Participatory research and impact: partnerships for change

PIF event 12 April 2017

We were delighted to welcome Dr Tina Cook to the Participatory Inquiry Forum to talk about participatory research and impact. As a Reader in Inclusive Methodologies at Northumbria University, Tina began by stating that the way we do research determines what we get out of the research. With a background in working with people with learning disability and their families in the field of education, Dr Cook now works mainly in health research. Using qualitative approaches, particularly collaborative/participatory action research, her work centres on ways of fore-fronting voices of those directly involved in a situation as a means of improving the quality of their lives and the quality of the research.

Participatory research

Participatory research was defined and discussed as a research paradigm, rather than a method or methodology – it is a set of underlying assumptions, values and ethos about the world and how it should be studied in collaboration with the people whose lives or work is the subject of study. Tina promoted the idea of ‘authentic participation’ (McTaggart 1997) and presented the following key tenants of participatory research:

  • Knowledge constructed without the active participation of those with lived experience can only be partial knowledge.
  • People with lived experience have agency in research and those traditionally ‘researched’ become researchers.
  • Research is built on relationally based critical communication to provide multiple perspectives for new ways of seeing.
  • The relationship becomes a strong collective for challenge and learning, which facilitates changes in thinking and acting.
  • Impact is an embedded and expected part of the process.

It was raised that this often involves not only persuading funders of the importance and requirements of authentic participatory research, but also changing the perceptions of participants to realise that they have the knowledge and are the experts on their own lives and experiences – it is not just the history of research to see the researcher as the expert, but also the history of society to give experts the power.

Impact through participatory research

Impact is considered by HEFCE as ‘an effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, beyond academia’. Thomson (2015) suggests that this call for research to make a difference to communities beyond knowledge collection could be the ‘time in the sun’ for participatory research. However, this call sits within a dominant framework that preferences certain ways of recognising and capturing that difference – ways of conceptualising impact that favour predetermination and measurement against ‘norms’. Evidencing impact is sometimes measuring something that is not measurable – but we can still demonstrate impact.

Tina suggests that in participatory research, impact is embedded throughout and often starts occurring long before the end of the research process when participants are asked what the issues are and begin to think critically about them. It can also continue far beyond the end of the research process as changes in thinking may take a long time to influence changes in acting. Impact includes both the intended and unintended consequences of the research process, for example:

  • Individual and community transformational learning and increased social capacity, in the form of individual and collective empowerment to make decisions concerning practices.
  • Strengthening of organisational structures.
  • Extending relationships and acquiring new partners.
  • The creation of new and multiple forms of local knowledge and evidence for that knowledge.
  • The creation of a product that is used within the community.
  • The advancement of existing theories or development of a new paradigm.
  • Policy change and social movements.
  • Increased confidence of participants both in themselves and that change can happen.

These changes may be major, but Tina emphasised that they may also be minor improvements to everyday action or practice that cumulatively over time lead to more major changes. They may be subtle or even hidden as they occur within people and do not necessarily lead to external changes, or are only visible in the long-term. They may also cause a ‘ripple effect’ leading to lots of minor changes or a cumulative major change.

There was some debate around whether learning and new ways of thinking always brings about changes in acting. Participatory research however, taps into tacit knowledge that has always been there but has not always been expressed, which allows for a more critical reflection on actions. This sometimes leads to the reframing of the research question, for example rather than asking ‘how do I stop smoking?’ critical reflection on the situation may lead to the question ‘why do I smoke in the first place?’ which in turn leads to a very different set of answers that get closer to the root cause of the problem.

Trajectories to impact

Tina put forward that the most important trajectory to impact is through partnerships. Bidmead and Cowley (2005) define partnership as ‘a respectful, negotiated way of working that enables choice, participation and equity within an honest trusting relationship based on empathy, support and reciprocity’. However, Tina adds the element of challenge into this equation, arguing that ‘the quality of a partnership lies in the disruptive nature of co-labouring as a catalyst to forging understandings for practice’ (Cook, 2017). This challenge and disruption is described by Tina as a pivotal point in the process, as through the ‘mess’ of different perspectives and knowledge the answer eventually becomes clear.

In this way, participatory research delves beneath the stories that are usually told and disrupts traditional notions of experts; instead, it develops change-makers of the people in the room. Emotions are an important part of the trajectories to impact as the participants are the most motivated to answer the research question – it is after all their question. Further trajectories to impact include:

  • Epistemology and ontology – the theory of knowledge and view of reality, underpinning our theoretical perspective and methodology.
  • Methodologies – strategy, plan or design linking the choice of methods to the desired outcomes, deliberately using methods that provide context for the logical progression to impact.
  • Time and space – ensuring there are opportunities and resources for public engagement and dissemination throughout the research process.

Finally, in order to demonstrate impact from participatory research, stories from the participants themselves give access to accounts of the diversity and ambiguity of human experience from the perspective of those who are living that experience. Participants can get involved in the writing process – whether it is a traditional report or more creative ways of representing the research. Although rarely documented and risk branding as ‘anecdotal evidence’, participant stories and participants’ representation of the research are unique and insightful. They can become the catalyst for embedded change and can even become the starting point for further research or action.


Dr Tina Cook

Reader in Inclusive Methodologies: Northumbria University

Visiting Professorial Fellow: Liverpool Hope University

With a background in working with people with learning disability and their families in the field of education Dr Cook now works mainly in health research. Using qualitative approaches, particularly collaborative/participatory action research, her work centres on ways of fore-fronting voices of those directly involved in a situation as a means of improving the quality of their lives and the quality of the research. She has published on methodological issues in relation to the quality and practice of participatory research. She is an editor for the international journal Educational Action Research, an executive committee member of the International Collaboration for Participatory Health Research and lead for the UK Participatory Research Network.

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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