Lewis Williams, Phd director, Prairie Region Health Promotion Research Centre, Department of Community Health and Epidemiology, University of Saskatchewan, Canada



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Lewis Williams, PhD


Director, Prairie Region Health Promotion Research Centre, Department of Community Health and Epidemiology, University of Saskatchewan, Canada.
Postal Address:

Prairie Region Health Promotion Research Centre

University of Saskatchewan

107 Wiggins Road

Saskatoon SK S7N 5E5 Canada
Email Address:

lewis.williams@ usask.ca

Forthcoming in Educational Action Research


A contemporary tale of participatory action research in Aotearoa New Zealand: Applying a power-culture lens to support Participatory Action Research as a diverse and evolving practice

Abstract

This article represents an attempt at ‘truth telling’ (Kemmis, 2006) or problematising the practice of Participatory Action Research; specifically as this relates to the ways in which particular sets of knowledge, institutional and identity-power relations privilege particular world views and cultural systems over others within the research process. To date, much of the literature available to researchers on PAR remains grounded in Western assumptions and cultural values. However, the internationalization of development work and increasing migration patterns of people’s from to less economically developed countries to largely Western, wealthier countries, means the practice of PAR must become increasingly context specific.

The intent of this paper, therefore, is to illuminate PAR as an evolving practice, whose ongoing development must be informed by the entirety of contexts and participants that, in reality make up any one PAR project. It tells the story of an 18 month PAR project in Aotearoa New Zealand with migrant, low income, Tongan and Samoan women living in state-owned houses in the Auckland suburb of Glen Innes. This project evolved through several phases of development which culminated in these women, undertaking a child health and safety survey of State-owned houses in their neighbor hood and engaging in public policy advocacy. Throughout each phase, the author and the other research participants had to successfully negotiate a number of cultural-power dynamics and associated tensions located in the cultural assumptions of PAR, working cross-culturally and the challenges of attempting PAR within the context of a university – community partnership. It draws on several key examples to illustrate these dynamics and invites the audience to reflect on PAR as a diverse and changing practice.


INTRODUCTION

Participatory Action Research (PAR) is evolving as both a research method and intervention for self-determination. Its evolution represents a synthesis of two traditions: action research and participatory research. Often referred to as the “Northern Tradition” (Wallerstein & Duran, 2003), action research tends to be collaborative and utilisation-focused, with practical goals of sys­tems improvement. This approach has largely ignored the social and power relations involved in the production of knowledge (Wallerstein & Duran, 2003). The tradition of participatory research (often referred to as the ‘Southern Tradition’) arose within Latin America, Asia and Africa from the 1970s onwards, as a response to structural crises of underdevelopment, liberation theory and the search for new practice by the adult education and development fields in how best to work with communities vulnerable to globalisation by economi­cally and culturally dominant societies (De Koning & Martin, 1996; Waller­stein & Duran, 2003). Originating in Marxist social theory, the Southern Tradition has encouraged/endorsed social progress through mass movements that challenge inequitable distribution of resources.

Recent discussions of participatory action research (PAR), have however critiqued the contemporary state of this field for its loss of critical edge; both with respect to its lack of application to social transformation research and critique of PAR as a practice, particularly the constitution of knowledge within research processes (Carr & Kemmis, 2005; Kemmis & McTaggart, 2006). Kemmis & McTaggart (2006) introduces the concept of parrhesia, - truth telling, or the telling of unwelcome truths that problematise the research process, particularly in ways that question the constitution of practice. For Kemmis:

Critical participatory action research will……inform wise and prudent collective action by a range of those involved in and affected by the practice, in the interests of transforming the collectively constructed social, cultural-discursive and material-economic fields that shape, structure and support existing practice (2006, p.18).


This article represents one such attempt at ‘truth telling’, specifically with respect to its analysis of dominant cultural-power relations that permeated the research process. For example, despite the representation of Northern and Southern traditions in contemporary PAR and its practice in diverse cultural contexts throughout the world today, Western conceptualizations of PAR continue to predominate in published literature and practice; sometimes paralleled by implicit assumptions regarding the desirability of knowledge transfer from Western practitioners and scholars to those in non-Western countries (Hughes & Yuan, 2005). Yet, in reality the practice terrain of Participatory Action Research is much more mixed. In part a result of global processes1, contemporary communities throughout the world are often characterized by diverse cultural2 groupings who occupy a range of social and economic locations. Despite increasing recognition of the diverse cultural makeup of many contemporary societies throughout the world, PAR practice contexts never-the-less remain permeated by sets of knowledge, institutional and identity-power relations that privilege particular world views and cultural systems over others. For instance the PAR project, which is the subject of this paper, was with immigrant Tongan and Samoan women living in Aotearoa / New Zealand whose cultural identities and social statuses were at times considerably at odds with the Western-conceptualization of PAR being articulated by myself as a Palangi3 / Maori4 University-based researcher, and institutionally supported, to some extent, by a university predominantly based on White, Western, Patriarchal cultural norms. Given that the evolution of PAR is subject to the wider societal influences described above, practitioners are therefore challenged to articulate its practice in ways that are fluid and suited to the variety of communities and contexts, whilst negotiating those particular sets of cultural power-relations that predominate.

