Language and landscapes of participatory research

PIF 26 November 2019

Participatory research spans a range of different disciplines and encompasses many different approaches. Buzz words such as ‘co-production’ and ‘service user involvement’ are everywhere, but are used in different ways and can result in people claiming they are undertaking participatory research when they are not. There is sometimes little recognition of other approaches within the participatory research landscape so that many researchers end up working in silos despite potentially trying to achieve something similar. In this PIF we explored the language and landscapes of participatory research, drawing on an example from our guest Maritta Törrönen, Professor of Social Work at the University of Helsinki and Visiting Fellow at ARU.

Defining participatory approaches

Professor Carol Munn-Giddings explained that participatory research is about who drives different stages of the research process and how we can conduct research with people, rather than on them as in traditional approaches. She introduced the important features behind some of the most prominent approaches:

  • Participatory research: Participatory forms of research value the active involvement of participants in the research process. This takes place along a continuum: at one end of the continuum there is full active involvement throughout all stages of the research process, whilst at the other end involvement is more passive, typically as data sources (Cornwall, 2008).
  • Action research: “Action research is the study of a social situation carried out by those involved in that situation in order to improve both their practice and the quality of their understanding” (Winter and Munn-Giddings, 2001). The aim is to change something during the research process, not just at the end.
  • Participatory action research: This brings participatory and action approaches together to form “a participatory, democratic process concerned with developing practical knowing in the pursuit of worthwhile human purposes” (Reason and Bradbury, 2001).
  • Co-production: This term is used a lot in statutory services, along with variations such as ‘co-creation’ and ‘co-design’. It involves “…working together to do something. It is also about people with different views and ideas coming together to make things better for everyone” (SCIE, 2015).
  • Transformative research: Transformative research is rooted in critical paradigms that attempt to amplify the voices of marginalised people. This adds to the multiplicity of voices and should focus on the things that matter to those people in order to contribute towards knowledge generation, action and liberation. (Burgess, 2019)

We discussed some of the complexities and controversies within this landscape of participatory research, including why people might want to get involved (or might not), what happens when people don’t want to be involved in all stages of the research process but are involved in a meaningful way at certain points (sometimes known as participative research), and the difficulties of funder expectations that participatory research can be conducted in the same amount of time as traditional research.

Next Dr Melanie Boyce introduced different degrees of participation and models of participation:

Degrees of participation

  • Cutler and Taylor (2003) use participation and involvement interchangeably – defined simply as “taking part in decision making”. They recognise a spectrum of degrees of taking part.
  • Lansdown (2001) distinguishes between ‘consultative processes’ (where children have no control, activities are adult initiated, led and managed) and ‘participatory processes’.
  • Hart (1992) stated that participation referred to the process of sharing in decisions which affect one’s life and the life of the community in which one lives.
  • Hanley et al. (2004) talk not about participation but about involvement, giving three levels on a continuum, from consultation at one end to user-controlled at the other.

Models of participation

  • Hart (1992) developed an eight-level ‘ladder participation’ where the further up the ladder, the more involved participants are. However this has received a lot of criticism because it suggests you can’t move up unless you have achieved the rung underneath.
  • Shier’s (2001) ‘pathway to participation’ emerged from the community development field and suggests ways in which children and young people can be involved and have their opinions heard.
  • Chawla (2001) proposed seven forms of participation, and talked about how you can build on the different types of participation that are already happening in a project.
  • Treseder’s (1997) wheel of participation provides a useful critique of Hart’s ladder as it shows how people can be involved in different ways at different points, and takes contextual issues into account.

So participation can mean different things in different contexts and no one model or form can be applied across all settings and in all situations.  Each model has its strengths and limitations and each may be appropriate for use in different projects.

As an example, Dr Niamh O’Brien explained the dual-axis model of participation (Moules and O’Brien, 2012) and the axis model of participation (O’Brien, 2016) developed through research with children and young people. These models reflect on where the power lies in terms of decision making, control and direction, ideas, and knowledge throughout the research.

Power is fluid and changes moment to moment. In Niamh’s doctoral research, the young people relied on her to train them in research methods at the start, but then initiated different ideas and were involved in different ways to make decisions along the way. They also had different ideas about who held the power at various points. During the PIF we discussed the balance between acknowledging the substantial contribution of people involved in participatory research, and maintaining their confidentiality – essentially why are we as researchers credited when participants remain anonymous?

