What is Community-Based Participatory Research?

Written by Anees Fardan

If research is to be such a tool, it has to be done in a different way from any of the traditional approaches. Participatory research for action, what we have come now to call Community-Based Participatory Research (CBPR), is not a research method, but an approach to research and to learning that may use different methods. Three ideas are central to CBPR: Participatory, action, and knowledge.

(1) CBPR is Participatory.

It starts from the premise that research should be owned and controlled not by researchers but by people in communities and organizations who need the research to act on issues that concern them.

(2) CBPR is defined by the need for action.

Research is initiated by people coming together to address issues or problems in their lives. Action gives a clear purpose for doing research, and a yardstick by which to measure how useful the research is.

(3) CBPR creates knowledge, but not for the sake of knowledge alone.

It tries to bring together knowing and doing or, as Patricia Maguire says, "the doers and those historically done to."Participatory researchers, no matter what methods they use, affirm: "... that people's own knowledge is valuable, ...[they] regard people as agents rather than objects, capable of analyzing their own situations and designing their own solutions."

Traditional research, whether qualitative or quantitative, is thought up by and carried out by researchers "on" other people. "Subjects" provide information which researchers need, but their knowledge is taken away from them and processed somewhere else.

Researchers may be driven by their own curiosity. They may be driven by the agenda of powerholders: funders of research, government, foundations, and corporations. Even if they believe the research is in the best interests of their "subjects," those interests are defined by the researchers, not by the people being studied. In the name of objectivity and avoiding bias, traditional "top down" research systematically excludes those who are being researched. There are hopeful signs of change in adult education research -- inviting learner and practitioner views on research priorities, and a growing interest in teacher inquiry, but too much still follows traditional paths.

In CBPR, in contrast, those who would traditionally be the subject of research decide what problems are worth investigating and what the important research questions are. Sometimes the community members themselves also conduct the research -- carry out interviews, raid the libraries -- sometimes experienced researchers carry it out, but invited by and in collaboration with the group. From Community-Based Participatory Research comes learning and ultimately empowerment.