Key aims of the research described in this paper were: (1) the study of self-determination or empowerment processes; and (2) the increased self-determination of participating communities via their engagement with social action projects underpinned by PAR. Three areas of tension encountered by myself as the researcher in carrying out PAR, (both as research methodology and an intervention intended to increase self-determination) with a Women’s Advocacy Group (WAG) are discussed. These are: (1) working cross culturally; (2) community - university partnerships; and (3) methodological assumptions of PAR premised on Western democratic norms and more individually orientated conceptualizations of rights and advocacy as contrasted to the cultural norms of the research participants; significant contextual factors foregrounding each tension area raised have their roots in historical processes of colonization; in particular the institutionalization of Western systems of knowledge founded on ‘rational scientific reason as the repository of truth’ and the positioning by colonialists of Western civilization as superior. Post-colonial theorists (Sardar & Van Loon, 1999; Sarup, 1996) have argued that imperialist expansion was not only a territorial and economic project, but also inevitably a “subject constituting one” in which colonial representations of ‘the colonised’ came to dominate their self-identities. As evidenced in the research findings the influence of these colonising discourses is still apparent in self-identifies of the research participants and the superior positioning they often accorded Palangi / Western identities, knowledge systems and institutions in relation to themselves and their cultural traditions. Finally, a power-culture conceptualization of PAR is applied to findings; this views the articulation of participatory action research and its potential as an empowerment intervention to be significantly influenced by dynamics of power and culture. The application of a Power-culture lens to the PAR practice terrain is proposed as a means of assisting reflexive practice and ultimately the evolution and effective application of PAR in a diverse range of cultural contexts.



PARTICIPATORY ACTION RESEARCH THROUGH THE LENS OF POWER-CULTURE: A CRITICAL POSTMODERN APPROACH
Diverse definitions of PAR have been proposed (for example, Hall 2001; Park 2001), but the definition offered by Dickson and Green (2001) most closely resonates with this project.

[Participatory Action Research] is an inquiry by ordinary people acting as researchers to explore questions in their daily lives, to recognize their resources and to produce knowledge and take action to reduce inequities often in solidarity with external supporters (p. 472).

PAR is underpinned by a cyclic process of inquiry through which par­ticipants move through successive phases of action and reflection, with each phase informing the next. This method involves extensive collaboration among all participants (including those who may be traditionally defined as the “researchers” and “the researched”) from research planning to the dis­semination of results, and a reciprocal education process between all those concerned (Kemmis & McTaggart, 2006). A number of key points distinguish PAR from other commonly used methodologies. The evolving process of PAR and the inclusion of action steps contrast to projects more tightly planned and linear. The ex­plicit focus on changing a social practice or situation, not just understanding it, starkly contrasts with traditional positivist researchers who do not expect the way in which their respondents see and live their lives to alter (Hart & Bond, 1995). PAR is often future orientated, concerned not just with what is but what should be, and judging and advocating for proposed solutions. PAR rests on a philosophy and process of collective, rather than individual knowledge creation and ownership. Being centred within communities, PAR projects place considerable emphasis on maximising participation. This collective epistemology, or way of knowing, provides the key differ­ence between PAR and other qualitative methodologies. Communities re­claim their right/power to create their own knowledge, enabling them to participate effectively in decisions that affect their lives.

The range of approaches taken to PAR finds their roots in a variety of theoretical locations. Two theoretical perspectives particularly relevant to this study are social constructionism and critical theory. Social constructionist approaches to knowledge creation, view knowledge as being socially constructed between researchers and the re­searched. Realities are multiple, local and specific in nature (Guba & Lin­coln, 1994; Lincoln & Guba, 2006). The study’s orientation towards emancipation or self-determination draws on critical theory which views knowledge as historically and socially constructed and mediated through the perspectives of dominant groups in society. Critical theory suggests an attention to the role of power in social relations and an agenda for social change through democratic, dialectic process. As with the project discussed here, such action research projects are conducted with an explicit social change agenda and “work from the belief that the very process of participating in constructing knowledge about one’s own context has the potential to redress power imbalance” (Boser, 2006, p.11). This emancipatory orientation also resonates with feminist theory’s emphasis on challenging oppressive structural power relations (De Koning & Martin, 1996; Wallerstein & Duran, 2003).

