Taking Freedom: Theorizing Audience, Products, and Provocation (An Excerpt)

On an approach to research that works with communities to address important issues they are facing, using "weapons of mass instruction" that help groups make decisions, work together, and mobilize.
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PAR is an approach to research that values the significant knowledge people hold about their lives and experiences. PAR positions those most intimately impacted by research as leaders in shaping research questions, framing interpretations, and designing meaningful research products and actions.

PAR is an approach to research that values the significant knowledge people hold about their lives and experiences. PAR positions those most intimately impacted by research as leaders in shaping research questions, framing interpretations, and designing meaningful research products and actions.

The Taking Freedom book series, a collaboration between The Social Justice Foundation, the Service Employees International Union's Racial Justice Center, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Community Innovators Lab (CoLab), is intended to address a wide range of issues, from housing rights, to debt burden, to police reform, and more.

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Key Points

  1. Participatory Action Research (PAR) is an approach to research in which communities decide for themselves how to address important questions they are facing. PAR values the knowledge people hold about their own lives and experiences. Those most directly impacted by research become leaders in shaping research questions, interpreting data, and designing meaningful research products and follow-up actions. PAR creates "weapons of mass instruction."
  2. PAR research groups decide together on the kinds of change they seek, whom they are trying to reach, and which products—for example, collaboratively written reports, websites, performances, and workshops—most effectively mobilize action.
  3. This article presents a set of questions to help social researchers and activists ensure the highest levels of participation, create the most effective products, and find the best ways to mobilize action through PAR projects.
  4. At a time when locally and globally governments have walked away from the needs of individuals, families, and communities, particularly those who are poor, working-class, and of color, social researchers have a public responsibility to work with communities and examine questions of justice and the inequitable distribution of freedom, goods, and opportunities.
  5. PAR is a strategic tool that social researchers and activists can use to help communities ask new questions, produce new knowledge, and empower organizations to take action around the issues that matter most.
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Through the concept of Participatory Action Research, we focus on a theory of provocation, audience, and products, asking readers to think about the kinds of "actions." PAR is an approach to research that values the significant knowledge people hold about their lives and experiences. PAR positions those most intimately impacted by research as leaders in shaping research questions, framing interpretations, and designing meaningful research products and actions. PAR seeks to undertake/provoke in politically very dark times. We end with a series of questions PAR collectives might engage with, as we seek to create PAR products as works to fight the current situation—or "weapons of mass instruction."Participatory Action Research (PAR) is an approach to research in which communities decide for themselves how to address important questions they are facing. PAR values the knowledge people hold about their own lives and experiences. Those most directly impacted by research become leaders in shaping research questions, interpreting data, and designing meaningful research products and follow-up actions. PAR creates “weapons of mass instruction.”

Our work strategically focuses on change—theoretical, structural, and practice-based. Our research groups decide together on the kinds of change we seek, whom we are trying to reach, and what products would most effectively provoke action. That is, we theorize audience, products, and provocation, hoping that PAR will have "legs" necessary to carry research into diverse domains—to reframe social issues theoretically, feed campaigns, nudge those with power, and create new examples of collective, informed resistance.

We have designed our participatory action research projects to inquire about a problem or struggle within the very institutions that many members of our research teams are engaged in/working for/prisoners or students of. Thus "provocation," or questioning existing power structures, sits as both a goal and danger, investigating existing power structures and raising serious ethical questions. That is, because our work is nested within institutions, and typically launched from the perspective of those with the least power, our research collectives must continually revisit questions of the research purpose—for whom is the work and toward what ends? We know that even with permissions, approvals, and collaborations at the top, participatory action research is often quite controversial. And the ashes of vulnerability—no matter how hard we try to anticipate them—fall unevenly. Because of these risks, we must theorize audiences and change within and beyond the local context. In these PAR projects, the global is intimately connected to the local.

Creating Weapons of Mass Instruction With Participatory Action Research

Our work with PAR has brought us to non-governmental organi­zations, college campuses, suburban schools, community based organizations (CBOs), jail cells, urban schools, and the streets. Youth are crafting participatory research and organizing projects with activists, scholars, foundations, CBOs, and progressive educators that critically investigate the social policies that construct and constrict their lives. Most exciting, they are taking this mix of activism and research and designing useful products and tools. We have come to understand that these provocative products of PAR, including collaboratively written reports and websites, performances, and workshops, are essential in this most discouraging political moment. Products are significant to motivate a PAR collective toward a common end, and products are crucial for creating materials that can be mobilized and expanded for future action.

"Provocation," or questioning existing power structures, sits as both a goal and danger, investigating existing power structures and raising serious ethical questions. In these PAR projects, the global is intimately connected to the local.

"Provocation," or questioning existing power structures, sits as both a goal and danger, investigating existing power structures and raising serious ethical questions. In these PAR projects, the global is intimately connected to the local.

