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Participatory Action Research with South Asian Immigrant Women: A Canadian Example


D. Rosemary Cassano, MSW, Ph.D
Associate Professor
School of Social Work
University of Windsor
Windsor, Ontario

Judith M. Dunlop, MSW, Ph.D
Assistant Professor,
School of Social Work,
University of Windsor,
Windsor, Ontario



Participatory Action Research (PAR) is presented as similar to social work in regard to processes, outcomes and empowerment. The challenges in utilizing PAR in social work are explored using the example of a PAR project with a group of South Asian immigrant women in Windsor, Ontario, Canada. An examination of the insider-outsider dimensions of PAR is also provided. The similarities between the process in social work and the process in PAR are discussed with reference to the specific skills relevant to both. This paper proposes a set of considerations to facilitate the use of Participatory Action Research in social work.


This paper promotes the use of Participatory Action Research (PAR) in social work. The similarities between social work and PAR with regard to processes, end results and empowerment are outlined. The accomplishments, unanticipated obstacles, insider-outsider dimensions and questions related to the use of PAR in social work are examined. Specific reference is made to a PAR project with a group of South Asian immigrant women carried out in Windsor, Ontario, Canada. The project was conducted by the second author who at that time was a social worker specializing in community practice with twenty-two years of experience working with diverse populations. The linkages between the skills necessary for social work and Participatory Action Research are made explicit. The above case example also illustrates some of the obstacles which may arise as the PAR model is operationalized. Considerations for the use of PAR in social work were developed based not only on accomplishments but also on dilemmas encountered with its use.

Conceptual Framework

Participatory Action Research

Participatory Action Research (PAR) originated in Asia and the Third World and gradually made its way to Europe and North America. (Fals-Borda & Anisur-Rahman, 1991). Its objectives go beyond the creation of knowledge. The literature emphasizes that PAR includes an educative function which raises the consciousness of its participants and a plan for action to improve the quality of their lives (Reason, 1994; Sohng, 1998 & Whyte, 1991). In addition, PAR seeks “to transform fundamental societal structures and relationships” (Maguire, 1987, p.3) in order to “redress inequality and redistribute power” (Sarri & Sarri, 1992, p.100)
The empowerment of people especially those deemed as oppressed is a major objective of PAR. Reason (1994) has stated that it “aims to confront the way in which the established power holding elements of societies worldwide are favored because they hold a monopoly on the definitions and employment of knowledge. Concerns for epistemology and methodology appear secondary to this purpose” (p.328). The major components of PAR will now be reviewed.

Participatory action research is participative. The researcher cultivates a subject/subject relationship with participants as opposed to the subject/object relationship which is found in traditional research paradigms (Avila & Wallerstein, 2003; Chavez, Duran, Baker, Whyte, 1991; Gatenby & Humphries, 2000; Maguire, 1987; McNicoll, 1999; Yoshihama & Carr, 2002). The researcher fulfills a supportive, catalytic function and does not dominate the research process (Fals-Borda & Anisur-Rahman, 1991). In fact, it is seen as helpful if the research question is generated by the participants themselves (Stoecker, 1999). The roles carried by the researcher include that of educator and activist (Gatenby & Humphries, 2000; Maguire, 1987). The process is collaborative and the co-construction of knowledge is emphasized. This echoes the feminist research tradition which encourages consciousness into the varied oppressions associated with patriarchy. In PAR, the knowledge and experience of people are directly honored and valued (Fals-Borda & Anisur-Rahman, 1991). Participants are empowered through the construction and utilization of their own knowledge (Reason, 1994). Throughout this process, the relationship between knowledge and power is made explicit (Fals-Borda & Anisur-Rahman, 1991; Sohng, 1998).

Reason (1994) has described PAR as a system for knowledge production in which participants have a role in setting the agenda for the research, participating in the data gathering and analysis and controlling the use of outcomes. Both quantitative and qualitative methods and techniques can be utilized. He cautions, however, that the actual methodologies take second place to the “emergent processes of collaboration and dialogue that empower, motivate, increase self-esteem and develop community solidarity” (p. 329).

