Transversal Participatory Approach in CLEAR

CLEAR promotes participation throughout the whole project, with the aim of enabling young people and other stakeholders – policy-makers, experts, and educational practitioners – to share and discuss their experiences and views on educational (under)achievement and learning outcomes. The Transversal Participatory Approach applied in CLEAR is meant to create opportunities for the active involvement of various stakeholders at different stages of the research and dissemination activities. Moreover, Innovation Forums are planned near the project conclusion, to provide settings where different actors in the educational arena and young people can actively discuss CLEAR’s research results and identify the most relevant issues to be addressed by policy-makers.

CLEAR´s participatory strategies and methods are designed consistently with this framework, according to the premises and objectives of different research activities, considering competencies and resources of the Consortium and following a flexible application in relation to the different local contexts of research. CLEAR’s definition and application of participatory approaches does not exist in a vacuum; on the contrary it builds on a sound tradition that provides it with theoretical and methodological elements, which lay at the basis for the implementation of the Transversal Participatory Approach.

The implementation of a Transversal Participatory Approach in CLEAR

Given CLEAR’s aim to deliver knowledge that goes beyond the academic field, and to promote innovative solutions for social actors, stakeholders of different social domains and policy-makers, one of the main reasons for the integration of participatory methods is their value in an Open Science perspective. The very heterogenous profiles of people involved in the research imply multiple meanings for the concept of participation in CLEAR. The engagement of youths (and especially those in vulnerable situations) in participatory actions is meant to tackle the European wide traditional inability of institutions and academia to take into consideration, even to ‘hear’, youths’ voices (e.g.: Parreira do Amaral et. al, 2019; Benasso et al., 2022); also, it allows to shape the project outcomes in terms of proper languages and forms, which help in promoting processes of self-reflexivity, thanks to more understandable and target-tailored products of dissemination. The participatory involvement of experts and stakeholders aims to gain a multi-level understanding of the underlying discourses and visions that inform policy-design and shape interactions and practice within the social fields of their implementation. The reflexivity fostered by participation is very likely to raise awareness at the institutional/organisational level, and to some extent at the experts’ subjective level too, questioning the dominant (and often uncritically assumed) understandings of social phenomena such as educational (under)achievement.

The application of the Transversal Participatory Approach throughout the project’s life cycle entails manifold work processes and poses several challenges. The first one pertains to the sharing of a common theoretical and methodological knowledge about participation, which is pursued by discussions at the project meetings, capacity building actions and internal working papers production. Second, each CLEAR’s work package differs in terms of objects, scopes and methods: from qualitative to quantitative enquiry, from ‘desk’ document analysis to empirical fieldwork. It entails different solutions to integrate participatory activities, which are planned at different stages . This flexibility in participatory strategies implementation can be placed on a continuum of participation, moving from a minimal involvement of participants, in which they mainly have an advisory role, their activation is limited in time and strictly connected to a research task, to broader participation in the research process, where the relationship between researchers and participants is more egalitarian and participants’ contribution is deeper. Also, different strategies will be connected to the scope of participation, identifying at which step of the research activities participatory methods can be applied: for instance, in the co-design or discussion of research tools, such as the interview guidelines, or in the discussion of raw quantitative results, or in shaping non-academic dissemination materials and communication strategies.

Finally, given the very context-sensitive nature of the participatory processes in CLEAR, a balance between the definition of a set of tools – provided to the Consortium in the form of ‘participatory toolkits’— and flexible strategies for their application, is sought through a permanent stream of communication among the partners, who co-author a shared ‘travelogue’ of the experience of implementation of participatory methods in their local contexts. This latter strand of work also contributes to feeding one of the main products of dissemination which will be promoted by CLEAR (see the Guidelines for the Application of Participatory Methods, Deliverable 9.4).

Where we draw from: Participatory Approaches in Social Sciences Research

Particularly relevant experiences of integration of participatory methods in Social Sciences research can be found in the 1970s when Alain Touraine experimented with Sociological Interventions in his research on social movements (Touraine et al., 1978) through ‘alternative’ social research methods. As argued by MacDonald (2002), the main innovation introduced by Touraine is based on the assumption that “actors are not defined by their conformity to rules and norms, but by a relationship to themselves, by their capacity to construct themselves as actors, capable of changing their environment and of reinforcing their autonomy” (Touraine, 2000: 902). Therefore, the Sociological Intervention does not aim at gathering data, as it seeks to reconstruct and explore the ‘struggle to become an actor’. More generally, the new centrality assigned to the people involved in the research project, whose role shifts from ‘objects’ to subjects of research, can be considered as the main common feature among the different participatory approaches which have been developed from that time onwards, from Participatory Action Research and Community Based Participatory Research to the manifold applications of Creative Methods (e.g.: von Benzon et al., 2021; Giorgi et al., 2021). The approach to participatory actions in CLEAR lays in the wake of these experiences, as it recognises their ability to fit peculiar features of contemporary societies.