The research conceptualized self-determination as the ability of individuals and communities to live lives they have reason to value (Sen, 2000). This includes the ability of individuals and communities to authentically express themselves through consciously constructed subjectivities, identities and cultural systems supported by access to economic resources, social structures, and decision-making institutions (Williams, 2001). A key finding from the study is that processes of empowerment (including the articulation of PAR) are significantly influenced by the interplay of dynamics of power and culture (power-culture) that are operative within any one context (Williams, 2004; 2006). Different levels of power (such as individual, group or institutional) are brought into dynamic interaction with different cultural systems (such as ethnicity, gender, class, sexuality and ability), resulting in various forms of empowerment relations. Put another way, economic, political and social inequities are brought into dynamic interaction with different cultural factors impacting individual and collective subjectivities and access to environmental capacities such as housing, employment, and supportive public policies. Opportunities for individual and collective self-determination vary from situation to situation, are contingent upon which socio-cultural groups are represented, and the forms of power that support their efforts (Williams, 2004; Williams, 2005).

Theoretically, this conceptualization rests on the postmodern (Williams, 1996) tenets of particularlism and relativism wherein power-culture dynamics are unstable and shifting, contingent upon the various cultural systems and forms of power operative within particular locales. It also bases its account of empowerment on post-structural (Ife, 1995; Lukes, 1974) conceptualizations of power. These theorize power to be dispersed throughout the social system, fluid and unpredictable at the micro levels (e.g., interpersonal and community), yet also more deterministic in nature at macro levels (e.g., institutional and policy sector). As a research methodology and self-determination intervention, PAR (both process and outcome) is shaped by power-culture dynamics; these occur at the levels of overarching knowledge systems, institutional practices and community relations.


THE PROJECT

By 1997, neo-liberalism had become truly entrenched in Aotearoa, and there were dramatically widening social and economic inequities between different cultural groups in the country (Blaiklock et al, 2002; Howden-Chapman & Tobias, 2000; O’Brien, 1998). Previously marginalised groups such as Maori, Pacific peoples, women and children had become further dis­enfranchised as a result of social and economic reform – often tending to be the scapegoats of, rather than active participants in public policy debates re­garding these issues. Particularly striking around the time of the commencement of the project were the dominance of discourses about the “poor” and the superior ability of powerful groups aligned with “new right” interests to assert these. For ex­ample, in 1998, the National government introduced the Code of Social Responsibility that proposed particular economic, social and moral responsi­bilities that all people living in Aotearoa should meet in order to earn their citizenship rights. During the Code’s public consultation phase, the government indicated that the Code would be used as a bench marker to en­sure that “state dependents” – i.e., welfare beneficiaries such as single mothers – were meeting their responsibilities to society (Williams, 2001). Fortunately, the Code did not become policy. Debates of this nature were influential in shaping the research project as enabling marginalised groups to create their own discursive space or place of power from which to speak.

The over-arching research question eventually developed was: how can economically (and culturally) marginalised communities act to shape and determine their futures, thus in­creasing control over health and well-being? The major New Zealand component, the advocacy research project was developed in collaboration with Goodworks, a community outreach program initiated by a religious order in a low-income suburb of Auckland called Glen Innes. Goodworks’ primary objective is the empowerment of Glen Innes residents and community workers through skills development and increased input into social policy, which elided neatly with the research project’s questions. Glen Innes is an ethnically diverse area with large Maori, European, Pacific people and other migrant communities living in it. It has a large concentration of state-owned houses, high unemployment rates and some serious social problems. Kinship networks, churches and community organisations provide a sense of community and belonging for many Glen Innes residents. At the same time, ethnic and religious factions exist within the community and some residents are isolated by issues of poverty through lack of ability to participate in social and community activities and associ­ated feelings of shame.

It was through one of Goodwork’s community developers (hereafter called Mary), that contact was made with a small group of migrant Tongan and Samoan women living in Glen Innes. These women eventually formed the core of the Women’s Advocacy Group (WAG) out of which evolved the housing advocacy research project5. Relationships between the women who gathered at the commencement of the group reflected those described in the wider community. Most of them had migrated as young adults and were now mothers of quite large families. Levels of formal education were generally low and opportu­nities for further learning were highly prized. Some worked very long hours, being engaged in low-paid work outside the home in addition to per­forming all the household duties. Church also played an important role in the lives of these women, which provided the entry point, through Good­works, for the project.

The housing advocacy project consisted of four phases, each being between three and six months duration. The first three phases consisted of individual and group capacity-building activities in preparation for the community’s policy advocacy activities. During phase one, the group’s activities were initially focused on establishing the group and developing a mutual understanding of the project and its planning and review processes. This was followed by, story-telling activities focused around narratives of culture and identity (Williams, Labonte and O’Brien, 2003), and the development of various skills relevant to the group’s activities such as structural analysis and media advocacy. During this phase the group narrowed the advocacy topic further, underwent some research training and subsequently undertook a child health and safety survey of 42 Housing New Zealand (state-owned) houses in the Glen Innes area.

