The Problem with the Participatory Turn: Improving the Accountability of Research Practice in Communities of Solidarity

Friday, 20 July 2018: 16:30
Oral Presentation
Siri KJELLBERG, Lund University, Sweden
Environmental sustainability researchers are increasingly using action research with the expectation that stakeholder participation could improve uptake of their research project outputs while accelerating societal transformations towards environmental sustainability. The potential for using participatory processes to integrate both the social and natural dimensions of sustainability has made action research a promising methodological approach. However, this participatory turn in research practice has been scrutinized due to concerns raised both by critical researchers and by members of communities of solidarity, both due to the way research is conducted, and due to the divergence between the narratives reported by researchers and communities. A lack of accountability for participatory process outputs risks widening the trust gap between communities of solidarity and researchers. How can environmental sustainability researchers decolonize their participatory practices to reduce power imbalances and diminish the potential of misrepresentation or co-optation of communities of solidarity?

Taking a solutions-oriented approach, we reframe the problem of decolonizing participatory practices by explicitly defining participation through two categories; namely, procedural participation and substantive participation. We use these categories to evaluate both our primary empirical findings from interviews with members of Sweden’s Transition Network, and secondary data from a critical literature review of articles. Finally, we use these insights to suggest a framework to approach participatory processes using greater reflexivity and accountability. Communities inviting researchers to document environmental justice issues are practicing Activism Mobilising Science (AMS). We discuss the pros and cons of applying our framework to both AMS and non-AMS situations as part of the formulation, implementation and monitoring of both procedural and substantive criteria of participatory practice. We then conclude that an over-emphasis on procedural metrics of success over substantive ones has undermined researcher accountability. Applying more substantive success criteria for participatory processes could improve interactions with communities engaging with action researchers.