Reflection on the different stages of doctoral participatory research

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.

Reflection on the different stages of doctoral participatory research

In reflecting on her doctoral research into developing a shared pedagogical space for and with early childhood studies degree students, Dr Mallika Kanyal shared with us the challenges of taking a participatory approach from conception to completion.

Developing the research

In developing the research, Mallika considered what the role of the participants would look like, participants’ choice over their involvement, and how talking with participants could be translated into actions in order to shape the agenda. This required a range of communication tools ensuring inclusivity and a balance between structure and flexibility.

Mallika followed the standard institutional ethics procedure, but on reflection she was critical about participatory research and the iterative ethics. She discussed how following ethics iteratively in participatory research can risk the dropping out of participants, affecting the continuity and the momentum of the research.

Selection and recruitment of participants

One particularly difficult decision in the selection and recruitment of participants was around who should be involved. Students and staff were the obvious stakeholders, but managers might have also been an important voice. The issues raised included:

  • Managers may struggle to commit time to the research, but their views could provide a much clearer institutional context.
  • Involving managers could have facilitated institutional action based on the findings and recommendations of the research (Cameron et al., 2010).
  • The empowering aspects of the project (sharing the control of the research with students) may have been weakened by the presence of more prominent and dominant hierarchies of management (Baldock et al., 2009).
  • It may have also created difficult moments in terms of power dynamics for Mallika, as a staff member, a doctoral student, and the lead researcher.
  • Inclusion of management, however, could have provided participants with greater assurances of subsequent actions (Manefield, et al., 2007).

The inclusion of stakeholders, therefore, is an important decision to be made. On reflection, selecting stakeholders could have itself become an inclusive part of the project where participants decide who should be involved.

Data collection and analysis

Data collection took place over a number of meetings and discussions between participants, which raised various questions around participation: Who controls the discussion? Who speaks the most? Who takes the notes? How can we avoid tiered relations between dominant and silent voices? In addressing these questions, Mallika interrogated her own role as a researcher, and particularly the “subtly varying shades of insiderism and outsiderism” (Hellawell, 2006: 486). As her experience as a participatory researcher grew, she learnt how to negotiate different levels of participation and ensure opportunities for participants to decide the extent of their own participation.

The research was primarily qualitative, but participants wanted to quantify the qualitative data, which resulted in complications related to the traditionally opposing positivist and interpretivist perspectives. However, there are various conceptual notions that support the combining of these seemingly inconsistent epistemologies. Participants used their local classification and scoring processes to make sense of the data within their educational and professional contexts. Though the findings present a solely quantitative approach, the process of reaching those findings included comprehensive discussion, which was considered an important part of participatory analysis which allowed a balance between the condensing of data into a priority list, to retaining the original meaning and “feel” (Gale et al., 2013: 5) of the participants’ views.

Final reflections

The experience of undertaking participatory research can challenge and change theoretical frameworks. Mallika’s intention to foster genuine co-construction of a shared pedagogical space would have gone against Vygotsky’s concept of the zone of proximal development, but this was contested during her viva as in fact, participants were responding in a certain way based on how the lead researcher had set up the research. By actively facilitating the data collection and analysis sessions and appropriating participants’ dialogues, the construction of knowledge aligned closely with the ideas of the lead researcher. As such, the research showed that working within a zone of proximal development fits with a participatory approach, as there were opportunities for inclusive decision making, but at the same time there was also the need for a ‘more knowledgeable other’ (Vygotsky, 1978), be it a tutor, lead researcher, or peers, to support and facilitate participants’ learning.

A final tension in the participatory nature of this research was around sharing our reflections on the research. The students completed feedback questionnaires so their reflections were known to the lead researcher, however the critical reflection of Mallika was not known to the students. Though it would have been interesting to have a final meeting to share these reflections, it was decided against due to the additional burden on participants’ time, who had already generously volunteered their time to be involved in the main part of the research. Balancing these and other tensions is something that doctoral students undertaking participatory research must be prepared for.

Baldock, P., Fitzgerald, D. and Kay, J. 2009. Analysing the impact of policy. In: Understanding Early Years Policy. (2nd ed). London: Sage. Chapter 7.

Cameron, K. A., Engel, K. G., McCarthy, D. M., Buckley, B. A., Mercer Kollar, L. M., Donlan, S. M., et al. 2010. Examining emergency department communication through a staff-based participatory research method: Identifying Barriers and Solutions to Meaningful Change. Annels of emergency Medicine: An International Journal, 56 (6): 614–622.

Gale, N.K., Heath, G., Cameron, E., Rashid, S. and Redwood, S. 2013. Using the framework method for the analysis of qualitative data in multi-disciplinary health research. BMC Medical Research Methodology, 13:117.

Hellawell, D. 2006. Inside-out: analysis of the insider-outsider concept as a heuristic device to develop reflexivity in students doing qualitative research. Teaching in Higher Education, 11 (4): 483–494.

Manefield, J., Collins, R., Moore, J., Mahar, S., and Warne, C. 2007. Student voice: a historical perspective and new directions. Research and Innovation Division, Office of Learning and Teaching, Victoria Department of Education, Melbourne, Australia. [online] Available at: [Accessed October 4, 2014].

Vygotsky, L. S. 1978. Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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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