On January 19, the ABv workgroup Public Anthropology organized a workshop called Introduction to Participatory Action Research (PAR) in Utrecht. The main objective of the ABv workgroup is to seek ways in which anthropological perspectives can be shared, and maybe even collectively constructed, with a broader public. That is why the organizers chose to offer ABv members a chance to meet PAR. After all, PAR is often presented as a research approach in which researchers rethink and reinterpret complex issues in close collaboration with participants and collectively develop solutions. What can anthropologists then learn from PAR?

Somewhere on the top floor of the Jansveld 2-3 building, about 25 participants showed up to get to know PAR. Among us were anthropologists working inside and outside academia, as well as students about to go on their first fieldwork. Kees Biekart facilitated the workshop with Rosalba Icaza as side-kick, both practitioners and educators of PAR affiliated to the Institute of Social Studies in The Hague. For the welcoming round, all the participants were asked to bring an object. One by one, the participants used their objects to explain their expectations for the afternoon. Some of them proved very skillful in improvising. One participant presented a package of chewing gum “to get fresh ideas”. Another participant had brought a small hand-mirror, as she expected PAR to require some self-reflection and positioning. Yet another participant observed that most participants of the workshop were white and female. She hoped there would be time to historicize PAR during the workshop, as a way to critically situate the approach and its practitioners. After the round, one wall of the room was covered with expectation post-its, on which keywords were written like “enthusiasm”, “how to”, “PAR failures”, “ethics”, “best practices”, and “sharing of experiences”. Clearly, the participants had high expectations and it was time to undertake some action.

We moved to another room in the labyrinth-like building. Once everyone took seat behind the tables arranged in u-form, Kees gave instructions for the PAR exercise we were about to start. “How does action relate to your research?” Everyone needed to draw an answer. “If you cannot draw, even better!” Kees anticipated the comments of participants excusing themselves for their lack of artistic skills. With calming music in the background, everyone started to draw. After about twenty minutes, Kees asked the participants to discuss their drawings in pairs. The tables were covered with diverse drawings, ranging in levels of abstraction and usage of colors. In the group discussion afterwards, some participants bravely held up their drawings and explained how they had visualized action in their research. Generally, drawing exercises only work if conducted in small groups and safe spaces, Kees explained. This session only served to get some sense of the possibilities of having a drawing mediate research conversations. Lots of questions were raised: “How do we get people to actually sit down and draw?” and “What do you do after the drawing is over?” It was time to break up and get the discussion going on in smaller groups.

The participants were divided over four groups to have in-depth conversations with PAR practitioners. Brenda talked about the application of drawing exercises in research about sensitive topics, like her own study on female sexuality in Mexico. Kees and Rosalba shared their experiences with video-making, and screened some videos made by students at the ISS. Alice presented her PAR research that formed part of the NGO 7Senses focused on dental health issues. And Merel shared her experiences with employing PAR in conflictive and politicized settings. The exchanges in small group gave everyone input for the final part of the workshop: the discussion on the challenges of PAR.

Is PAR always desirable, or when do we not use PAR?” was one of the discussion questions, and “what if action is not on the agenda?”. We talked about research ethics and the possible obstacles of collaboratively promoting action in research settings. On this matter, Rosalba reminded the group, “creating knowledge together is also action”. Another discussion flared up when someone used the term “stakeholders” to refer to the people involved in PAR. What kind of terminology should be used when talking about PAR research, and who decides on the terms? These questions took us back to critical perspectives on PAR. As we neared the end of the session, everyone turned their face back to the wall covered with post-its. Did we manage to satisfy all the expectations? Not at all. However, the workshop did generate enthusiasm and lots of new questions. Over drinks, new plans were made to continue the discussion.

Thanks again to Kees and Rosalba for facilitating the thought-provoking workshop. And stay tuned for the next workshop organized by ABv working group Public Anthropology!