Reciprocal Encounters: Young Adults Leaving Care

Maritta Törrönen, Professor of Social Work at the University of Helsinki and Visiting Fellow at ARU, introduced her work with young people as co-researchers who interviewed their peers on their shared experiences of leaving care. The research built on previous participatory research in Finland, but evolved into participatory action research that ran in the UK in 2016–2018. It was a collaboration between Anglia Ruskin University and the University of Helsinki in cooperation with the Essex County Council (ECC) Children in Care Council. A full description of the project can be found here:

Maritta shared some of her thoughts on the participatory nature of this research.

  • Young people in care are not often heard, so the aim of the research was to raise their voice on what is important to them and facilitate them to ask other young people their point of view. It was very touching as the young people really wanted to help others in the same situation.
  • Working collaboratively with peer researchers meant training young people to carry out research, including negotiating the interview schedule, helping them to conduct interviews, and understand how their role was fundamental in the process of data analysis.
  • One challenge was around whether the young people could be equal to researchers who have the education and training to undertake research; but the young people were experts by experience, and this gave them knowledge and sensitivity around certain things beyond ours.
  • As co-researchers, they built self-esteem and learnt skills that will be useful in their working lives – these opportunities are sometimes out of reach for young people in care e.g. for one young person it was the first time they had used the train alone.
  • They were also acknowledged in the report and co-presented the findings for ECC. The co-researchers were eager to continue this kind of work and are now very active with the Council, for example education practitioners.
  • There was an impact on the Children in Care Council who now do almost all of their research with the involvement of care leavers and practitioners. However, various restrictions from the Council meant that we were unable pay the young people for their work (which we could do in Finland).

To finish, we held a group discussion on some of the challenges, tensions and potential of participatory approaches to research. Some of the questions discussed were as follows:

What is the role of the researcher in your research?

  • Researcher as expert or facilitator?
  • Researcher as activist?
  • Involvement and role of co-researchers or peer researchers?
  • Reflections on the position and power of the researcher.

How meaningful is participation in different stages of your research?

  • Is it more about providing opportunities for participation and/or involvement at different stages?
  • What are the different and competing priorities of research participants? Can this barrier be turned into a strength?
  • How can research be more inclusive?

How can participatory research be conducted within existing structures?

  • How can we get funding and support from funders for participatory research?
  • What are the challenges in applying for ethical approval for participatory research?
  • How do we address the differences between the participatory research plan (or proposal) versus the reality of undertaking this work?

What does your research leave behind?

  • What value does participation and/or involvement add to your research?
  • How does participatory research fit into the impact agenda?
  • Does your research facilitate action for change?


Burgess, R. (2019) on “When participation isn’t enough: A call for transformative research methods in global health” Wed, 9 October 2019 University College London – Wolfson Centre Room B.

Chawla, L. R. (Ed.) (2001). Growing Upin an Urbanizing World. London: Earthscan Publications.

Cornwall, A. (2008). Unpacking ‘participation’: models, meanings and practices.  Community Development Journal, 5, 1-15.

Cutler, D. and Taylor, A. (2003). Expanding and sustaining involvement: A snapshot of participation infrastructure for young people living in England. London: Carnegie Young People Initiative.

Hart, R.A. (1992). Children’s participation: From tokenism to citizenship (No. inness92/6).

Lansdown, G. (2001). Promoting children’s participation in democratic decision-making (No. innins01/9).

Moules T, O’Brien N (2012) Participation in perspective: reflections from research projects. Nurse Researcher. 19, 2, 17-22.

O’Brien, N. (2016). To ‘Snitch’ or Not to ‘Snitch’? Using PAR to Explore Bullying in a Private Day and Boarding School. Unpublished thesis, Anglia Ruskin University. Available from

Reason, P. & Bradbury, H. (2001). Handbook of action research: participative inquiry and practice. SAGE: London.

SCIE (2015) Co-production in social care: What it is and how to do it.

Shier, H. (2001). Pathways to participation: Openings, opportunities and obligations. Children & society15(2), pp.107-117.

Telford, R. and Faulkner, A. (2004). Learning about service user involvement in mental health research. Journal of Mental Health13(6), pp.549-559.

Treseder, P. (1997). Empowering Children and Young People. Save the Children, London.

Winter, R. & Munn-Giddings, C. (2001). A handbook for action research in health and social care. Routledge: London.

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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