Saturday, January 15, 2011

From the Editors' desk: Action research and Community Based Participatory Research

Multiple choice question:

What is the relationship between Action Research and Community Based Participatory Research (CBPR)?


A. The terms refer to the same phenomenon

B. CBPR exists only in the healthcare domain

C. Both are forms of participatory research

D. Enough with the definitions already - do something useful with your community stakeholders!

E. All answers are correct and the relationship needs to be unpacked depending on which community you find yourself in.

I'll go with E.
The question posed itself as I was recently invited to bring more about "action research" to audiences in various healthcare communities. I revisited Minkler's and Wallerstein's edited handbook--which is really excellent--called "Community Based Participatory Research for Health" (Jossey Bass, 2003). It therefore seems fair to me to say that CBPR comes under the larger umbrella term “action research,” but that as it is a term used primarily in healthcare settings, a world unto itself, there may be little familiarity with the umbrella term “action research”! The term "participatory research” may, in fact, be more useful when suggesting that there is a bigger family outside healthcare which can inform CBPR. CBPR, like in much AR, maintains strong philosophical links with the liberationist aspirations articulated by thought leaders of old such as Paolo Freire and Orlando Fals-Borda. In this we all share concern for fighting health disparities, both within countries (in the USA, the disparity between races is striking) and globally (that so many still die from preventable illness worldwide is a crying shame). However, like in action research, there is also an uncritical, sometimes wholly technical-practical approach that comes to the fore. We see this in (some) organizational development work that calls itself action research (not in mine I hope!). In healthcare settings we see it when the behavioral aspects of illness (say in treating chronic conditions such as diabetes) make it clear that socio-behavioral change is needed as much, if not more, than medical intervention. It is less about liberating patients to understand the structures that keep them unwell and more about making sure insulin is managed with family support. And that is important too.
In the end then for an action researcher to work productively in a healthcare setting may simply be a matter of becoming acculturated to new vocabulary (e.g., I have learned in my new position as a research professor in healthcare management that “inter-professional teams” is code for doctors and nurses working together. It deserves its own word as its an issue of great importance but without much institutional support to date). But in the end its still about stakeholder needs and moving to action with stakeholders, generating rich locally actionable knowledge that can also inform policy and larger community of action researchers.

Hilary Bradbury-Huang, Ph.D.
Editor, Action Research journal.
Portland, Oregon.


  1. I always think action research is the bigger picture while CBPR or PAR is an umbrella under action research.

  2. thanks JJ - that makes a great deal of sense, simplifies things too.