The creative ambiguity of doing participatory research

In this blog, Evangelia Prokopiou and Veena Meetoo, members of the research team on Work Package 1, discuss their experience of entering the field and setting up the context for participatory research with our young researchers.

Participatory research involves working collaboratively as partners with others. In participatory research, we make decisions together and we learn from each other. In this blog we are reflecting on our first steps in this amazing collaborative landscape of practice and the exciting challenge of sharing the driving seat with our local partner grassroots organisation.

We, the researchers, started visiting our partner’s premises eight months ago; our visits involved meeting with staff members to set up the context for the research project, discussing ways of working together, familiarising ourselves with the ethos of the organisation and spending time with young people during the drop-in sessions. A truly participatory project needs time. Time to build relationships and rapport, and time to create a context of mutual trust and cooperation. Building trust also involves a genuine sharing or disclosure of who you are, your values, your approach, your motives.

When you do participatory research, it is important to acknowledge that everyone has unique knowledge and skills to contribute. It is important to listen.

Our partner is a grassroots organisation that uses participatory approaches when working with refugee young people. As a result, they bring to the project valuable local knowledges about cultural and youth practices and subjectivities. Within this context, we have experienced a subversion of the traditional role of expert, in that once you let power or ‘expertise’ go, participatory research happens. We would like to share with you one of our many epiphanic moments during this process, which took place during our first information session with the young researchers. Our collaborator stepped-in while we were talking about participatory research to the young researchers. He took the pen and paper and started drawing a beautifully simple visual representation of research where the researcher is entering the field as the ‘expert’ versus  participatory research where the researcher is  working together with others in a community (see images below).

It was amazing to see our local partner brokering our methodological narrative into a more suitable and accessible language for the young researchers. How did we deal with this role subversion? We embraced it and we created the opportunity for a collaborative approach where we were not afraid to relinquish our professional expertise and learn from local knowledge.

Looking back, we have gone a long way since we started building rapport with the local organisation and the young researchers eight months ago, a long way since we were all playing games, getting bruised during a three-legged race. However, in a participatory research project, being present through time is a key force in shaping the collaborative nature of our project. We experience every step of this ongoing process as a step towards enhancing our participatory research skills. Sometimes, it feels a bit like the I and the Village painting by Marc Chagall (see image at top) but only if you embrace this upside-down ambiguity, you can see, listen, learn and relate as a more equal research partner.