Participatory Action Research : Getting the Job Done

Kaye Seymour-Rolls & Ian Hughes


Table of Contents


The Moments by Definition

The Moments by Method

A possible PAR project




Participatory action research (PAR) is a method of research where creating a positive social change is the predominant driving force. PAR grew out of social and educational research and exists today as one of the few research methods which embraces principles of participation and reflection, and empowerment and emancipation of groups seeking to improve their social situation. Kurt Lewin is credited with the creation of action research (AR) in the 1940's (Holter and Schwartz-Barcott, 1993:298-304). However the nature of AR has changed markedly since then and prominent writers include Kemmis and McTaggart (1988), Grundy (1986,1987),Zuber-Skerritt (1991) and McKernan (1991). This paper is the result of an Action Learning group and the authors own readings into PAR.

This paper will seek to:

  1. Describe PAR using a conceptual framework - The Moments by Definition;
  2. Provide a working framework to undertake PAR - The Moments by Method:
  3. Propose a research project utilising PAR
  4. Provide justification for using PAR in nursing and the health sciences.

The Moments by Definition

Participatory action research can be defined as "collective, self-reflective enquiry undertaken by participants in social situations in order improve the rationality and justice of their own social...practices" (Kemmis and McTaggart 1988: 5). Research using PAR as it's method will happen in the four moments of action research, namely reflection, planning, action and observation. These research moments exist interdependantly and follow each other in a spiral or cycle . Kemmis and McTaggart see PAR as a spiral (figure 1) and believe that

"the approach is only action research when it is collaborative, though it is important to realise that the action research of the group is achieved through the critically examined action of individual group members" (p5).

Reflection in PAR is that moment where the research participants examine and construct, then evaluate and reconstruct their concerns (Grundy, 1986: 28). Reflection includes the pre-emptive discussion of participants where they identify a shared concern or problem.

Planning in PAR is constructive and arises during discussions among the participants (Kemmis and McTaggart, 1988: 5) The Plan must be for critically examined action of each of the participants and include evaluation of the change.

Action happens when the Plan is put into place and the hoped for improvement to the social situation occur. This action will be deliberate and strategic (Grundy, 1986: 28).It is here PAR differs from other research methods in that the action or change is happening in reality and not as an experiment 'just to see if it works'.

Observation in PAR is the 'research' portion of PAR' where the changes as outlined in the Plan are observed for its effects and the context of the situation (Kemmis and McTaggart 1988: 13) . In this moment research tools, such as questionaries, can be utilised to ensure proper scientific methods are followed and results have meaning. Observation and Action often occur simultaneously.

Concurrently existing with the moments of PAR are the Principles of PAR. It are these which set PAR apart from traditional research methods and other modes of Action Research. Other modes of Action Research such as the 'Technical or Practical' modes do not embrace all of these principles (Grundy, 1982:355-357). These principles are Participation and Collaboration, empowerment, knowledge and Social change.

The group undertaking PAR identifies a thematic concern through discussion and reflection. These concerns are integrated into a shared or common goal. The group agrees to collaborate and participate in a PAR project because of this integrated goal. The group and the members of the group are thus empowered to plan and act to create a social change. A change in practice is affected and observed using an appropriate research tool. The group critically examines the results and then the group has new knowledge from which theory may be developed. This knowledge and theory may be focussed on the observed effects of the change affected or the processes which occurred, or both. These principles also form a cycle surrounding the inner Moments of PAR. These principles are espoused by the authors already cited. During the entire research cycle the group keep individual journals in which they observe and reflect upon the processes going on. These journals can become a source of data for analysis. A PAR project is only research when proper scientific methods are used to collect and examine data.

The Moments by Method

The beginning of a PAR project may be difficult to pinpoint. It could conceivably begin with a tearoom chat about problems being experienced in the workplace or classroom. Whatever the origins of such a project it will begin with a group acknowledging a shared concern. This group may not even be able to define this concern very concretely but the PAR cycle has begun any way. Table 1 describes one way of undertaking a PAR project. It should not be taken literally and this author would urge the reader to read Kemmis and McTaggart (1988: 54-90) for a comprehensive discussion of undertaking a PAR project.





Cycle One

1. Reflection

The group and thematic concern are identified through discourse.


2. Plan

The group Plan to undertake an examination of the thematic concern and the social situation, in order to define and describe both accurately. As well as getting ALL stakeholders together and deciding how much participation constitutes collaboration


3, Action, and
4. Observation

The plan is put into Action and the group collect their Oservations to reconvene

Cycle Two

1. Reflection

The group will now Reflect on their findings to more accurately define their thematic concern. This reflection would also include self-reflection by the participants.


