Social work scholars are increasingly turning to participatory methodologies such as participatory action research (PAR) and community-based participatory research (CBPR) to collaboratively work with communities to address social and economic inequities. PAR/CBPR is an iterative process of knowledge building and social action where formally trained researchers share decision making power with individuals indigenous to a group or community. These methodologies are not only effective in producing sustained social change, but the values underpinning PAR/CBPR also align with social work values such as social justice and self-determination. However, despite this, PAR/CBPR is less widely used in social work as compared to other social work aligned professions such as nursing and education.
This study sought to understand why PAR/CBPR are underutilized in social work research, especially given the promise it holds for achieving social change that is at the core of social work’s espoused mission. Research on those doing PAR/CBPR in social work is limited. Given the differences in positioning of early career scholars and those post-tenure, this study focused on the early career period when research agendas and trajectories are established. This paper discusses the findings from this interpretative phenomenological study of the experiences of 15 early career social work scholars committed to the use of PAR/CBPR.
Through semi-structured interviews (n=10) and group-based data collection activities conducted at a qualitative research conference (n= 5), a sample of 15 international early career social work researchers shared their experiences pursuing PAR/CBPR methodologies. Taking an interpretive phenomenological approach to understanding data, several themes emerged from inductive analysis. Though contexts varied, common factors functioned as facilitators to scholars doing PAR/CBPR and others as barriers.
Barriers make the use of PAR/CBPR challenging for early career scholars include: 1) evaluative measures of scholarly productivity that do not account for time spent relationship-building or engaging in community-based work; 2) the emphasis on research that is directed by a scholar’s individual leadership, as opposed to that which is egalitarian and collectively managed; and 3) the devaluation and marginalization of research that is considered interpretive and lacking objectivity.
Participants’ ability to overcome barriers were linked to key facilitators including: 1) the accessibility to mentors and a community of scholars with similar methodological interests; 2) obtaining academic status through procurement of funding or tenure promotion; and 3) working within institutions that prioritized community engagement and service work.
Participants described a clash between the culture of academia and participatory research approaches. Social work scholars operate at the crossroads of these cultures, with a commitment to academic rigor, but also to empowering communities. Discussion will examine ways that participatory research advances social change while also serving as a model for how scholars, regardless of methodology, can promote socially responsive research. The authors will offer strategies to transcend some of the structural barriers raised in the study to work toward humanized social work research that balances social analysis with application and action.