Overall, the housing advocacy achieved a number of changes in em­powerment domains for members of WAG and the Glen Innes community more generally. Evaluation data collected from phases two, three and four revealed changes in individual and community capacities, and changes within the socio-political domain (Williams, Labonte & O’Brien, 2003; Williams & Labonte, 2003). These changes included a number of out­comes such as reports, media releases, meetings with policy makers and some changes to legislation, as a result of a new government.


Phase one: project formation (June – August 1998)

  • Establishment of project structures

  • Establishment of the Women’s Advocacy Group – i.e., purpose, ground rules and relationship-building

Phase two: story-telling (September – December 1998)

  • WAG members tell own life-stories with a focus on culture and iden­tity

  • Evaluation of phase two, reflections, planning and celebration

Phase three: skills development (February – June 1999)

Group work on a variety of areas that included:



  • Story-telling around the operation of power in Tongan, Samoan and Palangi cultures

  • The broad identification of improving local state-owned housing condi­tions as an advocacy goal and preliminary research

  • Undertaking structural analysis of related conditions

  • Development of media advocacy skills

  • Evaluation of phase three, reflections and planning

Phase four: housing advocacy and action (July – October 1999)

  • WAG members undertake research training

  • WAG members carry out a child health and safety survey of 42 state-owned houses in Glen Innes

  • Release of survey results at a public meeting, media advocacy and meetings with key housing policy players and organisations
  • Evaluation of phase four and the project as a whole





Figure one: overview of the phases and activities of the Women’s Advocacy group.
RESULTS

This section provides an overview of the research findings as these relate to the focus of this paper – three key areas of tension encountered in the implementation of PAR, both as a research methodology and intervention for self-determination are discussed. Findings are drawn from direct quotes from WAG members during individual interviews and group sessions, from interviews with Samoan and Tongan women community developers who provided comment regarding the impact of culture on empowerment processes, and my own field notes. All quotes and observations are sourced. Where WAG and PWCD appear next to quotes, these refer to members of the Women’s Advocacy Group and Pacific Women Community Developers respectively.


Working across different identity and cultural locations

Living outside of Glen Innes and having an identity that differed from the other co-participants in some significant ways (e.g., ethnicity, sexuality, class, education, not being a mother, spiritual/religious beliefs) had significant implications for the project – both with respect to its implementation and the potential of PAR as an empowerment intervention. I was positioned (both by myself and other participants) as an “outsider” (Ristock & Pennell, 1996). Having a cultural identity that differed in many respects from the other participants meant that I needed to gain a much greater understanding of their cultures and everyday realities. This meant opening to my own lack of knowledge, being prepared not to know and spending more time with other participants coming to know their worlds. This was critical to the research in two ways. Firstly, I needed to find ways to build relationships with the other participants across our differences so that we would have a research project. This also called for reflexivity (Lather, 1991; Ristock & Pennell, 1996) on my part regarding how my own social locations and identities influenced my assumptions and our interactions. It also called for trust on their part and willingness to form a relationship with some one outside of their everyday experiences. Reflecting on her thoughts near the commencement of the WAG, one member said:

And [I thought] ‘why should we trust this Palangi coming into our life?’ You know it was quite hard for us to trust you and maybe for you to trust us. [With the story-telling], we thought who is she to tell our life to, how we been brought up back home…You know, telling youse Pakehas how we been brought up…But when we starting to get to know each other and build a relationship, that’s when the trust starts coming (WAG#1).

Initially, my lack of knowledge of Samoan and Tongan cultures led me to question my own ability to work with the members of WAG (as Tongan and Samoan Women), in terms of empowerment or self-determination practice. As I grappled with these issues and discussed them with others, I received a range of messages from different sources, including WAG members and other Tongan, Samoan and Palangi women about the effects of working from different cultural locations. For example one Tongan WAG member’s comments about the value of having had a Tongan woman (who was also educated) come in to work with the group for some time crystallised the potency of working with some one of the same (ethnic) culture in terms of self-determination:

And then ‘X’ coming in and the stuff we were learning about empowerment and also Paulo Freire’s work. It made us realise that our own people can succeed. Working with another PI {person from the Pacific Islands}. We have a similar identity and they can understand us much more – they feel for us. They know what we feel…it encourages us to achieve our dreams – we realise that we can get there too (WAG#8).

