Title: From studying solidarity as a research topic to solidarity in research: Participatory Action Research in Motion
Authors: Hannes, Karin
Coemans, Sara
Vandenabeele, Joke
Hermans, Koen
Issue Date: 2018
Publisher: Palgrave
Host Document: Shifting Solidarities
Abstract: The claim that an active engagement of participants in research projects empowers people and may lead to constructive change in their life circumstances has been a strong motivator for many social scientists to develop and conduct participatory action research (PAR) projects. These projects involve the investigation of actions and life circumstances of a community or group of people in one particular place in time. It is participatory in the sense that researchers do not study “the people” from an outsider perspective, but that “the people” themselves engage in the research project, as co-researchers, studying their own situation or life circumstances in a permanent dialogue with researchers.

PAR has fundamentally changed the role of researchers. The researcher’s profile shifted from an outsider who observes, describes and analyses social practices to an insider, taking part in social practices. He or she acts as a participant, in a reciprocal type of relationship with others involved in the process. All stakeholders involved in the project mutually invest in each other, hence the research project evolves as an act and a practice of solidarity between the researcher and the participants and between the participants themselves. This relational type of solidarity is perceived as a necessary condition to generate a level of understanding that influences change.

Reciprocal types of relationships imply an acknowledgement of differences between people and their position in such a way that constructive cooperation is possible. According to Habermas (1984/87) communicative action is one of the more important procedures to achieve a consensus within a group on a particular direction. It refers to a mutual search for understanding through argumentation, in the absence of coercive force and in a climate where different stakeholders involved in the communicative processes can learn from each other. Under these conditions, actions that follow from such processes will be based upon mutual deliberation.

PAR has often been critiqued for its inability to transcend the particularities of context, that is ‘a group’ at ‘a place’ in ‘a particular moment in time’ or a bunch of people whose bonding is based on the shared interest in a particular cause and the relationships formed between individuals in the group (Hodgkinson, 1957; Brydon-Miller, Greenwood and Maguire, 2003; Bradbury-Huang, 2010). Relational solidarity indeed assumes close interactions between stakeholders, based on relationships that are symmetrical in nature. This is perceived as both a strength and a weakness of PAR. It allows the group to literally ‘voice’ their concerns and collaboratively ‘move’ things in a different direction. At the same time, it risks to exclude other, more public ‘voices’ that may have important contributions to make to the communicative processes that unfold in the PAR context. Relational proximity may well undermine true solidarity in creating a knowledge base for change.

The first shift we described was one wherein the position from researchers changed from the distant researcher to a researcher that is closely involved and near the participants. And now that such proximity has become a given in many PAR projects, what if we would imagine a move toward a more universal type of solidarity in PAR? One that would be oriented towards the external. One that assumes the inclusion of absent and/or critical voices in the creation of a knowledge base for change. Would it help us to defend ourselves against criticism? Would it even be possible to disentangle relational solidarity as one of the core principles of PAR from the vocabulary it has inherited from critical social theory? And is it even desirable to do so?

The idea of a more universal type of solidarity that embraces other voices to transcend particular cases has strongly been defended by critical theorist Jürgen Habermas. However, it was mainly his theory of communicative action based on relational solidarity that has inspired PAR. The tension between relational and universal types of solidarity in Habermas’ philosophical-political discourse has never sufficiently been solved, most likely because to a large extent the issue of ‘voice’ and how we currently deal with it in PAR has not been problematized, at least not in a sense that provokes us to include the many voices ‘out there’ that can serve our PAR cases (Krumer-Nevo, 2009) .

We see two potential pathways that allow us to plug in a multiplicity of voices in PAR to achieve a different level of solidarity, one that allows us to travel between proximity and distance: “plugging in theory” (Jackson & Mazzei, 2011) as a way of including abstract, absent voices and “plugging in agonism” (Mouffe, 2000) as a way to including a diversity of (critical) voices. These will be further discussed in the chapter.
Publication status: submitted
KU Leuven publication type: IHb
Appears in Collections:Centre for Sociological Research
Education and Society

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