Chapter 2: When is participatory research appropriate?

Nowadays, most funding agencies require participation by community members. This can become a box that needs to be ticked because not every study is suitable for participatory research and not every academic researcher is sufficiently trained to conduct participatory research. This chapter will elaborate on when participatory research is appropriate, and what academic researchers need to consider when they decide for a participatory approach.

Before starting a participatory research study, there are several things that academic researchers need to consider when deciding on the extent to which participants will participate. First of all, academic researchers need to find out if participation fits their research aim, or decide to include participants already in the phase of co-creating the research aim(s). Secondly, academic researchers should check if community members are interested in participation in research and in what way, so this can be included in the research proposal (21). When a study includes social aims such as empowering participants or reducing health inequalities, participatory research may also be appropriate. Participatory research is appropriate for all groups of people, as long as the methods are tailored to their wishes, needs, and (cognitive) capacity. Furthermore, academic researchers must consider the time and budget for the study. It is important to check if the desired level of participation fits the timeline and available budget. Sufficient time is needed to get to know the participants and other stakeholders, establish respectful relationships, capacity building, and create a safe environment to share and participate (21). A lack of participatory research skills within the research team, can result in tokenism (i.e. consulting, informing, placation) (11). Therefore, it is important for academic researchers to get acquainted with the principles of participatory research before the start of the study and learn participatory research skills (21, 34).

Skills that are important in a participatory researcher are:

  1. A flexible mindset, such as being open for other ideas than your own and adapting the sessions according to the needs and desires of the group;
  2. Being able to connect with the participants on the same level, for example creating an atmosphere based on equality and reduce potential power differences between academic researcher and participants;
  3. Facilitation skills for organizing participatory sessions with groups of participants, such as skills to work with specific groups (e.g. children, elderly people, patients);
  4. Verbal communication skills, for example asking open ended questions, and active listening;
  5. Being able to think ahead, and to prepare for what may be a next step or a different approach, when the participatory session does not go as planned;
  6. Being able to deal with difficult situations, such as chaos, rudeness, lack of motivation among participants, and personal problems of participants;
  7. Conducting the sessions according to the ethical principles underlying participatory research (see Chapter 1);
  8. Being able to critically reflect on the participatory sessions, for example whether participants had the opportunity to fully engage in the session, reflect on the role of the facilitator(s), and if necessary adapt the protocol for the next session(s).

Besides these skills, it is important to create a safe environment for the participatory sessions that are held with participants, and that sufficient time is incorporated to get to know the participants at the start of the study.

Some examples of participatory research studies can be found here: Kids in Action (35) and The Active by Community Design Experience (36).