The use of participatory approaches with diverse groups in the community is well documented in the literature of several professions (Chavez et al, 2003; Gatenby & Humphries, 2000; Maguire, 1987; Sarri & Sarri, 1992; Schulz, Israel, Parker, Lockett, Hill & Wills, 2003; Stoecker, 1999; Yoshihama & Carr, 2002). For the social work profession, PAR appears to be a particularly good fit. There are many similarities between social work processes and those utilized in PAR. Social workers have a commitment to social justice and operate from a set of values and a code of ethics which reflect this commitment. Social workers establish relationships with people where respect and the value and worth of each individual are emphasized. Social workers join with people and start where people are. Social workers work together with people to develop solutions to issues within the tradition of empowerment. Throughout this process, social workers carry a variety of roles and engage in a wide range of activities with clients, their significant others and the environment. This process facilitates clients connecting with their own power to impact their life situation. Clients can then take the step of enacting solutions to their issues. The learning from this experience remains with the client.

There are also similarities in the end result that is sought by PAR and by the social work profession. In PAR, the desired outcome is the co-construction of knowledge to improve the lives of those who have participated in the research and society as a whole. In social work, we strive to improve the quality of life both for those participating in the helping endeavour and for society. PAR incorporates many of the values and principles of social work such as empowerment, social justice and people becoming actors in the process of change.

Most writers mention the ongoing challenges and tensions associated with an approach that emphasizes collaboration as integral to the research process. The researcher utilizing PAR therefore must engage in “a continuous process of reflection and activity” (Sohng, 1998, p.198) so that the personal growth of all those involved in the research can be facilitated (McNicoll, 1999).

Insider-Outsider Perspectives

Many scholars have documented the challenges faced by researchers, as outsiders, as they seek to build PAR relationships with community members (Chavez et al, 2003; Hyde, 1994; Lee, McGrath, Moffatt & George, 2002; Reissman, 1994; Ristock & Pennell, 1996; Schulz et al, 2003; Yoshihama & Carr, 2002). Central to understanding the insider-outsider dimension of PAR is the acceptance that the researcher, as outsider, has limited access to the “hidden transcripts” in any given community (Chavez et al, 2003, p. 87).
The issue of power between researchers (outsiders) and community members (insiders) in the PAR process is complex and reciprocal (Ristock & Pennell, 1996, p. 71). Each researcher (outsider) and community member (insider) brings emotions, opinions and motivations for entering into a PAR partnership Although PAR seeks to maximize the participation of community members (insiders), researchers (outsiders) are also affected by the process (Yoshihama & Carr, 2002). Researchers, as outsiders, may find themselves challenged to create and maintain participatory relationships as they work to increase the empowerment of community members (Hyde, 1994; Yoshihama & Carr, 2002). Community members may execute their power by changing previously agreed upon research or refusing to participate in the PAR process. The goal of encouraging the voice of community members may lead the researcher, as outsider, to either silence his/her own voice in the process, or abdicate responsibility for connecting the community members to relevant knowledge (Hyde, 1994; Yoshihama & Carr, 2002).

Using PAR with multicultural groups leads to characterizations where the researcher is automatically cast as an outsider. This is especially true when researchers, as outsiders, must negotiate cultural meaning in order to build reciprocal relationships. The stereotypical portraits used about each other constrain the development of PAR relationships (Chavez et al, 2003). The true meaning behind a lack of reciprocity in PAR relationships may be impossible for the researcher, as outsider, to interpret. Guitierrez and Lewis (1997) suggest “we must recognize and embrace the conflict that characterizes cross-cultural work (p. 22)". Research undertaken by outsiders has a different orientation from insiders who share the same experience and culture (Lee McGrath, Moffatt & George, 2002). Cross-cultural researchers using a PAR model must become comfortable with remaining on the “outside” of the community.

PAR researchers learn to negotiate their roles and participation in the process as they reflect on the shifting dynamic of insider-outsider boundaries, negotiations and resolutions. The insider-outsider dimension in PAR parallels the development of the helping relationship in social work. As trust grows and the working alliance develops, insider-outsider boundaries shift in the helping process. Consequently, the practitioner is more able to access the client’s knowledge which then joins with the practitioners own knowledge to facilitate the development of the change process.