2. Plan

The group can now plan a change in practice to improve the social situation. It should include the methods of critical examination to be utilised. Potential problems need to be dealt with and approval sort from the Ethics Committee, where applicable


3. Action

A change in practice is affected and the research is commenced


4. Observation

The group observe the consequences of the change in practice and use the research method outlined in the plan to examine the results.

Cycle Three

1. Reflection

It would be unusual for the project to only go through 2 PAR cycles. The cycles would continue until the group were satisfied with the outcomes. The possibility of the project not reaching an end are realistic. This does not mean the original problem remains same or that the group never finds any social justice in their situation

A possible PAR project

The possibilities of using PAR in nursing are enormous and entirely appropriate. The similarity between Total Quality Management (TQM) Concepts and PAR are not unnoticeable. The differences are twofold. Firstly TQM is predominantly a management strategy to improve productivity and customer satisfaction, whilst a PAR project arises from the practioners themselves. Secondly PAR is research which is about developing new knowledge and theory, TQM is not research.

During discussion in the Action Learning group possible PAR projects were discussed. Table 2 describes a PAR project concerned with rosters.






Discussion arises during a ward meeting that a large number of staff are dissatisfied with the roster. A number of concerns are raised including: the amount of night duty and weekends being worked by some staff and not others; and the skills mix on shifts not being appropriate. As a result of this discussion it is decided to convene a group, representative of the staff establishment, to examine this problems and find ways of resolving some of the issues. A senior member of staff puts forward a motion that the group use PAR principles as a way of examining the problem and getting staff involved in research. A meeting is planned for the following week with a notice put up for those interested to attend.

2. Plan

At the meeting the group resolve the following:i - the GROUP will have a fluid membership to promote participation of all members of staff establishment and the senior nursing administrator of the division will be invited to join. Minutes of meetings will be circulated and discussed at general ward meetings;ii - the senior staff member will be the facilitator of the group as they are the expert on PAR. The facilitator will prepare an inservice session and manual on PAR to educate the group and the staff as a whole;iii - a questionnaire will be formulated to examine the issues concerning the rosters as seen by all staff;iv - an examination of the past years rosters will be undertaken to describe each staff members shifts worked and the actual skills mix experienced.v - a small group within the whole will develop a research project so that the whole process can be documented. The larger group resolve that both the data from the social change will be researched but also the group processes.

As you can see this table constitutes a small part of the PAR cycle.


Participatory action research represents an attractive alternate research methods for nurses primarily because it allows them to be exposed to research in a collegial collaborative environment and it emphasises both naturalistic and humanistic scientific methods (Holter and Schwartz-Barcott, 1993- 298). Whilst it may be attractive it is not 'easier' than other research methods, merely different. This difference is exemplified by the collaborative approach and the practical nature of PAR. One extremely important justification for using a PAR approach is that the principles are closely aligned to the Primary Health Care (PHC) concepts of collaboration and empowerment. PHC emphasises the participation of people in the planning and development of their own health care (WHO, 1978). Ergo nurses involved in community health and PHC should be able to effectively utilise PAR to promote health and empower communities.


Grundy, S. (1982) Three modes of action research in S. Kemmis and R. McTaggart, ed. The Action Research Reader, Geelong: Deakin University Press.

Grundy, S (1986) Action Research and Human Interests. in M. Emery & P. Long (eds) Symposium May 22-23 1986, Research Network of the Australian Association of Adult Education.

Grundy, S. (1987) Curriculum Product or Praxis. London: Falmer Press.

Holter, I. M. and D. Schwartz-Barcott (1993) Action research: What is it? How has it been used, and how can it be used in nursing? Journal of Advanced Nursing 18, 296-304.

Kemmis, S. and R. McTaggart (1988) The Action Research Planner, 3rd edn, Geelong: Deakin University.

McKernan, J. (1991) Curriculum Action Research, London: Kogan Page.

WHO (1978) Primary Health Care: Report of the International Conference on Primary Health Care, Alma-Mata, USSR, 6-12 September 1978. Geneva: WHO

Zuber-Skerritt, O., Ed. (1991) Action Research for Change and Development, Aldershot: Avebury.

© Kaye Seymour-Rolls & Ian Hughes, 1995


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Copyright © 1998 Ian Hughes, The University of Sydney
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11 October, 1999