Working with young people, we have learned much and made mistakes about how to engage PAR projects. We have come to think that there are a series of inquiries—conversations that action researchers and participatory action researchers should engage in as they move toward PAR with youth. We offer these questions in pencil, to help develop thoughtful conversations about participation, products, and provocation.

Audience

Participatory action research leans toward change, but the question of who needs to be educated, mobilized, encouraged, convinced is rarely asked. We suggest that PAR collectives spend time thinking through audience by considering:

  1. Whom do you want to reach, touch, mobilize, educate, provoke to action?
  2. What are you asking readers/audiences to do? (For example, guilt is not always a useful way to encourage action, but collective responsibility may be.)
  3. What resources have you provided to help shift a sense of collective responsibility into collective action?
  4. Where do you want to incite change—in theoretical framing, in the next generation and elders, in community and institutions, in your own community, across communities, and/or beyond?

Products

Just as audience is a critical part of PAR, so too is the language and shape of your products. In what language will you produce your work? Will it be performed and/or presented as scholarly, policy study? Will it be narrated in a voice of outrage or will it stay rational and distant from the emotions involved? Who will be positioned as the speaker(s)? More specifically:

  1. In what field do you choose to provoke—science, art, law, outrage, contentious politics?
  2. In whose voice(s) do you write/perform/publish/reveal the depth of injustice?
  3. Have you represented both the similarities within your group and the rich differences among you?
  4. How can you combine sharp social critique with an energizing sense of possibility
  5. How might your work be misused, and how can you caution people against such misuse? (For example, warning labels that read: this report should not be interpreted to suggest that....)

Provocation

And then, finally, we encourage critical deliberation about the uneven distribution of the risks of controversy. We recognize that all research is political. However, PAR is explicitly political. The task of provocation within PAR is always a goal and a danger. In this spirit we invite PAR collectives to consider:

  1. Who is made vulnerable by the very products you have designed?
  2. How does your project relate to other, ongoing struggles for social justice?
  3. What happens to co-researchers and colleagues who are located squarely in the institution under scrutiny, the morning after? Are they connected to each other, to other social movements, to people in power who will protect them?

This is a most treacherous political moment for participatory research work. The connections between social research and social policy are weak—reflecting the severely strained relations between social policy and social justice. Locally and globally, governments have walked away from the needs of individuals, families, and communities, particularly those who are poor, working class, and of color.

We have designed our participatory action research projects to inquire about a problem or struggle within the very institutions that many members of our research teams are engaged in/ working for/prisoners or students of. Thus "provocation," or questioning existing power structures, sits as both a goal and danger, investigating existing power structures and raising serious ethical questions.

We have designed our participatory action research projects to inquire about a problem or struggle within the very institutions that many members of our research teams are engaged in/ working for/prisoners or students of. Thus "provocation," or questioning existing power structures, sits as both a goal and danger, investigating existing power structures and raising serious ethical questions.

Social researchers have a public responsibility to disrupt the sense of inevitability—that bad people do bad things and deserve to end up in prison; some students will always fail, they just don't care about school—and to engage with communities around questions of justice and the inequitable distribution of freedom, goods, and opportunities. PAR has the potential to do just that. Whether launched in schools, communities, or prisons—around kitchen tables or in social movements—PAR provides a vital way of reviving and maintaining a questioning and participatory democratic practice, one with the potential to inspire radical struggle, hope, and possibility across generations. Participatory action research is a strategic tool by which researchers' collectives can interrupt the drip feed, engage critical questions, produce new knowledge, provoke expanded audiences, and ask, in the language of the poet Marge Piercy (1973), how can we "be of use"?

Excerpted from Fine, Michelle, and María Elena Torre. 2008. "Theorizing Audience, Products and Provocation." In The SAGE Handbook of Action Research: Participative Inquiry and Practice, 2nd ed., edited by Peter Reason and Hilary Bradbury, 407–419. London: SAGE Publications Ltd. Reprinted with permission.

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References

  • Cahill, C. "Defying gravity? Raising Consciousness Through Collective Research," Children's Geographies, 2(2):273–86. (2004)
  • Cammarota, J., Ginwright, S. and Noguera, P. (2006) Youth, Democracy and Community Change: New Perspectives in Practice and Policy for America's Youth. New York: Routledge Press.
  • Fine, M. Barrerras, R. "To Be of Use," Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, 1:175–82. (2001)
  • Torre, M. and Fine, M. "Bar None: Extending Affirmative Action to College in Prison," Journal of Social Issues, 61(3):569–94. (2005)
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Discussion Questions

  1. PAR provides a lens through which we can view social justice work. How might you use the concepts and critical questions asked by the authors to inform your own work for social justice? How can these questions guide your projects?
  2. How can you bring "weapons of mass instruction" to your own work and community? How could using a research lens help your community address issues of inequality? How might PAR help make the connection between research and social action?
  3. Choose an issue of injustice that you or your community faces. How could the questions framed in this article help focus action around the issue?

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