The Case
South Asian Women in Canada

Maiter & George (2003) have indicated that South Asian’s comprise three per cent (3%) of the population of Canada and are the second largest visible minority group in the country. Forty-nine per cent (49%) of the total South Asian population in Canada are female. In Ontario, South Asians make up five per cent (5%) of the total population with women representing forty-nine per cent (49%) of the total South Asian population. Immigrant women from South Asia have the highest levels of education among all immigrant women in Ontario (Das Gupta, 1994). Compared to the total population of women in Ontario, the proportion of South Asian women in managerial and professional sectors is higher, the proportion in clerical service is lower and the proportion in manufacturing and construction is slightly higher (Das Gupta, 1994).
Several writers have pointed out that the family, not the individual, is the basic unit in South Asian communities (Das Gupta, 1994; George and Ramkissoon, 1998; Rana, Kagan, Lewis & Rout, 1998). Furthermore, family is considered to be the extended family. Women carry responsibility for child care, elder care, housework, care for relatives and close friends as well as passing on cultural traditions (Das Gupta, 1994; Rana et al, 1998). In Canada, these responsibilities are carried out without the household help that middle class families customarily have in Third World countries. George and Ramkissoon have stated “most South Asian women bear double work loads, domestic and salaried “ (1998, p.113)

Profile of South Asian Women Participants in PAR Project

Twenty-five (25) South Asian women participated in the Balancing Work and Family project. Information was gathered on confidential individual participant profile sheets regarding age, marital status, family, education and income. Their ages were from twenty-five (25) to sixty-four (64) years. Ninety-two percent (92%) of the participants were married, four percent (4%) were widowed and four percent (4%) were divorced. Ninety-six per cent (96%) of participants had children and twelve per cent (12%) had extended family (parents, spouse’s parents, siblings and their families) living with them on a permanent basis.

Ninety-six percent (96%) of the participants had completed some post-secondary education. Sixty per cent (60%) were employed full time, twenty four per cent (24%) were employed part-time with sixteen per cent (16%) being self-employed or students. Employment was in health and social services, education, finance, manufacturing, trades and information technology. Their yearly income showed twenty-four per cent (24%) earning under $30,000, forty-four percent (44%) earning between $30,000-$50,000 and twenty-four percent (24%) earning over fifty thousand dollars ($50,000).

Description of the Project: The Women-in-Action Committee – South Asian Centre History

In late 1998, the Women in Action Committee (WIAC) of the South Asian Centre (SAC) and other immigrant serving agencies in Windsor-Essex identified challenges facing South Asian women in the local community. Subsequently, WIAC developed a research proposal to:
1) document issues that South Asian women faced in balancing their work and family responsibilities and 2) develop an action plan to address issues identified through the research. The proposal was funded by the Canadian government with the requirement that focus group research be utilized in the study and that the monies be filtered through an incorporated entity such as the South Asian Centre. However, the prescription that focus groups had to be utilized for data collection compromised some of the participatory nature of this research. When federal funding was secured, the Executive Director of the South Asian Centre requested research consultation from the School of Social Work at the University of Windsor.

The PAR Process

WIAC committee members (including the Executive Director of the South Asian Centre) took responsibility for co-ordinating the project and liaising with the researcher. The researcher met with a core group of WIAC committee members to clarify their goals and begin the PAR process of collaborating on the design and implementation of the study. The primary goal of the research was to provide WIAC with feedback from the South Asian community about the issues and problems associated with balancing work and family in the Windsor-Essex County community.
WIAC and the consultant met monthly utilizing a modified PAR model to incorporate the focus group research required by the funder and to collaborate on the research process. WIAC members were actively involved in developing the research study including the literature review, design, data collection, dissemination and follow-up. Initially, it was decided collaboratively that WIAC members would facilitate the focus groups with the researcher developing a facilitator’s guide and offering training before the study began and on-site consultation as the focus groups proceeded.

Inexplicably, this process was changed when the Executive Director of SAC introduced a member of the South Asian community whom she had hired as the paid facilitator for the focus groups. This was surprising because the process to this point had included the researcher training WIAC members in focus group facilitation. In fact, the researcher had developed a training manual on focus group facilitation and the training workshop dates had been established. Despite the original plan to have them facilitate the focus groups, WIAC members did not comment on this hiring. The researcher was uncomfortable with this situation because it was a sharp divergence from the process agreed upon by the researcher and WIAC members. There was a level of discomfort at this meeting of the WIAC committee members. The researcher, as an outsider to the culture, was unable to discern its full meaning.