Around this time, I was also talking with my Tongan supervisor about the idea of having an open forum with WAG members on traditional Tongan and Samoan cultural values of hierarchy and authority, as these issues seemed to be impeding the work of the group. We planned that the discussion would focus on the question: ‘In what ways did it serve group members to maintain hierarchical relationships both in relation to members of their own communities and more generally?’ However, when I asked her opinion on whether I should ask a Tongan or Samoan woman to come in and facilitate this session, she thought that this would only ‘lock the women more into hierarchical types of relations during the process of the discussion’ (field notes C1), making open discussion of the issues difficult due to their deference to the facilitator whom they would view as more senior to them. On balance she though it better that I as an ‘outsider’ facilitate the discussion.

The other cross-cultural relationship particularly challenging for me was the research participants coming to know my world. As a lesbian, I am familiar with homophobic responses from some people when they learn of my sexual identity and realised that this was a possibility with the other co-participants - particularly as they had strong religious affiliations. Being unfamiliar with Tongan and Samoan cultures and Roman Catholism, I found it hard to guess what their response might be and whether it would be safe to ‘come out’. On one hand, the method and integrity of the research design demanded that as a co-participant, I also be as authentic in revealing who I was. I intuitively felt that my ability to build and maintain a relationship relied upon my authenticity and that disclosing information about myself would shift the balance of power in a more equal direction. On the other hand, I felt concerned that by ‘coming out’ I could lose my participants and ‘blow the research’. The paradoxical situation in which I felt caught caused me some paralysis as a researcher and group member. The field notes recorded by myself during our story-telling provide a synopsis of my experience.

Being a lesbian amongst this group is a challenge – and a part of me that I have not been open [to the group] about. I haven’t felt safe to in case I blow the research. Or rather that because of homophobia, the group decided they wouldn’t work with me. Rather an irony, as the nub of the research is about identity, visibility and speaking out…..When I tell them is actually crucial. Better to let them see more of me [first] so that my lesbianism is easier for them to integrate, rather than coming out sooner. But timing is crucial. If I don’t come out to them, I know I’ll lose them in a subtle sense anyway (field notes B2).

I finally sought assistance within cross-cultural supervision with a Tongan/Fijian woman who was able to give me the information I needed to find my way through this issue with the other group members. Eventually I came out to the group within the context of telling my life story, as we were all taking turns to do. Having worked together for three months already, locating my sexual identity within the context of my life-story, in a structured process, was for me a safer way of coming out to the group. We had had time to get to know each other and build relationships. Therefore, I reasoned that they were more likely to see ‘more’ of me as a person and associated perceptions of myself were less likely to be framed by dominant and discriminatory social constructions of ‘lesbians’.

A University – Community Partnership

On one level, the housing advocacy project undertaken with WAG represented a partnership between an academic institution, Massey University, where I was undertaking my doctorate and the community members of Glen Innes, via the Women’s Advocacy Group. At the initial meeting with potential members of WAG, there was a feeling that none of us really knew the territory we were entering into. On their part, research, the university, the idea of politi­cal advocacy and this Palangi were all unknowns. For me, I felt very much an “outsider,” and I was, with very little knowledge of their cultural worlds and day to day realities. I explained that I was doing research at Massey University around poverty and public policy advocacy. As a part of the research I was interested in being a member of a women’s advocacy group who spoke out about problems of low income and that took some action to improve the living situations of their communities. I added that I wanted the research to have some good and practical results for people facing issues of poverty. Some of the women in the group were immediately very respon­sive. We spent several weeks discussing the sorts of issues they faced in relation to living on low incomes, talking about the idea of a women’s advo­cacy research group and getting to know one another. It took some time to arrive at a mutual understanding of what the advocacy research project could be about and there were uncertainties, apprehensions and other tensions within this process. On reflection, I think it was the integrity of the idea and the presence of Mary that sustained us as a group in those early days.

From the onset of the research process, WAG members wanted to see practi­cal and tangible benefits for themselves and other community members. Some also made it clear that they definitely wanted to do research them­selves and wanted this process to begin more or less immediately. For example, on the third week of the group meeting one woman wanted to know “why the group hadn’t done any research or taken any actions to date?” I explained that I was waiting on permission from the ethics com­mittee of the university and that “good research” that people considered credible was planned and systematically carried out (field notes B1).

It was initially hard for members to understand the research culture of ethics and systematic inquiry. This resulted in some initial tensions as we struggled to gain a mutual understanding of what this advocacy research group could be about. In other words, what were and could be our areas of commonality? From my perspective, how could a research process that had to meet the scientific requirements of the academic community and was controlled by the institutional needs of the university fit with the needs of this community? From their perspective, how could their desire to improve the conditions of their lives fit with the set of rules from the university that this researcher had to obey to get this qualification called a PhD? From the perspective of communities (particularly those whose cultures are not repre­sented within dominant social structures), knowledge is both accessed and legitimated through the scientific community, many of whom reside in aca­demic institutions (Gaventa, 1993). The everyday knowledges within commu­nities at “the margins” have a much better chance of advancing their causes if legitimated through scientific rigor – thus their reliance on the “academic expert” to transform these into legitimate knowledge claims (field notes B1-B2).

