There is an assumed divide between theory and practice, and thus theoreticians (i.e., academics) and practitioners. Academics focus on investigating what happens from the outside in an effort to devise and test generalizable theories, while practitioners are on the inside actually doing the work. In reality, this divide is not so straightforward. Regardless of whether or not they frame it as theorizing and research, practitioners are often very reflective, assessing what they do, how they might improve, and what they can both learn from and share with others. Conversely, academics – especially in practical disciplines like planning and public policy – can directly engage in and affect the outcomes of the projects they are involved with.
Still, academics are expected to generate and test theories and contribute to the their respective disciplines while engaged in projects. Participatory action researchers directly support projects and influence the outcomes while rigorously documenting processes and assessing the results so that academically rigorous lessons may be drawn. Doing participatory action research well can be very challenging. Projects rarely play out on the timelines and follow the methods that researchers would prefer, necessitating flexibility and creativity. Researchers need to be careful not to overly bias project trajectories and marginalize other stakeholders. Being involved in projects typically limits the number of different cases researchers can explore, meaning they are working with small sample sizes. Researchers must explain and justify how they influence the outcomes. Last but not least, while acceptance is growing as methods improve and society expects solutions from academia, participatory action research is still discounted by some in the academic community.
Despite these limitations, participatory action research can be very rewarding, and yield deeper insights based on extensive involvement that would be missed via more cursory case studies or surveys. It also feeds the appetite among many researchers to be involved in solving problems rather than just understanding them. Participatory action research is central to the MIT Science Impact Collaborative. Working with stakeholders to achieve tangible results is a primary goal in most of our projects, and we are constantly honing our research practices so that broader insights can be gleaned from the work we are a part of.
For more information on participatory action research, please visit the Participatory Action Research at MIT website.