Indeed, the long-term consequences of the process of individualisation, in addition to the exacerbation of inequalities at the global level and the spreading of social vulnerability, have further prompted social scientists to look for research methods able to acknowledge power dynamics within (and beyond) the process of empirical enquiries, and therefore more ethical-sensitive. In this sense, participatory social research can also be ambitiously considered as “an epistemological stance that pushes back against a neoliberal, capitalist monopoly of knowledge production” (Call-Cummings & Ross, 2022: 3). Issues of epistemic (in)justice (Fricker, 2007; Kidd et al., 2017) are raised, as a new relevance in social science research is assigned to questions regarding “whose voices are enabled, who gets to tell their stories and who is heard and listened to” (Walker & Boni, 2020: 2).

Pursuing such tasks entails  subverting the routinised praxis of social research. As some scholars (e.g.: Brown, 2022) point out, the integration of participatory approaches in Social Sciences research calls into question how more traditional methodologies usually construct hierarchies and distribute power among the involved subjects. The dominant understanding of research as an empirical means to scrutinise theoretical (and mostly academic) knowledge by collecting data in a social field is questioned by participatory methods. From mere ‘information bearers’ to be triggered by the stimulation of researchers, the people involved in participatory research processes are considered competent contributors to the ‘production of society’ (Touraine, 2000) and knowledge. Thus, they are more actively engaged in research actions whose responsibility is distributed among actors belonging to different social spheres. Drawing from a milestone concept in sociology, the Charles Wright Mills’ notion of ‘sociological imagination’ (1959) as the capacity to grasp the intertwining between individual behaviours and social structures, biography and history, the innovation of participatory methods can be found in their ability to recognise, legitimate and put into relation different forms of sociological imaginations, according to the different contexts and structural positionings from which the social life is experienced. In terms of power, this does not imply a naïve assumption of a complete horizontality among the involved actors; on the contrary it fosters the acknowledgement of the consequences of stratification and power unbalances, which constitutes the basis from which different standpoints are placed in relation to reach a deeper understanding of the society.

What we ought to keep in mind: potential risks and ‘methodological sensitivity’ in the application of a Transversal Participatory Approach

As pointed out by the scholars who debate the risk of extractivism in Social Sciences (e.g.: Serafini, 2022), one relevant issue at stake is contrasting, or at least limiting, the ‘colonisation’ of symbolic resources of parts of society by the scientific community. The aim is to run more dialogical, sustainable, and fair praxis of knowledge production. In pursuing this goal, several ethical issues come into play, and the very allocation of ‘ethical accountability’ is questioned. As Banks et al. (2013: 266) point out, “the traditional decision-making approach is based on the idea of researchers as active moral agents tackling conflicts between ethical principles […] often framed as dilemmatic choices between two courses of action that have equally unwelcome outcomes”. Diversly, the application of participatory approaches calls into action ‘everyday ethics’, the daily practice of negotiating the ethical issues and challenges that arise throughout the research process. Consequently, the management of the ethical problems – and related administrative aspects – in CLEAR seeks to find a balance between formalisation and flexible solutions for the engagement of different social actors. With particular regard to those research actions that target youths in vulnerable and/or multi-disadvantaged situations. In addition, a  more specific set of potential ethical challenges which are likely to be raised during the project lifetime can be envisaged (cf. Bansk et al.: 267-268):

  • a first group of ethical issues pertains to partnership, collaboration, and sharing of power. It is necessary to pay attention to how partnerships are established, power is distributed, and control exerted. Potential ethical dilemmas in this sense may include: tackling the mismatch between timelines and expectations of community organisations, funders and academics; awareness that closer research relationships also bring greater potential for exploitation; taking account of the fact that participants may experience moments of inclusion and exclusion in the research process. Also, as partnerships evolve over time as trust is built, the related agreements and norms need to be constantly under review;
  • another group of potential difficulties derives from the blurring boundaries between researcher and participants, as this hazy distinction may entail problems in juggling different roles for the participants, as they are prompted to manage their profile of ‘natives’ of the social environment explored by research and contemporarily act as co-researchers;
  • finally, issues regarding anonymity, privacy and confidentiality may come up. Whilst these matters are common concerns in all social research, the close relationships developed in participatory processes preclude straightforward solutions. If community or peer researchers are involved, and broad dissemination is planned within the community, the identities of research participants may be hard to conceal. This makes the issues of anonymity and confidentiality not completely resolvable at the starting phase of the research when formal agreements are signed, as they stay potentially open throughout the whole research process.

From a narrower methodological perspective, the application of participatory methods calls into play the application of research tools designed to overcome the duality between researchers and involved actors, opening the way to a variety of solutions, drawing for instance from art and performance-based methods to creative forms of elicitation approaches, narrative story-telling, and body-mapping (Giorgi et al. 2021). Regardless of their singularity, the challenge in their managing does not appear as a matter of classification, as “participatory research is not a single, unified methodology, but a problematic approach to research, which continues to make assumptions about knowledge-production and the value and worth of research” (Brown, 2022: 202). In addition, participatory methods impact the well-established schematisation of iterative social research processes, where the preliminary definition of the research questions usually triggers consequent stages of empirical enquiry, as the necessarily ongoing negotiation of the meanings and the aims of the research might potentially stay open throughout the whole process. As Cornwall & Jewkes (1995) argue, the actual distinction between participatory and traditional research processes hence lies less in theories that inform them, as it coincides with a change in the allocation of the power to define research problems. A specific ‘methodological sensitivity’ (Greenway et al., 2021) is thus needed for the research teams involved in CLEAR, who are prompted to revise more established and traditional praxis of research.


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