the identification of action strategies. I defined PR elsewhere as a process of critical and reflective inquiry, that holds hope for the marginalized, gives voice to those who are usually silenced, and empowers people to analyze their experience as a means of effecting change (Bernard forthcoming.). According to Maguire (1987:29) participatory research is 'a method of social investigation of problems, involving the participation of oppressed and ordinary people in problem posing and problem solving'.

Essentially, those marginalized persons who are normally studied, become active agents in the research.

The central focus in feminist, participatory research is the involvement of subjects as co-researchers into the study and resolution of their perceived problems. Social change and transformation are the ultimate goals, which result when people develop an increased awareness about their own resources and power, which facilitates their taking action. Some consider it a more scientific method of research because participation of the community in the research process facilitates a more authentic analysis of their social reality. The researcher is a committed participant and learner in the research, not a distant observer.

"Research is the production of knowledge about a given subject matter, and people who produce and control such knowledge increase their power to deal with the particular issues involved (Bernard 1996). Ralph (1988:39) states that '[t]he research establishment is structured like a giant pyramid, with the largest group of people [the researched]' at the bottom, having virtually no power in making these research decisions, and the fewest people [the researchers] at the top' who have the most powerful impact on what gets studied and published'. PR challenges those traditional power hierarchies and imbalances, and is "intended to contribute to a process of shifting power" (Hall 1992). PR provides participants with an opportunity to challenge existing structures and processes. Bud Hall (1992: 15-16) says that participatory research (PR) were the words that evolved for practice that attempted to put the less powerful at the center of the knowledge creation process; to move people and their daily lived experiences of struggle and survival from the margins of epistemology to the center. Given the richness of PR, why are academics, and doctoral students in particular, so reluctant to use this potentially transformative research methodology?

Negotiating the Border-Walk: Doing Participatory Research in Academia

Hall (1992) posits that although the concept of PR evolved for the past twenty years or more, from the work of activists and researchers in poor countries and poorer parts of rich countries, it has struggled to find its way into the center of research in academic settings. Maguire (1993) also suggests that there are challenges and contradictions for academics that want to engage in PR. This is particularly challenging for doctoral students, who can be immobilized and intimidated by the ideal standards of PR (Maguire 1993). Moving PR from the margins to the mainstream was one of the goals in my doctoral study (Bernard 1996). One of the questions that guided my research, and provided a vision of empowerment, was 'how could I best negotiate the border walk between the university and the men that I want to reach through the research?'.

Reason (1994) informs us that whilst participatory research is relatively easy to espouse, it is challenging to genuinely practice. Maguire (1993) contributes to this debate with her reflections on doing participatory research as a doctoral student. She argues that the demands of academia are contradictory to the expectations required for genuine participation in research. In my research project, I was constantly troubled by the contradictory demands.

The type of involvement in participatory research may vary, however to be considered participatory, a project must involve some degree of active involvement of participants as agents in the research. This may be limited to consultation during various stages of the research, or total involvement and ownership, as it was in my research. In my doctoral study the men participated in the development of the questions to be asked, the data gathering instruments, the data collection, analysis and dissemination of the results (which is an ongoing process). Whilst I took responsibility for the writing of the thesis, the men in the RWGs reviewed and commented on drafts of the work. The conferences also allowed others to comment on the research findings, which built in another layer of community accountability and construct validity.

I was able to use an innovative methodology because I had a supervisor who was willing to transgress and who in fact pushed me to push myself on this unchartered learning journey3. However, in the final stages, I still worried about the defense. The following quotation from my personal research diary captures my anxieties around the assessment process:

"I have written the thesis, to satisfy the academic requirements, yet the research belongs to the men. I have used [their] [voice[s]' throughout the text. How will the examining board perceive this? I am worried that they will not see it as 'academic enough'. 'How can I best honor the men's voices, and meet the academic requirement'?"(Personal Research Diary 1995)

I decided that I would honor the men's voices in my thesis, even if this was not approved by the examining committee. While preparing for the defense, I made a conscious decision to rewrite the thesis on the PR process, if I was challenged about my use of methodology or the location of first voices in the work. I did not have to implement this plan, as the committee was most excited by the methodology and the inclusion of first voices. I quote from their report "this is an ambitious and innovative thesis....Bernard created a most imaginative methodology which actively involved groups of black men in both Canada and England."

The positive review of my work reinforced my commitment to the active inclusion of first voices in research.

The voices of marginalized persons are rarely heard in the final stages of the PR process, the evaluation of the research, and dissemination of the findings. Although subjects are considered co-researchers in PR, as they devise, manage and draw conclusions from the research (Heron 1988:40), their voices are lost at the end stages. This is particularly true in PR conducted by academics. Much of the literature reviewed on this subject suggests that while the purpose of PR is not to "enhance our own careers and survival (Stoecker and Bonacich 1992:8) in academia, academics who do PR are constrained by the contradictions in doing community based and collaborative research within the confines of academia (Stoecker and Bonacich 1992, Hall 1992, Maguire 1987&1993, Stoecker 1998, Cancian 1993, Nash 1993). Hondagneu-Sotelo (1993) argues that "demands of academia are contradictory to the expectations required for genuine participation in research "(emphasis mine).

