Participatory Action Research: Improving Assessments of Human Resource Development Interventions

I think we can all agree that organizations are continuously changing based on various social, political, and economic conditions. We can look to how the COVID pandemic has led to changes in how and where we work, the supply chain, and a new attention to mental health in the workplace. To properly respond to such changes, we, as human resource development (HRD) scholars and practitioners, should also transform some of the ways we have been ‘doing HRD’ and embrace new approaches where we can better engage with organizations and the people within.

The action research approach is familiar to many HRD and Organization Development scholars and practitioners. Conventional action research has an emphasis on classical or traditional processes of inquiry—applying those processes of inquiry to effect change in the workplace, communities, and other social contexts. Participatory Action Research (PAR) is an evolutionary step that has the additional aspects of critical thought and active participation by stakeholders. PAR is not new and has been used in many research and advocacy projects, but it has been mostly overlooked and rarely adopted by the HRD community.

PAR aims to create knowledge and action but also aims to empower those who are marginalized. We think about how research produces knowledge, but who is allowed to produce knowledge and for what purposes is knowledge produced? Traditional research processes involve the element of a professional researcher, where informants are subjects of the research. Social science research has traditionally derived part of its authority from an opposition between the researcher and the researched, which leads to the question, “is this a socially just way of understanding organizations and their performance problems?”

In any research paradigm, we are interested in developing a greater understanding of the phenomenon at hand, whether that be social, educational, or organizational in nature. When we use PAR, who better to help us gain that understanding than those most impacted by that phenomenon? PAR is a partnership approach to research that typically involves engagement between researchers and community actors with the aim of gaining a more grounded understanding of a given phenomenon. PAR partners researchers and community actors through shared, collaborative decision-making that positions community members as researchers rather than objects of the research.

PAR is not a methodology, but more of a philosophical approach to research. It may use quantitative, qualitative, or mixed methods tools. PAR relies on a team of professionally trained researchers along with community actors engaging as equal partners or as co-researchers at every step of the investigative process—from the development of research questions to data collection, data analysis, and dissemination of results.

Whyte (1991) explained that in organizational contexts there are some members that are “especially knowledgeable” (p.9). In PAR, these important community actors become partners in the research, not just subjects of the research. Everyone contributes knowledge, experiences, and resources; PAR invites us to disrupt the ordered structure of researcher and participant and establish a shared learning environment.

If you are interested in conducting participatory action research in your organization, scholars have published excellent study designs addressing organizational concerns, improving work life (Pace & Argona, 1991), organizational culture (Sparre, 2020), and work-stress interventions (Dollard et al., 2008). The possibilities are many; consider how managers and workers can work together to improve performance and create socially just management practices; or how the allied health professions can improve patient care, especially in marginalized populations; or how not-for-profit social service organizations can better help their communities. We are limited in advancing our organizations through collaborative research only by our imaginations.

Brian Vivona is Associate Professor of Human Resource Development at Northeastern Illinois University, Chicago.

Parts of this blog were taken from: Vivona, B. & Wolfgram, M. (2021). Conducting community based participatory action research. Human Resource Development Review, 20(4), 512-521.


Dollard, M. F., Le Blanc, P. M., & Cotton, S. J. (2008). Participatory action research as work stress intervention. In K. Näswall, J. Hellgren, & M. Sverke (Eds.), The individual in the changing working life (pp. 353–379). Cambridge University Press

Pace, L.A. & Argona, D.R. (1991). Participatory action research: A view from Xerox. In W. Whyte (Ed.) Participatory action research. (56-69). Sage

Sparre, M. (2020). Utilizing participatory action research to change perception about organizational culture from knowledge consumption to knowledge creation. SAGE Open, 10(1), 1–9.

Whyte. W.F. (Ed). (1991). Participatory action research. Sage.

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