When offered an opportunity to write a blog introducing the launch of TRP, I jumped at the chance. I recently declared, “I am not a researcher.” I said that to differentiate my perspective on how to frame questions for expanding and deepening knowledge about anomalous human experiences like hearing, seeing, sensing and believing differently from those around us. I recognized that I lacked skills in design and analysis that academic researchers easily employ. What I have in common with some of those researchers is my passionate drive to understand more fully, to grow into my best relationship with other human beings, our communities, and planet.
Having opportunities to fully participate in developing a research base is a rare privilege for those of us who have been research “subjects-objects” because our contributions have traditionally been limited to “our” data gleaned from tests, evaluations, and measurements of what the experts-by-training historically considered important. New knowledge evolves from continual refinement of questions asked, yet all of those questions rely on presuppositions that are often implicit and perhaps unacknowledged by those socially located within our educational, cultural, political, and economic systems to produce that research. The language and questions asked by those most embedded in a dominant culture will always contain presuppositions shaped by that dominant culture’s values, beliefs, and motivation for maintaining its systems and structure. Those of us most outside the dominant center also carry questions shaped by our social location. Our motivation for growing knowledge can carry implicit presuppositions that lean towards discoveries that might disrupt and redistribute knowledge and create new power relationships and shared freedom. I affirm that I carry the effects of all those presuppositions, and I commit to seeking and contributing to research that honors us all. This will require ongoing consciousness raising and trust building to co-create a learning community that is most fully inclusive. I am prepared to learn. I am prepared to unlearn, to make mistakes, and to accept my limitations and the limitations of others.
We know that an observer or person asking questions impacts what is being observed or questioned. We know that our choice of language impacts how we understand and are understood. I hope that we can reflect on these relationships and recognize that our social and environmental context is continually shifting based on our presence. I have learned from experiences that transcended words. That knowledge fuels my desire to join with others in a practice of continual curiosity, one that dares to be open to not knowing and accepts every step towards learning and freedom as shared process. My plea is to let our imprint be one that makes greater space for new perspectives, seeds future growth of knowledge, some not yet imagined. That we practice together making space for all and learning together.
Myself a wearer of many hats--researcher, practitioner, and activist among them--I've been trying to do participatory, stakeholder-driven or emancipatory research for some time. Originally, my inspiration was my own experience, as a young person with absolutely no training in research methods, as a terrified subject of other people's 'schizophrenia' research; later, through community involvement and engagement, this evolved through a much deeper understanding of the extent to which stakeholders (in the case of mental health, persons with first hand experience) are cut out of the research process, a form of social and political exclusion leading to a narrowing of the questions researchers ask, oversimplification of complexities and nuances that are often visible or present only for those experiencing whatever is under investigation, and analyses and interpretations that all too often lack vital social and cultural context and therefore either fail to acknowledge or unwittingly devalue it.
Addressing these problems, however, is another story. In one of my personal favorite commentaries, Majid Rahnema, a long time international 'development' leader, re-describes participatory research as the "last temptation of saint development"--a method and philosophy, that is, that bolsters researchers' perceptions of themselves as social justice workers, but mostly only when the views of "the community" align with their own. (And when they don't, he observes, it's most often chalked up to 'internalized oppression,' insufficient 'conscientization' or critical self-awareness, and so forth.) But ego-boosting self-deception is hardly the only participatory pitfall; in the hard, messy 'real world,' power differentials are rarely truly addressed (much less 'leveled') by participatory approaches, and it is almost always the professional researcher who benefits most (through publications, grants and traditional academic career rewards), not the community.
Participatory research--research truly influenced by a diverse, messy and inconvenient mix of experientially-driven agendas and perspectives--is therefore something I in no way consider myself an 'expert' in, but rather something I aspire to, keep failing at, and keep trying to do better nevertheless. My personal motivation for getting involved in TRP, stemmed from one such experience of failure and my subsequent self-reflections and self-questioning regarding how we can do better, how we can be more inclusive, how we can stop paying lip service to participation and actually, really, truly give up our power, our expertise, our sense of epistemic authority, as researchers, and let others make decisions that matter, that stick, and that we are compelled to follow rather than the other way around. And, make no mistake about it, that is very, very hard.