A further example of such tensions occurred in the later stages of the advocacy research project, when the group was carrying out its own housing research. The group’s target number of houses to be surveyed had been agreed upon as 40. However, one member went well over her quota and when asked to stop surveying houses expressed her frustration: “Why shouldn’t I carry on if there are so many people that want their houses sur­veyed!” (field notes E2). However, a balance had to be struck between the group’s resources (skills and time) to analyse all the findings in a scientifi­cally rigorous manner and the scheduled timing of the release of the research. Such challenges are not uncommon within PAR aimed at social change. At times PAR “sacrifices methodological sophistication in order to generate timely evidence that can be used and further developed in a real life process of transformation” (Kemmis & McTaggart, 2000, p. 591).

The tangibility and immediacy of outcomes from the research desired by community members meant that a delicate balance needed to be struck between the trustworthiness of the research and the need of people to see immediate and tangible benefits. Initially, from one week to the next (as we discovered and negotiated our common ground), I did not know if I would still have a research group. Throughout the entire research process, I contin­ued to hold the tension point between the requirements of the research cul­ture and the needs and requirements of the community I was working with. As our trust grew and common ground became more established my experi­ence of these tensions lessened, although always remained. I was in a bridging role between two quite different cultural communities and their sometimes divergent needs. Throughout the research with WAG, I contin­ued to balance the needs of the other advocacy group members with the requirements of the academic community.


Leadership and advocacy: When culture is at odds with the methodological assumptions of PAR
I approached my role with the Women’s Advocacy Group with a belief that we all have our own sense of knowing, inner truth and life experience to draw on and contribute in our activities with others. Different kinds of spe­cialist knowledge, such as research skills on my part, and the local and cul­tural expertise of the participants, could work in a complementary manner to promote shared leadership and more equal power relations among partici­pants. This is consistent with feminist and PAR approaches to inquiry (De Koning & Martin, 1996; Green, George, Daniel, Frankish, & Herbert, 1995; Kemmis & McTaggart, 2000; Ristock & Pennell, 1996). My expectation was a more or less linear process of group members gradually gaining confi­dence and skills and eventually taking up stronger leadership roles. This did not happen according to plan!

During my initial meetings with the group, there was a strong expecta­tion for me to take a directive role. I emphasised continually the ideas of partnership, sharing knowledge and skills and co-participating in planning and research activities. However, I quite quickly became aware that most of the group members wanted me to take up more of a role of imparting knowl­edge. One woman said: “We expect you, the lady from the university, what we would be expecting from you, is that you are going to teach us.” Some of the group members felt unsettled by what they saw as a lack of structure, concrete information and a directive role on my part. It was often expressed to me that I was from a “very high place” (the university) and that they wanted me to teach them concrete skills and impart knowledge (field notes B1). I noticed over the first few months of our meeting that group members showed some confusion and frustration at my insistence that they also had knowledge to share. Reflecting on her experiences of this many months later during a presentation at the Public Health Association of New Zea­land’s Annual Conference, one participant said:


So myself and the other mothers in the group thought that Lewis would be teaching us skills and things. But Lewis said “No. You got knowledge, I got knowledge – we will teach each other.” I thought to myself “but what knowledge have I got?” So I was confused and the other mothers in the group were confused too. And we said to each other “Why doesn’t Lewis teach us some skills?” So we wondered if it was worth coming at all.

These experiences were contrary to the ideal of the “co-creation of knowledge,” a central premise of PAR (Kemmis & McTaggart, 2000). I did have some knowledge that would be useful to share with them, and in that way (as they said) I was a kind of a “bridge to their futures.” As time progressed I became aware that their leadership expectation of me was also bound up in the issue of authority. In their eyes, because I came from a university, I had an authority in relation to knowledge that they didn’t have. These experiences are consistent with PAR literature that notes the depreciation of popular knowledge, even by “the people themselves” (Gaventa, 1993).

Further conversations with group members and subsequent interviews with Samoan and Tongan community developers, revealed these behaviours also to be a result of traditional cultural values of hierarchy and deference to authority, instilled from a young age through various social practices6 (Meleisea, 1987; Martin, 1996), as well as historically rooted colonization processes in which imperial economic power was coupled with notions of superior Western knowledge, civilization and identity.

