QMUL Participatory Geographies Research Method Workshop

The London Interdisciplinary Social Science DTD (LISS DTP), together with the Participatory Geographies Research Group of the Royal Geographical Society and IBG (PyGyRG) co-hosted a research workshop on 7th June 2018 at the Department of Geography, Queen Mary, University of London. It saw an assemblage of PhD researchers from various academic fields and backgrounds who are interested to learn and use participatory method in their research. Having been newly acquainted with the term ‘participatory research method’ during my initial months as a PhD researcher, I was keen to learn more about this method. The PyGyRg bursary made it possible to attend this engaging workshop.

The workshop started off with some morning refreshments on a bright sunny London day. There was a panel discussion followed by small group discussions where all of us actively participated. We discussed the key issues faced by each one of us while engaging with participatory research method and then couple of questions were raised from within each group. Lovely lunch was provided by the organisers. After lunch, there was a keynote lecture followed by questions from participants. The workshop saw an ensemble of excellent panel of speakers who are involved in participatory and grass root work, as well as gave space to the participants to bring forward their concerns.

I was particularly interested in attending this workshop because of Professor Bernardo Mançano Fernandes from Sao Paulo who shared his experience of doing participatory research in Brazil, a country from global south. His keynote speech in the afternoon session was rooted in his experience of working closely with people involved in socio-territorial movements and MST (Landless Worker’s Movement) in Brazil. The most affirming part of his talk was his commitment to establish a research method which is boldly anti-capitalist and which resist the neo-liberal condition of present global order. He made a distinction between ‘researcher activist’ and ‘activist researcher’ based on their political alignment and positionality in relation to the research process. The nature of intersubjectivity and participation would, therefore, drastically differ among these two categories. A researcher activist is someone who is based in a university and feels strongly for the cause of a particular community. Therefore, goes on to do a research project with the community. Institutional governmentality would entice them to have an objective outlook towards the research. On the other hand, an activist researcher would come from the community, would be immersed in the cause and follow the movement emerging from the community to convey what kind of knowledge is being produced through these grass root movements. They will not claim objectivity while employing a participatory method in their research because they will have a strong political standpoint about the issues in question. I found this distinction by Bernardo quite fascinating and relevant while doing participatory research with community. This addresses ethical and political commitment of a researcher, renders value and gives attention to the issue of representation. To elucidate his point he gave an example how in his university he has initiated a postgraduate course on territorial development by directly selecting twenty activist researchers from the community. This is a quite a distinctive approach towards pedagogy where university – community- government public policy can be responsible and engaged in a research process, together as an unit. His argument in regards to critique of development discourse holds true for majority of the world order which has a dominant agrarian society. His bottom-up approach to build resistance and strategies within agrarian communities can be a useful research tool for places beyond global north. The discussion followed by the Keynote made it clear that Latin American scholarship has a different departure point from Anglophone academy, where the discussion on participation starts from the perspective of strategy and practice. Whereas, in UK it revolves around method and forms, affect and sensorium, playfulness and visuality.

The panel discussion by Cathy McIlwaine (Geography, KCL), Dr Sam Halvorsen (Geography, QMUL and Chair of PyGyRG); Dr Liam Harney (Community Organiser in the Aberfeldy Estate, Poplar) touched many important dimensions and practicalities about participatory method. Cathy McIlwaine has been involved in not only community based participatory method but she is also passionate about using visual method. Therefore, she used those visual representations to demonstrate her work in Colombia- Guatemala, Botswana and Latin American refugees in London. She has involved participants in diagramming, institutional mapping, focus group discussion and theatre as part of participatory method. She mentioned practical issues while deploying these methods. I find her example in doing research in Botswana particularly useful. Here she stressed on the flexibility and inductive nature of the participatory method. Pre-formulated questions often don’t work in a field reality. In her research based at Botswana, the research problem was to look at violence in Botswana but the research team was open to change the nature of the research project when they saw HIV AIDS and sexuality are the main problems with the community. She raised the questions of power and consensus in a focus group discussion and the importance of being conscious about the nature of the participant. It is important to be conscious whether it is organisations, civil society groups or community, one is working with and where such methods won’t work. She gave her own example from London and particular difficulty of working with policymakers in conveying the importance of these methods.

Liam used to be a PhD student with QMUL and now he is actively working with the community. He focused on different approaches of doing participatory research. For example, a very open-ended approach would be to select a place of study and to go there without any pre-formulated research question. This gives the opportunity to work on the matters that a community feels strongly about. Thought, researchers, navigating their way through the funding agencies and universities, can’t afford to have such liberty. Therefore, this remains an ideal situation which is hard to attain. Sometimes community members working in precarious job sectors find time constraints to be involved in the research projects. Therefore, this method cannot be blindly applied without considering particular contexts. He talked about the need to bridge the gap between the nature of knowledge production within university and outside, amongst the community. The unexpected nature of public mandate in US presidential election and in Brexit referendum, are such instances to think about. In both the cases, people’s mandate was drastically different from what the academia hoped for.

Dr Sam Halvorsen situated the need for participatory research as a tool for social justice to address refugee crisis, displacement of indigenous communities from their land in the name of development and subsequent socio- territorial movements in Mexico and overall in Latin America. He stressed that in a moment when university is functioning as a neo-liberal space, it is important to adopt research methods where hierarchies and modes of knowledge production are challenged and fissures are created within the system.

Participants raised politically pertinent questions which made the discussion more relevant. They asked what is the nature and definition of community in a transnational world. Why do we do research? Is it to bring change or to represent the people we work with or to produce knowledge? How do we bring Impact which is not necessarily REF-able? What is the role of co-creation in this process? What are the challenges in co-producing research with subaltern groups in the global south? How do we use different language to bring the community closer to the research process and dissemination? How to work with community in a long-term basis while maintaining academic outcomes? How to work with people, one doesn’t ideologically agree with? How to create a critical distance with radical social movements as a researcher and not to romantize them? The discussions around these questions made the workshop rich and engaging. It gave the participants provocations to think through even after the workshop.

Rishika Mukhopadhyay

PhD researcher.

GeographyUniversity of Exeter.