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Participatory Action Research

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When I went to Indonesia for the first time with Haverford’s CPGC, I took a six-week research methodology seminar before being able to sink my teeth into actual unsupervised “real” research.  The course included a revolving door of Indonesian, Australian, and American guest speakers who spoke about everything from journalistic research methods to quantitative surveys.  One of the most inspiring of these speakers talked about participatory action research, or PAR, and the ways in which it is able to simultaneously bring together community participation, action, and research throughout an investigation.  Michelle Fine defines PAR as “an epistemology that assumes knowledge is rooted in social relations and most powerful when produced collaboratively through action.”  Since doing research projects in high school, I’ve thought of social research as more than a tool for acquiring information, but also as a modality to bring about change.  Throughout the seminar, all of the students on the trip had to partner up and carry out a “mini” research project to test drive the methodologies we had been learning.

My partner, an Indonesian college student participating in the program, was also moved by the idea of PAR, and, like me, was interested in looking at women’s perceptions and understandings of family planning in Denpasar, the city where our program was being held.  We ended up recruiting about half a dozen women to help us undertake the research, and interview women in their communities about what they knew about family planning, what kind of reproductive healthcare services they had accessed, and their attitudes towards family planning programs.  The women themselves came up with their own survey and interview questions, based on what they thought would be critical information to gather.  As part of the process, information was also given on where women could access reproductive healthcare in the future, including unconventional clinics, such as one located within the city’s largest market.  We then went over all of our findings together, working as a team to interpret trends and figure out what kind of answers we were getting.  Our research took place over a very limited period of time – about three weeks – so our findings were also limited, but fascinating nonetheless.

Being involved with PAR came very naturally to me, particularly after having studied various feminist theories of international relations that tried to look at how global relationships can move from being vertical, and dominance-based, to more horizontal, and partnership-based.  As a US citizen doing research in a developing country, PAR seemed  like a perfect way to put these theories into practice, albeit on a very small scale.  The research experience also helped me to shift my thinking from me being a “Researcher” to being a facilitator – working together with a group to find answers to important questions.  By including advocacy in the research model, interview subjects not only contributed to our small study, they also gained valuable information about how to access healthcare.  I haven’t had the chance to undertake PAR again (even though other research projects have certainly been collaborative), but I still find it an exciting model as I think ahead to graduate school and beyond.

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