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.