• Originally published on the LSE Impact Blog. Republished with permission.

Participatory Action Research (PAR) is a form of research that involves prolonged and deep engagement with local communities and can produce profound social impacts. In this post, Dr Katrina Raynor describes how current approaches to impact assessment and the structure of the academic labour market impede researchers from engaging with PAR and raise particular challenges for insecurely employed early career researchers.

As an early career researcher (ECR), part of the job description is to think: think about your research, but also about your career. My latest bout of introspection was in part driven by a request to write a commentary on Participatory Action Research for Planning Theory and Practice and in part by the looming end of my first fixed-term contract. This thought process led me to dwell on three issues:

1) The need for engaged, impactful research

2) The increasing casualization of the university workforce

3) How approaches to quantifying academic output disproportionately punish the precariously employed.

Participatory Action Research

Participatory Action Research (PAR), when done well, is an example of engaged, impactful research. It focuses on recognising and building the capacity of the people at the heart of a research topic to participate in all aspects of the research process. It is based on methodological, ethical and epistemological values that promote the direct participation of affected communities, a commitment to transformative actions and a belief in situated ethical judgement. PAR can facilitate learning processes, initiate short-term actions or experiments, build networks, ‘work’ political systems and enable participants to address local challenges.

The research partnership I work for, Transforming Housing, is an “action-research project focused on influencing and supporting the transformation of the housing policy and delivery environment in Victoria.” The explicit focus on social change, co-creation of knowledge and direct relations with affected populations is what initially inspired me to apply for this role and is still the best part of my job. However, PAR is a research approach that giveth and taketh away in equal measure. As an ECR on a fixed-term contract surrounded by colleagues in a similar position, I have experienced first-hand the trade-offs inherent to committing to a PAR approach.

The Casualisation of Higher Education 

Since the 1980s the overwhelming majority of new academic staff have been employed on short, fixed-term contracts. Less than 35% of all university employees have continuing employment in Australia, which is comparable to Canada, the US and the UK. This trend is disproportionately experienced by Early Career Researchers. While much has been written about the well-being and career progression impacts of insecure employment, less attention has been given to the implications of insecurity and changing output expectations on how research is conducted.

Invisible impacts, casualization and Participatory Action Research

PAR features an emphasis on ‘non-academic’ outputs and skills that receive less weighting in job and grant applications. The resources that emerge from PAR often emphasise non-traditional academic outputs; newsletters, community reports, videos, works of art, campaign materials and training packages, before academic publications are even considered. Genuinely committing to these aspects of PAR requires a commitment to emancipatory and participatory practices, over institutionally imposed academic priorities. While there are efforts to change how ‘impact’ is assessed and evaluated in universities, often the most important element in securing a job or grant application are academic publications and the calibre of the journal in which they are published.

In contrast, PAR involves substantial time spent in the community, building relationships, facilitating social learning opportunities and creating and supporting ‘non-academic’ outputs and outcomes. For example, at Transforming Housing, my colleagues and I are currently creating an online affordable housing calculator with an associated training manual and in-person module. The tool is designed to help planners negotiate affordable housing outcomes and local community members advocate for affordable housing in their area. These have been co-designed with scores of external contributors through a series of focus groups and were developed in response to a skills deficit in the industry that was inhibiting affordable housing outcomes. I know this work will eventually translate into academic publications, but in the interim, the work is more about advocacy and capacity-building. There is ample literature covering the institutional and pragmatic barriers experienced by researchers prioritizing such aims. However, the ‘trade-off’ of de-prioritising traditional routes to career progression and creating non-academic outputs is not experienced equally.

The transformative goals of PAR are often predicated on long-term relationships, emotional connections based on trust and friendship, and non-linear unpredictable research processes. This focus on deep learning and reciprocity discourages one-off, short-term projects, in favour of intensive engagement. It  also precludes full researcher control, as projects need to be flexible and responsive to community needs. This uncertainty might be manageable for a tenured academic with a critical mass of concurrent research projects, but is likely catastrophic for an ECR on a one or two year contract under intense pressure to publish the ‘findings’ of a PAR project before their funding runs out.

Navigating Participatory Action Research

PAR is founded on a commitment to social change, capacity building in marginalised groups, acknowledgement of multiple knowledges and the subversion of traditional research hierarchies. However, ECRs focused on social change and inclusive research practices are often caught between competing priorities of wanting to work closely with impacted communities, being informed of changing approaches to measuring ‘impact’ and then finding themselves less competitive for jobs or promotions due to a lower number of publications. In this context, they are faced with the choice of avoiding PAR, accepting or being forced to sacrifice career progression, or adopting mitigating strategies that allow them to traverse the line between academic and action research expectations. These strategies may include participating in organisations that are accountable to both academia and activists, which can ultimately lead to working ‘two careers’, or sacrificing their own time to ‘keep up’ with output expectations.

This is a topic the academic community must continue to engage with, particularly in relation to the conflicting trends of casualization and university requirements to serve a civic purpose. I therefore propose four future research trajectories relevant to these trends:

1) A research agenda that engages not only with the impact of insecure employment on individual well-being and productivity, but also on the types of research being conducted, prioritised and disseminated

2) The gendered nature of insecure employment and engagement in PAR and their impact on lower publication productivity and career progression in female academics.

3) The impact of short-term PAR projects on community trust, empowerment and willingness to engage with researchers

4) The impact of ECRs entering academia and finding they need to undertake ‘two careers’ to achieve their professional and personal goals. Does this cohort choose to exit academia, taking with them a multitalented, socially-conscious and motivated resource that could enrich the research community?

If universities are serious about achieving social change and engagement then these are the questions we need to be asking.

This blog post is based on the author’s article, Participatory Action Research and Early Career Researchers: The Structural Barriers to Engagement and Why We Should Do It Anyway, recently published in Planning Theory & Practice.

Featured image credit: Free-Photos via pixabay (licensed under CC0 licence)

Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the LSE Impact Blog, nor of the London School of Economics. 

About the author

Katrina Raynor is a research fellow in the Melbourne School of Design, University of Melbourne. Her research is focused on affordable housing and higher density housing and she is particularly interested in partnerships, policy and innovation in these areas. Katrina is also the National Co-Chair of the Australasian Early Career Urban Research Network (AECURN), an organization with over 400 members dedicated to creating opportunities for early career researchers.

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