Participatory Approaches to Poverty Research – Including the true experts on poverty

I want to share an excellent resource I discovered on participatory approaches to poverty research. “From Input to Influence: Participatory Approaches to Research and Inquiry Into Poverty” (2004) was written by Fran Bennet and Moraene Roberts of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

This report introduces the concept of this particular approach and discusses the benefits, strengths and challenges researchers may encounter when conducting a participatory project. It features a number of illustrative case studies from the U.K. and discusses how participatory research relates to action, human rights, and ethics. The authors close with recommendations for future projects. There is also an extensive bibliography of sources. A full report and summary are available for download online.

I’m familiar with this approach and have used it in the past, but I also really appreciate having a source/guide like this one that discusses the approach from multiple aspects and the important things to consider when using it.

In true participatory research:

  • People with direct experience of poverty are involved as active stakeholders and contributors (and as researchers if possible) rather than passive discussants/recipients/bystanders
  • People’s knowledge and experiences are respected and integrated into the research process
  • Participants have more authority, control and influence on how the research is used through their integration into the research
  • Researchers recognize the expertise and realities of participants and how they can improve policy (qualitative data)
  • Participation is optimized – different degrees/methods of participation depending on the context/purpose of the project (a continuum of participation)
  • Stakeholders are not seen as one homogeneous group of “poor people” but as individuals and groups with varying interests, priorities, values, etc. (there is not just one “voice” of poverty)
  • It is less of a separate methodology than a guiding philosophy for the research process
  • Participants have the right to shape the research agenda and analyze and edit data – they are the true experts on poverty
  • The participatory process should be negotiated and roles clarified from the start

The great thing about this approach is that the perspectives and ideas that come from community members allow for a more in-depth, bottom-up understanding of the lived experiences of poverty, how people define poverty, how people deal with power differentials in an unequal society, what they see as its causes and how they feel it can be ameliorated. The research process, especially through discussion groups, allows people to form and build upon relationships with each other to create sustainability and a greater sense of community, and builds trust between researchers and community members. The results can be used not only in reports that inform policy but also for future projects conducted by community-based groups. It’s also not only about research and gathering information but about establishing relationships (social capital), taking action, effecting change and facilitating sustainability, ownership and empowerment within marginalized communities.

Most importantly, if people living in poverty are included, the results of the project will likely be more relevant to their lives and therefore the policy that is influenced will be, too. Specifically, the authors cite Evans and Fisher (1999) who note the role that research plays in legitimating knowledge. Typically, the knowledge that is produced remains in control of researchers and other “experts” (people with degrees), whereas the marginalized communities affected by policy have little influence on the actual policies themselves because they are seen as passive recipients or beneficiaries with nothing to contribute to the conversation.

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