Blog: Doing Participatory Geographies: a workshop on practising engaged research.

At 6am on Thursday 7th June 2018, I found myself on the platform at Coventry railway station, awaiting the departure of the first train to London.  Thanks to the (very generous and unexpected!) award of a travel bursary, I was on my way to Queen Mary University of London to attend a workshop entitled “Doing Participatory Geographies: a workshop on practicing engaged research”.

Now, at first glance that might seem a peculiar choice for a PhD candidate whose research sits in law, but

1.    I am a bit of a frustrated anthropologist and it sounded interesting

2.   I intend to organise focus groups as part of my data collection, and I thought I could learn some useful hints and tips to enable me to get more useful data from the groups.

I managed to find my way across London to QMUL without incident (those who know me know I have no sense of direction so this was no small feat), and arrived in good time for the coffee and a quick chat with Rosalie Warnock, PYGYRG Postgrad representative.

The event was run by the London Interdisciplinary Social Science DTD (LISS DTD) and the Participatory Geographies Research Group of the Royal Geographical Society.  It began with a short introduction and welcome from Dr Sam Halvorsen, followed by a workshop and round table on “the opportunities and perils of doing participatory research”.

This kicked off with Professor Cathy McIlwaine giving a most interesting presentation covering the inductive nature of participatory research, and how that challenges the assumptions of researchers.  She talked at length about her own work in participatory research and how the various creative methodologies, such as verbatim theatre and visual methods had proven to be more effective for situations such as institutional mapping and where diagramming was useful to illustrate a point.  She emphasised the flexibility of participatory methodologies, and discussed how issues of power, conflict and consensus can come to the fore.  She also mentioned the practical issues – it can be difficult to get people to attend a focus group, and encouraged us to be aware of who was the audience for our work and who were we participating with.

Next to speak was Professor Bernardo Mancano Fernandes, who is currently a visiting professor at the University of Cardiff.  He is known for his co-produced work with the MST (Landless Movement).  He discussed the difference between activist research and research activist, with activist research coming from the community and research activist coming from the university.  He emphasised the need for trust both ways in the relationship between researcher and community, and the multi-dimensional nature of this type of research.  He felt that participatory research involved a compromise with the community but could help the community to understand and develop.

Last to speak before lunch was Dr Liam Harney, who is a Community Organiser in East London.  He felt that there was a depth and richer experience in using participatory methods a it gave a deeper understanding of the community, although often change takes a long time and it can take longer than there is funding for from the university, for example in the case of a PhD project.  Community driven participatory research he felt allowed a better representation of peoples’ lives and experiences, and gave them to ability to influence agendas, albeit that there could sometimes be resistance.

Dr Sam Halvorsen then touched on the training sessions that are run by the Participatory Geographies Research Group of the Royal Geographical Society on methods of participatory research, and echoed the previous discussions around social justice/politics, militant activist research and issues around the university as an institution and its socially committed work from an epistemological and ethical perspective.

The round table discussion followed, which threw up interesting questions around power dynamics, ethics, outcomes, incentives for participation, and the writing up process, participation and the exclusionary nature of academic language.  Common themes that came through from all the experts on the panel included producing different reports for the academic and community audiences, embedding oneself long term in the community and attending events outside of the research project, valuing the community and their views, being aware of our own potential bias as researchers, behaviour around appropriation of knowledge, being open to listen to others and building capacity in the research.

After a break for lunch, it was time for Professor Fernades’ key note speech.  Professor Fernandes works with indigenous, non-capitalist peoples in Brazil.  He talked at length about his work with the MST (Landless Movement), how the indigenous communities have knowledge but are not organised, so they are weak.  His statement that “Indigenous people are seen as a barrier to development” really struck home.  It was clear that he was very passionate about his subject, and had worked for many years to build an environment of mutual respect and understanding.  He has built alliances between the landless and political parties and trade unions, and emphasised the importance of sustainability.  He sees universities as moving towards only being interested in innovation and entrepreneurship as a model of development and is concerned about neoliberalisation and its effect on development.  He talked with passion about how conflict is never one thing, it is many things and how important it is to know the history and structure of the community you are investigating.

The afternoon concluded with more coffee and sandwiches and a chance to discuss with other attendees the thoughts and learning from the day.  I thoroughly enjoyed the day, I learnt a lot, and I hope to put it in practice when I develop my focus groups.  I am now planning to get the focus groups of administrators on their knees with sheets of paper and pens.  I hope they won’t find it too intimidating – but I can certainly take plenty away from the workshop so that this shouldn’t be the case!

Mairi Laird

PhD Candidate, Coventry University.