Monday, September 1, 2014

“If you want truly to understand something, try to change it.”

PAR can be exciting - here I am on the back of a motorcycle,
filming Madidi park guards in their pickup truck.
Photo by María Copa.

It’s been almost a year since I’ve last blogged, and I suppose that’s a symptom of being further along in the PhD, with about a year to go and much writing still to do. But perhaps that’s no excuse, because there is so much to share, so much to reflect upon and see what others think about. 

This summer I was back in Bolivia, doing work that was perhaps the most exciting, enjoyable and emotional to me of the entire experience so far, as it was focused almost entirely on the action research portion of my work.  I’ve always been intrigued by participatory action research (affectionately known as PAR), but for a long time it’s seemed to me like an ideal, something my work could never hope to live up to.  PAR is based on a theory of change, which means that one investigates not by simply observing from what is happening in a place, but by explicitly engaging in activities that confront issues encountered in the research.

Kurt Lewin, born in 1890, is thought of as one of the
pioneers of social psychology.  He was both a philosopher
and an activist, and contributed much to theoretical
debates on organizational behaviour and leadership.

I find that this approach to research is an intimate and deep way of gathering knowledge.  As Kurt Lewin, the ‘father’ of action research, wrote, “If you want truly to understand something, try to change it.” Clearly, PAR must be handled in a delicate manner, always keeping in mind the age-old ethical research mantra of “First, do no harm.”  But sometimes to do nothing is to do harm, especially when one is a witness to unjust practices.  In my work in Bolivia, as recounted in the previous posts on this blog, I was observing the deeply and widely-felt impacts of decades of academic research on indigenous communities, where more often than not, researchers had taken information and not returned to give back results in an adequate manner to the places from whence it had come. 

Celín Quenevo, a leader of the Takana indigenous nation, holding up a
book written about the Takana people in the 1950s by a German
anthropologist.  In the 1990s, he and other Takana leaders raised
money to have this piece of work translated into Spanish.

Writing a thesis on my observations did not seem to be enough, especially when those likely to read my work would not be those in any position to change the situation.  I felt that not to ‘give back’ in some direct way would be akin to continuing this tradition of chronic, if low-level harm of research practice in the region.  So over the next few posts on this blog, I will be sharing the various, if sometimes incomplete and ineffectual efforts to incorporate action into my research approach, and some reflections on those experiences.  

This kind of work would never have been possible on my own, and I've had a lot of local support in Bolivia, whether through directly coordinating with other researchers as part of a team, or simply bouncing ideas off of people working and living in the Madidi region.  One of our most recent attempts has been to produce video footage with the aim of making a short documentary about local perspectives of research in Bolivia.  I’ve only just begun to learn how to film and edit, but below is a mini, semi-edited taster of some of the key themes the film will address, and I’m sharing it at this early stage to hopefully get critical feedback.


Because if there is something that PAR should strive for, it is a self-critical approach.  Action research is about trying things and about failing too, as inevitably happens as one ‘does’ rather than just thinks about doing or making suggestions about how others should do.  But if these are to be ‘useful failures’, if we are to learn from our mistakes and help others to learn from them too, then we must simply put ourselves and our work out there.  I’m terrified of this, but I know it’s the only way.  So here goes.