Hints of the impact of colonization came quite early on in the fieldwork during a planning session with two WAG members (low income, immigrant Tongan and Samoan women), ‘Mary’ (Palangi, member of clergy), and myself (Palangi/Maori, university educated). When anticipating our future advocacy activities, both the Tongan and Samoan members said that: ‘it was lucky they had ‘Mary’ so that when it came time to do the speaking up {advocacy work}, other people and especially Pacific Islanders would listen to them’. When I asked what they meant, they replied: ‘people will listen to you {rather than us}’. When I asked why people would listen to ‘Mary’ and myself (two non Pacific peoples, not living on low incomes, speaking about issues that did not directly affect us), rather than them, they replied that: ‘people would prefer to listen to the Palangi’. They intimated that this was just the way things were and that it was something that could not be changed (field notes B2). I believe the emphatic statements of these participants that other Tongans and Samoans would rather listen to ‘B’ and myself stating their case, to be due to the internalisation of Western hegemonic discourses pertaining to the superiority of these knowledge systems. This inference is supported by an interview with an immigrant Tongan community worker who also knew the group members. When I asked her about group members’ continual positioning (perceptions) of me (as an educated Palangi) as having higher social status and authority than themselves, she replied:

The first thing is because they look at you, [you] are Palangi. They love the Palangi and the ‘Palangi will do things better than us’ is the thought….Because when the Palangi first came over to the Island, everybody there they think that the Palangi brought the good things to Tonga and everything good is the Palangi….like the modern things, or food and the clothes….It’s also colonisation of the Islands when the first um, first um explorers came over there and that’s how we think and whenever we go its a matter of us respect the Palangi more - higher than us. It carry on…that’s how it started….Yeah and its to do with material things and what they bring. Everything is good, you know - education yeah that person is better than you (PWCW#1).

The differential authority accorded to me as an educated Palangi was problematic to the other group members taking up leadership roles as well as challenging my con­struction of issues according to dominant Palangi norms. I sensed that the reluctance of research participants to question my “expert researcher author­ity” could also mean that when we were engaging as a group in processes of validating research findings, my initial interpretations (if incorrect) could go unchallenged. I was also aware that if the authority and leadership (power) stayed with me throughout the research process, other research participants were less likely to feel energised and increase their capacities as researchers.

Issues around author­ity and inner knowing repeated themselves in numerous ways throughout the research process. The way that I dealt with this was to challenge these assumptions, continually create leadership opportunities for others and use research and development methods that drew on members’ knowledge bases. To some extent, the issues of authority and leadership and Western hegemony, impacted less on the research process as it evolved. This was because the research itself came to rely more on their localised knowledges as the investigation progressed and other group members began to challenge my assumptions as the trust between us built and we got to know each other better. How­ever, the legacies of colonization, contemporary dominant power-culture dynamics which continue to privilege Western ways of knowing and cultural identities over their non-Western counterparts and the fixed and highly stratified nature of Tongan and Samoan societies relative to the flatter social structures associated with Westernised societies from which PAR literature emanates, meant the tensions between PAR ideals and reality remained pervasive throughout the advocacy research project.

CONCLUSION: DRAWING ON A POWER-CULTURE LENS TO CONCEPTUALIZING PAR AS A DIVERSE AND EVOLVING PRACTICE
This paper has reviewed three key areas of tension inherent in a contemporary PAR practice context shaped by historical and contemporary global processes within which particular sets of power-culture dynamics were evidently influential in shaping the articulation of PAR.

In working cross culturally at the interpersonal level, power-culture dynamics shifted from context to context demonstrating that power within the research process is not simply concentrated within the researcher or the research community. Power, as a dynamic and fluid force within the research process is exercised rather than possessed. While power is exercised in vertical directions (for example, ‘researcher’ over ‘researched’), it is also exercised from the bottom up (Martin, 1996). Who participates and which cultural systems are present within any one research context, the varying forms of power that people have access to, and the ways in which this is exercised are significant in shaping the form and outcomes of any one PAR project.

As touched upon previously, WAG attributed an enormous amount of status and power to Massey University’s role in legitimating and defining valid knowledge. This perspective never really shifted. WAG members had not conducted research in a formal sense before. This coupled with their relatively low social status as young low-income women with few educational qualifications – both within their own communities and in rela­tion to wealthy, culturally dominant groups – increased their reliance on the University to legitimate the group’s activities and research findings. During the course of conducting the housing survey, for example, it was not un­common for WAG members to be challenged by other community members as to whether they had the status and qualifications to be carrying out “research.”

My own perception, and one that I promoted to the group, was that the relationship between Massey University and WAG was potentially benefi­cial to the housing advocacy. While Universities are often seen to lend credibility to research, so too would research grounded in tangible, real life issues add weight to the use of academia toward achieving policy goals. Group members accepted my “take” on the situation and for the purposes releasing the research findings and media advocacy, the relationship between the group and Massey University was publicly described as a “partnership.” It was, however, always very clear that WAG owned the housing research.