At this stage of the process, the participatory aspect of the research appeared compromised. Furthermore, the researcher was told by the Executive Director of SAC to liaise with the paid facilitator and not WIAC members. The researcher consulted with the paid facilitator prior to the commencement of the focus groups. In addition, meetings were held with the paid facilitator subsequent to each focus group. Several WIAC members were in attendance at each focus group meeting. Transcripts of the data collected in each group were given to the researcher for analysis. The researcher prepared a draft report and began meeting with WIAC members once again to gain their feedback and direction for further analysis. During this phase of the research, the process became more participatory. WIAC members expressed their appreciation for the researcher’s expertise but also expressed discontent that the original plan for the focus group training and implementation had not been carried out. A core group of WIAC members and the researcher collaboratively developed the final report and recommendations. The Women Balancing Work and Family: Needs Assessment Report was prepared and distributed to all WIAC members. Interestingly, the Executive Director and paid facilitator did not attend these meetings of the WIAC.

The final stage of the research process was the dissemination of the research findings by WIAC. The researcher was asked to participate in the next stage of the PAR process but, unfortunately, was leaving the country. It was at this point that there was a perceptible shift from outsider to insider status for the researcher. The Executive Director asked the researcher to recommend a consultant to facilitate the community workshop on the Balancing Work and Family project. The researcher agreed to take on this task and subsequently was asked to participate in hiring the facilitator. WIAC disseminated the research findings to the South Asian community in Windsor-Essex and asked for feedback on the report.

Follow – Up (June 2000)

From September, 1999 to November, 1999, the Women In Action Committee held workshops with groups of women from the South Asian community. They obtained feedback on the report findings and established priorities for future project funding. In January of 2000, the findings were presented to the larger South Asian community and community members were asked to identify program priorities for development by the South Asian Centre. The priority recommendation presented at a general meeting of the South Asian Centre was to develop a day centre which would incorporate programs for seniors and children. The South Asian Centre was having considerable difficulties sustaining their existing services; as funders had instituted cutbacks. Consequently, the proposed day centre program was not supported. The Women In Action Committee continued as an ad hoc committee of the South Asian Centre.

Considerations for the Use of PAR in social work

The review of the Participatory Action Research process utilized in the above case example has led to the development of the following considerations for the use of PAR in social work. In PAR, the expertise of groups and communities with whom we work is honoured, respected and utilized in the research process. The researcher brings knowledge and the groups and communities bring knowledge. These are different knowledges both of which must be utilized in the PAR process. Consequently, social work skills which focus on the bridging and mediation of difference may assist the researcher who is committed to PAR.

The inside-outsider dimension of the PAR process is more pronounced in cross cultural research. The researcher, working across cultures with groups that are different, must negotiate access to insider information. Relationships between the researcher and the participants are impossible to interpret when information is not openly shared by community members. Being an outsider limits understanding of how the PAR process is unfolding. This may compromise the ability of the researcher to sustain the subject/subject relationship which has been identified as crucial to the PAR process.

The relationships between researchers and community members in the PAR process are complex. Negotiating relationship boundaries within PAR is not straightforward. Although reciprocity is a goal, it is not always achieved. Even though the participants and the researcher may have a commitment to the PAR process, barriers in both may interfere with full participation. Participants may need to maintain their insider boundaries and researchers may feel uncomfortable about their outsider status. Despite difficulties in developing partnerships, the ideal of the subject-subject relationship should remain as a crucial component of the PAR process.

PAR requires an in-depth awareness of the reciprocal process that unfolds between the participants and the researcher. PAR researchers must be aware not only of the knowledge they possess but also the choices they make in applying that knowledge. In addition, awareness of the impact of one’s emotions and values on those choices is critical. PAR as a research process influences change not only in participants but in the researcher themselves. The challenge then is for the PAR researcher to practice the differential use of self. This demand for continuous reflection in PAR resembles the type of self-awareness required for competent social work.


This paper has made explicit the commonalities between the processes in PAR and social work. The participatory approach of both contributes to empowerment and the realization of social justice. The influence of insider-outsider dimensions was discussed and their special import in cross cultural work was highlighted. Considerations for the use of PAR in social work were developed. This case example with South Asian immigrant women in Windsor, Ontario, Canada illustrates the research process in PAR including the challenges presented by unanticipated obstacles.


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Rosemary Cassano, Ph.D can be contacted via e-mail at:

Judith Dunlop, Ph.D can be contacted via e-mail at:



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