Participatory Action Research

Participatory Action Research (PAR) is one of CoLab’s core approaches to knowledge co-creation with community partners.

PAR is an approach to inquiry that values the knowledge and lived experience of the communities affected by the problem being researched, and seeks to place greater control over the processes of question definition, research design, knowledge-building, and problem-solving in the hands of community members. In this sense, PAR intends to transform existing unequal power relationships between marginalized groups and those traditionally considered the “expert” researchers and decision-makers.

CoLab offers PAR coursework in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning in addition to its engagement in PAR processes with community partners.


11.236 and 11.237: Theory and Practice of Participatory Action Research
Each year CoLab offers two-half semester courses on the Theory and Practice of Participatory Action Research. 11.236 (Theory) introduces theories of Participatory Action Research (PAR) and more generally competing ideas about social inquiry and the uses of applied social science to promote social justice. The focus is on the epistemological foundations of action research, the ethics of knowledge generation, the role of the academic researcher and arguments for and against PAR as a scientific method. 11.237 (Practice) focuses on cases and approaches to knowledge co-creation with community research partners in efforts for social change. It asks: What are the appropriate methods for doing this? Who owns the knowledge that is co-produced? And what are the key ethical dilemmas at the heart of partnerships between applied social scientists and community members?


Brazil: PAR at PalmasLab
In 2015 CoLab began a PAR process with a Instituto Banco Palmas, a community organization in Fortaleza, Brazil that uses values of the solidarity economy to promote territorial development through the creation of local networks of production and consumption, micro-lending services, and circulation of a local complementary currency. Working with youth leaders at PalmasLab, the bank’s technology and innovation center, CoLab facilitated the co-design of a research initiative focused on understanding how residents of Conjunto Palmeiras experience and engage with multiple “wealths” and “poverties” shaping the landscape of local development. Together, the research group produced a framework and set of research tools to explore the material and immaterial forms of wealth and poverty in their neighborhood, including how residents’ desires and aspirations shape visions and action around local socio-economic development.

CoLab and PalmasLab are now exploring additional ways that neighborhood residents can use Participatory Action Research to deepen their own understanding of the economy’s workings and the structures that impact their efforts to democratize the economy.

The early phases of this initiative have been funded with support from the MIT Brazil Program.

Boston: Healthy Neighborhood Equity Fund
In partnership with the Conservation Law Foundation and DUSP Professor Mariana Arcaya, CoLab is leading a Participatory Action Research project investigating the impact of urban development on community health in nine locations across the Boston metropolitan area. In 2016, students and staff worked with an inter-generational, multi-community group of resident researchers to collaboratively design a survey instrument that seeks to understand the context-specific social determinants of physical and mental health and residents’ visions for a healthy community. Residents spent the summer gathering data in their communities, and will participate in a collaborative data analysis process in the fall. As the project continues to grow, CoLab looks forward to working with our community partners to develop and share strategies to use health research as leverage in their efforts to shape the development process, fight displacement and build community health.

The research is sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and is being conducted with the following organizational partners: Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, Codman Square Neighborhood Development Corporation, Redefining Our Community, GreenRoots Chelsea, Everett Community Health Partnership, Lynn United for Change, CityLife/VidaUrbana and YMCA SouthCoast.


Alison Coffey