Participatory Action Research

Participatory Action Research (PAR)

The thread that connects our work across the areas of agriculture, livelihoods, and environmental conservation in tropical and temperate landscapes is the application of Participatory Action Research (PAR). We see PAR as an approach that enables both the process and results of research to have direct impact on social and ecological issues. PAR processes strive for the fair and equitable participation of all relevant actors, creating the potential for increasing both the depth and relevance of the research process.  PAR can be defined as “An approach where research and non-research partners engage in an iterative process of research, reflection and action (action can represent a social change process, community development, applying and agricultural practice, conservation projects, etc.)” (adapted from Bacon et al., 2005).

Farmers John and Nancy Hayden welcome a group of agroecology students at the Farm Between, in Jeffersonville, Vermont

PAR has been described as an emergent process; not something that you always assert when beginning, but instead a progression that can be achieved with the right intentions and dedicated actors. However, the process requires intention and facilitation, and many researchers interested in using a PAR approach are tempted to skip the initial step of ‘testing the waters’ due to budgetary restrictions and/or limits of time. We find the term ‘preflection’, used by scholars focusing on experiential learning, as a useful descriptor of this initial stage. The figure below shows the preflection stage as a period of preparation and planning that is critical for building trust, establishing expectations, and refining the research questions. Another adjustment from previous PAR diagrams is to recognize that reflection and sharing can be interspersed throughout, emphasizing that neither the research or the action cycles are complete without this component. After the process is initiated, reflection and sharing occur to interpret research and design action, and then again to reflect on results and identify new directions.

The agroecological principle of integrating farmer/local and scientific knowledge represents one of the core intersections for science and practice in agroecology. It also provides a natural setting for Participatory Action Research (PAR). When used in combination with agroecological principles, PAR offers a practical approach for bringing forward the expertise of non-researchers – including smallholder farmers and others who have deep knowledge of place, content and practices, and who become active partners with those trained more formally in research and experimental design. Ideally, the result of this collaborative work is knowledge that has been co-created and that is actionable.

Further reading:

Méndez, V.E., M. Caswell, S.R. Gliessman & R. Cohen (2017) Integrating agroecology and participatory action research (PAR): Lessons from Central America. Sustainability 9(5): 705.

Méndez, V.E., C.M. Bacon and R. Cohen (2016). Introduction: Agroecology as a transdisciplinary, participatory and action-oriented approach. pp. 1-22. In V.E. Méndez, C.M. Bacon, R. Cohen & S.R. Gliessman (eds) Agroecology: a transdisciplinary, participatory and action-oriented approach. Advances in Agroecology Series. CRC Press/Taylor and Francis..

Bacon, C., V.E. Méndez and M. Brown (2005) Participatory action-research and support for community development and conservation:  examples from shade coffee landscapes of El Salvador and Nicaragua.  Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems (CASFS), University of California. Santa Cruz, CA, U.S.A. Available on-line: