Power Relation Dilemmas & Research PAR Excellence – Yahya Barry

Hello! I’m Yahya, a current PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh where I am researching Muslim responses to Right-wing populism in Europe. It is a comparative study of 4 cities, namely: London, Edinburgh, Copenhagen and Malmö. My research interests lie in the contestations and influence dynamics between Islam/Muslims and European society. I have grown fond of PAR (Participatory Action Research) during my PhD and innovative, cross-disciplinary approaches such as using qualitative analysis software and reinventing the ways we communicate research and impact society. I strongly believe in collaboration and seeking new avenues for knowledge production and dissemination.

As researchers, we need to recognize the reflexivity and reciprocity between what we study and ourselves.

Positioning, understood as collective pre-understandings, stereotypes and roles that people carry with them in social interaction, is especially pertinent when researchers engage with their objects of study… Pre-understandings and categorisations are impossible to escape, but this does not make them any less interesting to reflect on, because our assumptions and the roles we play as researchers, and how we are in turn perceived, have an impact on what we are able to state analytically. One paradox in attempting to explain and reflect on one’s positioning as a researcher is that we are never wholly able to comprehend the extent and impact of our roles – positioning is inevitable and there is no un-related ‘third space’ from which researchers can describe their object of study (Tweed 2002).¹

Placing these words into my thesis on Muslim responses to Far Right confrontation, I came to the profound realization that in one way or other, we are all moved by various motivations and agenda when we engage in research. This not only has implications on what we are able to state analytically, how we ‘manufacture’ our data; but also on how our work can be received. For me, studying Islam’s influence on the Far Right was my way of coming to terms with the fact that the very religion which I ascribe to, and moreover, the one in which I am trained to represent as a leader is perceived in such threatening terms. This was my way of overcoming my fears: to study why the religion I follow is seen as the enemy. Being aware of my pre-categorizations makes me now recognize that this is my own individual worldview, and in line with the modernist trajectory, I should not impose this on my interlocutors. This awareness has now made me restructure my conception of the research problem.

This restructure was achieved by articulating my study in terms of simply looking at ‘change’ in identity and its causes among European Muslims. By making ‘change’ the primary analytical variable, I can focus on my own research interests on Far Right confrontation by looking at how my interlocutors refer to it; if indeed they do. This approach leaves our relationship unclogged by my assumptions and furthermore, it empowers the study participants to internally reflect and express of ‘changes’ of their own senses of identity in ways I hope would be equally rewarding for them. By this, the fruits of my research become mutually beneficial to all involved – I get a PhD and they contribute towards their own self-understandings as people and hopefully together we produce new knowledge and contribute to the current literature on Muslims in Europe.²

This way of thinking was inspired by a model of research called PAR (Participatory Action Research). 

Participatory Action Research

When academics engage with communities as they carry out their research, there is an ethical and pragmatic need to consider the power roles involved in the process. Knowledge is not only a powerful enterprise; it has the overwhelming capacity to reconfigure power relations through the way it is created, shared and implemented. As researchers, the onus is on us to recognize this power and use it responsibly and ethically in what I’d term ‘power management’. This seeks a middle way between the near-inevitable quest for total relinquishment of power on the one hand, and the perpetuation of the static hierarchal role specifications between ‘researcher’ and ‘researched’ on the other. One of the methodological models which have been a leading paradigm in addressing these power relations is Participatory Action Research (PAR). PAR has been seen as a “democratic commitment to break the monopoly on who owns knowledge and for whom social research should be undertaken.”³

PAR is a type of research which emphasizes a reflexive form of participation wherein both the researcher and researched actively produce and create knowledge for specific objectives related to the broad arena of social change. PAR has come out from the ‘cold’, and through the influence of certain ‘turns’and theories5 has become a leading research paradigm in the social and environmental sciences. In correspondence with these theoretical frameworks and social turns, PAR has literally opened up ‘spaces’ for the voices of previously marginalized groups to emerge. Its revolutionary conceptualization of research has a positive impact on not only the quality of information generated, but also on developing the capacities of both researchers and participants.

PAR has initiated a revolution in research output, target audience and also the media through which research is disseminated. It is essentially about striking a fruitful and cooperative relationship with the wider communities being engaged with. Since the people being researched (study participants) already have substantial and valuable ‘local’ knowledge, research should be synergized through interactive ‘participatory’ methods such as art, dialogue, storytelling, drama to compliment and capture the participants’ unique and diverse ways of self-expression. These methods – it is envisaged – produce high quality and in-depth results for the study’s outcomes. PAR holds that the participants should therefore be included in the research design and implementation because ultimately, the objective is to also benefit them in the whole enterprise. 

