Too often, research in the justice field is divorced from the real experiences and needs of the people being studied. Participatory action research flips the script, giving communities the chance to tell their own stories—and to change them.
Imagine leading a research project about a certain community of people, like women of color in STEM fields or young people who have been arrested. What questions would you ask? What methods would you use to try to get deep, honest answers? How would you interpret the words and actions of the people you’re studying? And what conclusions would you draw from the data you gather?
In participatory research, people with direct, personal experience in the topics being studied are actively involved in making and implementing these decisions. Alongside traditionally trained researchers, participatory research includes people with first-hand knowledge of the community, experience, or issue in question on the research team itself.
When it’s used to drive concrete social change, participatory research can become participatory action research. In some cases, community members use the research findings to address a problem, fill a gap, or transform an institution. At other times, the action component may be baked into the research process itself. In one way or another, participatory action research tries to change the social world, not just understand it. It’s not just an approach to data collection and knowledge creation; it’s also a kind of social justice intervention.
Participatory action research flips the script, giving communities the chance to tell their own stories—and to change them.
Every research project involves a series of active choices. These choices often reflect the assumptions, perspectives, and biases that those on the research team bring with them. Standards for which questions are worth asking, how to engage participants, how best to interpret data, what lessons to draw from study results—all of these are products of human choice, not facts set in stone.
What does it mean, then, when research on questions of safety and justice involves members of the community being studied every step of the way? When the population being studied is part of the research team itself? And, even better, when the members of a community can actually put the insights gathered from research in the service of their own lives and needs?
In part, it means more accurate data. The questions asked will be better tailored to the community being studied. Research participants will be more likely to share their thoughts and perspectives openly. And those on the research team with first-hand knowledge of the community will be able to pick up on nuances often lost on outsiders.
It also means research that is more ethical. Too often, research primarily benefits people from privileged backgrounds studying others who have historically been marginalized. White researchers get jobs studying communities of color; or straight, adult researchers build up resumes publishing articles about LGBTQ+ youth. Racial and economic disparities, as well as power imbalances, stay intact.
Participatory action research flips the script. It opens up research jobs and opportunities for people who often face barriers to accessing them. It puts the power of creating meaning into the hands of those whose experiences are being shared, ensuring that people have a say in the stories told about their communities. And it establishes people with first-hand knowledge as the real experts on their own needs and experiences, especially when it comes to policy decisions.
In 2017, we published our first report using participatory methods, a study of the sex trade in New York City conducted by a research team that included people with past and current experiences in the sex trade. Taking a participatory approach to this project was necessary for a number of reasons. On a practical level, it meant that study participants felt more comfortable speaking candidly about their experiences, leading to more accurate results. On an ethical level, it ensured that people with personal experience in the sex trade—those who know the most about their own needs—would play a central role in shaping policies and programs that directly affect their daily lives.
Participatory research was central to another study we published in 2020, this one looking at gun possession and experiences with violence among young New Yorkers. We interviewed 330 young people to try to understand why they chose to carry guns. One theme quickly surfaced: these young people overwhelmingly feared for their safety, having faced widespread violence in their communities with little trust of police.
At first, our research team conceived this study along more traditional lines. But it quickly became clear that having these young people open up about their experiences—especially their gun carrying—wouldn’t be possible without a participatory approach. How could researchers with no personal experience in the social networks of these young people hope to gain enough of their trust for them to speak honestly about such a sensitive part of their lives? Only when field researchers with extensive, deep knowledge of those networks were hired onto the team did the study begin to make strides. A world that traditional research couldn’t get access to—one that, by nature, had to be underground—suddenly began to open up.
Our Youth Action Institute also begins with a participatory approach. Young people in the fellowship program develop skills in research, leadership, and social activism. They then use those skills to lead research projects exploring social issues that affect their own lives. What questions get asked, how data gets interpreted, what steps can be taken towards social change—all of these decisions are made by young researchers themselves, with support and guidance from adult staff. Members of impacted communities aren’t just a part of the research process: they’re the leaders of it.
In a traditional model, researchers hand off their findings and recommendations for others to make use of, and their research may or may not go on to inform real change. Participatory action approaches bring knowledge and action back together. Another study, currently underway, uses participatory action research to explore the social and cultural roots of youth gun culture in four sites—New York City, Philadelphia, Detroit, and Wilmington, Delaware. Related actions include community-led efforts to curb gun violence in ways that are responsive to local culture. Just as participatory methods give members of affected communities the power to tell their own stories, it can also give these communities the power to change them.