Nash (1993:53) states that PR is not valued in the [academic] profession. Stoecker 1998 concurs, and quotes Hubbard (1996) who posits that community based or PR is neither valued in academia or the activist community, therefore academics are pressured to construct the research in a way to give it a higher academic profile. Hall (1992) informs the debate by reminding us that the political economy of academia actively discourages community based and collaborative or participatory research. Academics who want to engage in PR and community based research do so at the risk of their survival in academia. Those who choose this methodology must be prepared to transgress, to challenge those traditional research hierarchies.

Can Participants Be Involved in PhD Assessment?

There are standards and procedures for doctoral research set by the University that are totally outside the student's control. Some institutions will not allow doctoral candidates to pursue PR. Doctoral research is expected to be an individual piece of work and participatory research calls for the active involvement of participants (Reason 1988: Park et al. 1993; Maguire 1987, 1993). It presents a challenge to PhD students to reconcile these conflicting expectations.

I began my doctoral research with a desire to bridge the gap between academia and community, and to engage in work that was going to be of direct benefit to African communities. Using participatory research in this way forges links between academia and community; linking community need with academic resources. Such an approach encourages academia to be more responsive to communities, who want and need research that will be of direct benefit to enhancing their knowledge and hence their power base. It should facilitate a meaningful exchange between academia and community.

I thought it was most appropriate to have the men who participated in the research also evaluate it, therefore, I decided to conduct a participatory evaluation of our research process. During the writing up phase of the research I did follow-up interviews with each of the RWG members, and several focus group sessions with them, as another means of achieving face validity, and to do a participatory evaluation (Park 1993) of the PR process. Overall, the men evaluated the work very positively. The process was an empowering one for those who worked on the research, and for many who participated in the various stages of the project. The following quotation from one of the men is illustrative of the conclusions drawn by the men:

I enjoyed working as a group in an ongoing way. Research participation usually involves a one or two hour interview, with no feedback...the fact that we have linked as two distinct groups, plus come together on two occasions is good...I have a feel for people involved on the other side, have got to know them on a personal level, and have an understanding of the issues. One of the highlights for me is the high level of commitment in the group; everyone attending meetings and doing the work! This encourages you to participate. I also liked the opportunity to speak to other people on the [PhD] course, being given the opportunity to participate in the academic circle... Sheffield RWG


Maguire (1993) says that a researcher should get involved in a problem that you feel passionately about. I have argued that it is not only important to feel passionate about a problem, but one must be willing to use one's skills and resources to actually do something about that which you feel so passionately (Bernard 1996). My lived experiences as an African Canadian woman influenced my choice of research topic, and my commitment to social action and change underpins my choice of methodology. My goal was not simply to do research on Black men's experiences, but to work with Black men, and engage others in a process, that would facilitate change. The participatory research methodology clearly enabled me to do this. Those who participated in the research have been personally empowered to do and to act; they gained knowledge, information, and experience that has led to action. And the work has taken on a life of its own, long after the completion of my doctoral program in 1996. Black men in both Sheffield and Halifax continue to challenge the ways in which they are marginalized from the mainstream, and to push for policy and program changes in various institutions4.

Since knowledge is the exchange of the academic political economy (Hall 1992), and PR is about the centering of disenfranchised voices in the research, PR should have a home in academia. It is our responsibility as academic researchers, to help challenge the structural and institutional barriers that block us from moving PR from margin to center. Hall argues that since PR originated as a challenge to positivist research paradigms used by academic researchers, it should be taught in universities, and the academic community deserves to discuss and challenge and be challenged by these and other ideas that emerge in PR (Hall 1992:25). This research project stands as an example of one doctoral student who dared to transgress, who successfully negotiated the border-walk between the academy and the community, to bring PR, and the voices of Black men from the margins to the mainstream of academia.


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Wanda Thomas Bernard PhD is an assistant professor of social work at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada. She received her doctoral degree from the University of Sheffield in May 1996.

1 The author wishes to thank professor Lena Dominelli for graciously agreeing to speak to this paper at the conference.

2 I use the term 'first voices' to refer to the coming of voice as a gesture of resistance and an affirmation of struggle that bell hooks (1988) refers to. I use the plural 'voices' to illustrate the multiplicity of experiences that embody those who are oppressed.

3 This is a good opportunity to publicly thank Professor Lena Dominelli, my PhD supervisor, who encouraged me to transgress, and supported me throughout the process. Doctoral students cannot do PR without support from their supervisors.

4 I am currently doing a follow up project with the men who participated in the Research Working Groups in both sites, to assess the long term impacts of our findings, and to develop other collaborative projects.