However, WAG’s relationship to Massey University contrasts with other some community-university PAR partnerships in which groups are able to exercise considerably more power in determining their relationship with the academic institution. In one Auckland based PAR project for example, community groups comprised predominantly of New Zealand-born Palangi members with higher levels of education than WAG members exercised considerably more agency in defining the University’s role in supporting their goals (Cervin, 2004). They were able to do so, relatively unfettered by dominant power-culture dynamics whose source were partially located in historical colonial relations. While the choice of standpoint or relationship with the academic institution ideally lies with the community group rather than the University, the extent to which a group is free to choose its relationship with the University or other organisations supporting its PAR activities, will be influ­enced by the group’s existing access to knowledge, skills resources and other forms of structural power. Some groups are more free to choose than others.

My main challenge in operationalising PAR methodology, is that (as widely represented within the literature) this remains predominantly grounded in Western assumptions and cultural values and was somewhat at odds with the cultural norms of WAG members. PAR values such as shared leadership and the re-distribution of power in the direction of those with less access to structural power are actually counter to traditional Tongan and Samoan cultural systems that tend towards being more hierarchical than most Westernised cultures. Here, the exercise of leadership and authority of various members over others is relatively fixed, determined by rank or social status. As previously described, I found it difficult on many occasions to abdicate from the leadership role. Power sharing within group activities was further complicated by my locations as a Palangi, educated, university researcher which caused members to position me as “the leader.” Having English as a first language and greater familiarity with Western-based bureaucracies also put me in a “hinge” position between the group and large organisations throughout many of the advocacy activities. This coupled with my greater access to resources such as transport, relative to group members, added to the centrality of my position within the group. Group members’ relatively few years of formal education and lack of familiarity with Western democracies meant that fairly intensive skills development work was needed in preparation for the housing advocacy phase. Again, I was best in the position to either undertake this or organise other people to come in for this purpose.

Throughout this research project, the influence of particular sets of power-culture dynamics was clearly evident in shaping PAR processes and empowerment outcomes. The ways in which these played out appears to adhere to a critical postmodern perspective. At the community or interpersonal levels, the process of PAR was much more influenced by which cultural system predominated for whom and the forms of power, individuals had access to. To some extent these dynamics were shifting and unstable. However, even at these interpersonal levels, institutional forms of power played an important role in determining the project’s evolution. For example, Western Scientific knowledge as legitimated through the University and the positioning of the Palangi researcher as having expert authority, meant that participants adhered more to particular research protocols than they might have had other power-culture dynamics predominated, and at times devalued their own knowledge. While the underlying basis for these dynamics are partially located in historical processes of colonization, the continued dominance of Western civilization and economic power in contemporary global relations also ensured the culturally biased basis from which I proceeded to go about the PAR project.

In closing I propose that one approach to informing a fluid articulation of PAR that is suited to contemporary globalized societies which at previously unprecedented levels, comprise people whom occupy a range of cultural, social and economic statuses, might be to view these practice contexts through a power-culture lens. Application of this lens will potentially encourage critical inquiry from all research participants (both the researcher and the traditionally researched) focused at each level of influence: knowledge systems, institutional and identity-power relations to determine which world views and cultural systems may potentially be privileged over others throughout the research process. While the application of this critical lens to practice contexts may place PAR researchers on less certain ground and will undoubtedly require the adjustment and re-orientation of PAR methodologies to ensure a closer fit with some communities, this initial step is undoubtedly a crucial one in ultimately supporting PAR as a diverse and evolving practice.


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1 Such global processes include largely western capitalist expansion and the colonization of Indigenous peoples throughout the world, the migration of peoples from the economic peripheries to the ‘developed west’ and the expansion of Northern / Western development models to other parts of the world (Williams, 2001).

2 The term ‘culture is used in a broad sense and refers to worldviews, conventions, norms and symbols used by particular groups. It may be applied to ethnicity, gender, age, sexuality, ability, religion, rural/ urban and other types of groupings. Cultural identity is closely related to self-identity.

3 Palangi is the Samoan word for a person of European descent.


4 Maori are the indigenous peoples of Aotearoa / New Zealand.

5 To guide the research a number of supporting structures were established. These included a community advisory group made up of representatives of WAG, community workers and representatives of Goodworks. The role of this group was to assist in guiding the overall development of the research (including the initial development of the research questions regarding empowerment processes), to advise on local cultural and development issues and to ensure accountability to the relevant groups and organisations in Glen Innes. A small planning group comprised of two WAG members and Williams was also formed for the purpose of planning WAG’s capacity-building and evaluation activities.

6 These practices included, for example, not contradicting parents or people with higher social status, and elders and people with titles eating first at celebrations.


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