Getting doctoral participatory research off the ground

PIF event 15 March 2018

Our annual PIF for doctoral students considered the challenges of getting doctoral participatory research off the ground, presented by Anna Dadswell, as well as reflections on all stages of conducting doctoral participatory research presented by Dr Mallika Kanyal.

Getting participatory doctoral research off the ground

As we all know, doctoral research is hugely complex and challenging, and it has also been driven by a very traditional and individualistic construction of knowledge by the ‘expert researcher’. Embarking on a more bottom-up approach, which blurs the boundaries between the researcher and the participant, challenges this tradition and therefore participatory approaches add another dimension of difficulty to the doctorate. As Southby (2017, p.128) states:

“Participatory research may juxtapose the institutional mechanisms surrounding a research degree and provide practical barriers to research-degree students.”

Anna’s doctoral research takes a participatory action research approach to explore the potential for young refugee women to influence change in their lives and/or in their host communities. However in starting this research, a number of challenges emerged from the complex intersection of rigid doctoral processes and requirements, the organic nature of participatory approaches, and the vulnerability of the participant group. Some of these challenges are outlined below along with reflections on overcoming them.

Defining the research question:

In an ideal world, the research question in participatory approaches would emerge from people with direct experience of the research topic. However, in reality the doctoral process has a limited scope for involving participants in shaping this focus (this is also true in externally funded research). Even if potential participants are keen to be involved, they are not just sitting around waiting to be asked to participate.

The doctoral journey is all about learning, making decisions, and justifying those decisions. Given the circumstances, defining a research question may have to be a sole effort by the doctoral student. However, this can be informed by their reflections on the literature, experience in the field and discussions with potential participants if possible. The question can also be intentionally broad to leave space for identifying a more specific focus with participants later in the process.

Finding the people you need:

Finding the group of people you need also poses a challenge. Participatory research often aims to work with vulnerable groups, who may be ‘hard to reach’ by their very nature. Gatekeepers may not be receptive to research due to their already strained capacity to deliver core services, and working with groups raises both practical and ethical issues around how to respectfully involve them in the research.

Participants are at the heart of participatory research, so being responsive to their needs is crucial. This may mean adapting your approach to meet the needs of your participants and enable their involvement to the extent that they are comfortable with. The important principle is to respect their expertise and autonomy; they should have the opportunity to be involved throughout and be supported to do so, but the research may be more ‘participative’ than participatory.

Working with vulnerable groups:

The ethics of working with vulnerable groups are always paramount. As mentioned, participatory research is likely to involve vulnerable groups – but in doctoral research, where should the line be drawn and what are the implications for excluding people who are considered ‘too vulnerable’?  Furthermore, participatory approaches often place greater demands on the participants and the doctoral student alike in terms of time, but also in sharing personal experiences, thoughts and ideas.

It is important to consider the power dynamics at play, both in terms of the expertise that participants and the doctoral student bring to the table, but also in terms of their priorities for the research outcomes. Doctoral students need to manage the expectations of participants throughout in order to ameliorate some of the potential negative consequences of participatory research, such as feelings of disempowerment once the research has been completed.

Though participatory research presents many challenges for doctoral students, it also presents an opportunity to challenge traditional approaches to knowledge construction and the learning experienced by doctoral students may be strengthened by addressing these challenges.

What is is...

Image from Wandsworth, Y. 1998. What is Participatory Action Research? Available online at: accessed on 14.05.18.

Southby, K., 2017. Reflecting on (the challenge of) conducting participatory research as a research-degree student. Research for All, 1(1), pp.128-142.



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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