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date: 19 November 2019

Summary and Keywords

Participatory action research (PAR) is an epistemological framework rooted in critiques of knowledge production made by feminist and critical race theory that challenge exclusive academic notions of what counts as knowledge. PAR legitimizes and prioritizes the expertise and perspectives that come from lived experience and situated knowledge, particularly among those that have been historically marginalized. In education research, a PAR approach typically centers the wisdom and experience of students (or school-age youth) and educators, positioning them as architects of research rather than objects of study. This form of participatory inquiry and collective action serves as a countercurrent in schools, where democratic inquiry and meaning making contradicts the top-down knowledge transmission practices bounded by prescribed curriculum and high-stakes standardized assessments. Like all scholars, those engaged in PAR contend with questions regarding standards of scientific practice and what counts as evidence even as they co-generate knowledge and solidarity with communities in which they may be members or allies that are outside the academy.

PAR projects frequently emerge from a critique of dehumanizing structural arrangements and alienating, often pathologizing, cultural discourses. These critiques spark a desire for research that questions these arrangements and discourses, documenting and engaging critical interpretive perspectives, all with the hope of producing findings that will create cracks and fissures in the status quo and provoke transformational change. PAR builds inquiry in the spaces between what is and what could be, with the assumption that dissonance and/or clashes of meaning with ruptures are generative in the possibility for reframing social problems and reconfiguring human relations. When discordance within the research collective, or between the collective and the outside world, is engaged rather than denied or smoothed over, new and different ways of seeing and being emerge. More than simply a method, critical PAR reflects a philosophical understanding of knowledge as socially produced through history and power, an epistemology that recognizes the liberatory impulse of critique and its potential for transformation. PAR projects privilege standpoints that have been traditionally excluded and excavates operations of power within the research in order to inform analytical lenses necessary to understanding dynamics within the issues and experiences being studied.

Examining the potential of PAR in education requires particular attention to the context of what children and youth encounter on a daily basis. Schools have been and continue to be spaces of struggle and contestation for students, in terms of learning and development, mental health and well-being, and physical safety. Federal policies have hollowed out protections for the most marginalized students, particularly youth of color; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) youth; and immigrant and undocumented youth. The rampant privatization of public education, narrowing of public governance, and the deceptive branding of corporate reform as “equity” is sobering. PAR in education troubles this very context, offering a research praxis of countervailing power, agitation, and generative ways of knowing, and being in relation. This encyclopedic entry details the ways in which participatory spaces bring people together, through inquiry, across a continuum of privilege and vulnerability to make meaning of the conditions under which we are living, with each other, for our collective liberation.

Keywords: participatory action research, PAR, education reform, participatory contact zones, generative dissonance

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