Using participatory approaches in doctoral research

PIF Summary 23 February 2017

Record numbers attended the Participatory Inquiry Forum round table discussion on planning and using participatory approaches in doctoral research. Doctoral students came from across different Faculties (and campuses) and their research spanned across a huge variety of topics. Some were at the early stages of planning their study, while others were preparing for fieldwork or had completed their doctoral. Professor Carol Munn-Giddings, Dr Melanie Boyce and Dr Niamh O’Brien led the session, covering some of the points that need to be considered at different stages of the doctorate process.

Participatory research

Participatory approaches to research are about people with direct experience in the research area having more voice in the research process – from defining the issues to working out solutions. Bennett & Roberts (2004)

There are many different types of participatory research – action research, participatory action research, co-operative inquiry, practitioner research, user-led research – and it is important to explore the literature on these different types and decide where your own approach in the doctorate fits.

Proposal stage

  • Suitability of a participatory approach to answer the research question – it may align with your personal values but do not force it to fit with the research if another approach would be better.
  • Leaving space for co-development of the research – the proposal needs to find a balance between offering a robust research plan and not being too prescriptive so participants can input.
  • Being realistic and open-minded – you may set out to use participatory methods but your participants may not want to be so involved or may prefer more traditional methods.

Ethics stage

  • What are people actually consenting to and how often – ethics committees need to know the details of your methods, so if the participants will be helping you to develop these then you will have to make additional ethics applications or substantial amendments further down the line.
  • Who owns the data – if participants are fully involved, your doctoral project can begin to blur with the group’s or organisation’s project so it is important to be clear about this from the start.
  • Working with vulnerable groups – it is important to ensure you are putting across their voices and being explicit about collaborative interpretation of data and how you then write it up.

Fieldwork stage

  • Building relationship and trust – this is fundamental to participatory research and can take a lot of time as you may need to identify gatekeepers and gain access and trust through them.
  • Maintaining momentum and managing expectations – you need to keep participants engaged and excited about the research, but also highlight what is realistic and possible in terms of the impact and discuss the ending of their involvement right from the start.
  • Resources constraints for you and your participants – participatory research can be very time-consuming and costly so it is important to be transparent about this throughout.

Viva stage

  • Assessment is focused on originality, independent critical thinking and contribution to knowledge – this contribution may be to the subject area and/or the methodological process.
  • Examiners will have a methodological preference – know how to position your approach in relation to theirs, but the doctorate is your contribution so it doesn’t have to be the same.
  • Build rationale into the thesis wherever possible – you can elaborate on this rationale in the viva, but make sure you have examples to back up any claims you are making.

It was great to hear how these and other issues related to everyone’s own research as despite substantial differences in research topics, there were many similarities in the issues that students faced. For example, the group discussed the difference between participatory research, where participants are involved in all aspects, and participative research, where participants are involved at certain points, and how some studies are better suited to each approach. The group also discussed the importance of building trust and relationships with participants, particularly in the case of conducting research abroad where the researcher is unfamiliar and may have limited time.

During this lively event, one thing we all learnt was that discussing your work with peers can be an invaluable way of reflecting on your approach and strengthening your work – so take every opportunity you get to talk about your research!

Author: annadadswell

As a Research Fellow in Social Work and Social Policy at Anglia Ruskin University, I manage the Participatory Research Blog. Please feel free to contact me with questions and suggestions at

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