Among its problems is: a perpetuation of the ‘power’ struggle insofar as it can create polarizationsof power between positive and negative ends. It can also marginalize certain internal minorities; and its emphasis on change-oriented activity within ‘locally situated’ contexts can miss out the bigger picture of a complex globalized world. This relates to my this research in making me aware of being selective and creative in the methods I use to study less visible entities such as tactical agency, and also being careful to situate the location of my subject both locally but also in relation to the broader social structures.

The power issue remains central in considering PAR as a potential research model. Because PAR is distinguished by its capacity to address, and hence restructure the society’s spatial configuration, it has had to grapple with the ‘power’ issue. Its key prioritization is removal of the static hierarchical role specifications between researcher and researched through empowering ‘ordinary’ people in the research process7 The whole enterprise of relinquishing power or subverting the roles by giving control to participants in a way perpetuates the power struggle. It seems to just shift power rather than actually try to manage it, resulting in the polarization of power.This fails to consider the possibility of crossovers; social agents can creatively use their own local spaces to shape their own unique identities and agenda in quite powerful ways without needing us to empower them in the first place.

The problems in my reflection centre on how we understand power and how we use it. This in turn raises interesting ethical issues around the need to situate, relativize and communicate this power. I hold that power is context-bound, situational and relational just as discourse and social identities are. We therefore need theoretical frameworks which enable us to contextualize the research participants in their own localities to see how they shape their own discourses and use their own power before assuming a priori that they need empowering. One of the frameworks which I’ve seen do this to some extent is de Certeau’s tactics-strategies modelwherein tactics refer to socially subordinate agents navigating around the strategies – the overarching structures placed by the social elite. The creative reconfigurations of the structures on the tactical level actually produce distinct identities. By using such a framework in space/place making, we can situate the participants in their respective localities, and actually consider the possibility that they already have the power to shape their own discourses. Our role would be to see how they do this and in relation to who, when, where and why they do this. But then again the whole ‘power’ thing emerges when it comes to the issue of telling the ‘story’, cf. Coles’ point about how cropping and editing a picture powerfully frames its story in a way which can significantly disadvantage the viewer.10 

In addressing the ethical dilemma regarding the power we exert in telling our stories, I refer to the point I made about having a nuanced understanding of power as being situational and relational. I as a writer have the power to shape my story, but the reader also has the power to verify and scrutinize what I say, just as the participant has the power to shape h/er own agenda. So in this regard, we have to acknowledge that we are all exercising some form of power. As researchers, we have an ethical duty to communicate our power-exercises to the reader/viewer as best as possible. I think there is no such thing as a third vantage point where we can safely stand and conduct our work. For this reason, the emphasis should be on managing and dealing with this inevitability. I believe that as long as we are transparent about our ‘pre-understandings and categorisations’ as well as our agenda, and we inform our participants and readers of this so that they are aware of it, I would like to think that we go beyond shifting the power problem to actually starting to address and manage it.  

In this project, the insights gained from PAR and research ethics have given me inspiration into how I should further devise creative methods which not only involve the participants in the research design directly; but also revolutionize how I share the results with them and which media I use to do this. Research is fun because it challenges us to confront power and by this confront our very own selves and our capacities or deficiencies. The more we develop the theoretical and methodological tools to help us address our specific research problems, the more fun we are likely to have in the process – both us and our participants and readers.

 ***

1 Jeldtoft, p. 115.

2 A note about my thesis title; should it also change in light of this changing conception of the research problem? Not in my current thinking because my inherent research interests remain the same. I see no harm in informing this to my participants that is even more empowering because it lets them know there is absolutely no compulsion in their responses having to align with my own interests.

3 Kindon et. al., p. 11.

4 The so-called: cultural turn, materialist turn and emotional turn, Kindon et. al, p. 28.

5 Feminism, Critical theory, complexity theory, humanist and transpersonal psychology are some of the sub-theories situated within the three broader theoretical strands of: poststructuralism, postcolonialism and postmodernism. Kindon et. al. (p13), Alvesson & Skoldberg (pp148/9).

6 Kindon et. al., p. 2.

7 Kindon et. al., p. 17, p. 36.

8 Kindon et. al., p. 2.

9 de Certeau, M. (1984) The Practice of Everyday Life.

10 Coles, pp. 106-109.


Yahya Barry, PhD candidate in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Edinburgh
(Yahya.Barry@ed.ac.uk)

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