Mapping the transformative potential of participatory styles of research with vulnerable, marginalised and/or hard-to-reach groups

Dr Julie Parsons
University of Plymouth


This is an interdisciplinary research residential that brings together community arts-based practice, criminology, social research and sociology to interrogate and yield new insights into the processes, practicalities and realities of adopting participatory styles of research with vulnerable, marginalised and/or hard-to-reach groups (referred to as marginalised*). The aim of the residential is to develop a model of best practice, alongside a website/blog as a research/teaching resource for others.

The benefits of participatory styles of research for engaging marginalised* groups are relatively under explored outside of education. Moreover, there has been a recent resurgence in interest in participatory approaches, particularly in health research, party motivated by an explicit requirement by funding bodies (in the United Kingdom at least) for public and patient involvement (PPI) (Cook 2012).

The reference to a participatory style is deliberate and distinguishes it from participatory action research (PAR), which involves cooperation from research respondents, as they work alongside researchers in the co-production of knowledge, at all stages of the research process from research planning, data collection, analysis and interpretation to the publication of findings (Kemmis and McTaggart 2005). Here, a participatory style incorporates creative/arts-based methods, which share attributes in common, notably giving respondents a voice to address, challenge and rebalance power relationships (Clarke et al., 2005; Coad et al., 2009; Parsons and Pettinger 2017, Poudrier and MacLean, 2009). Moreover, participatory styles that incorporate creative/arts-based methods emphasise the importance of democracy, equality, flexibility and reflexivity in the research process, which changes the nature of the traditional research relationship, and can make the researcher more of ‘an outsider in the academic community’ (Bergold and Thomas 2012). Indeed, there are ongoing debates regarding the principles of participatory, creative/arts based and action research methods and these will also need to be teased out in the context of existing and future research problems.

The Research Idea

The research planned is innovative in its interdisciplinary focus, bringing together experts in social science (sociology and criminology), and community arts to develop a ‘what works’ toolkit and website/blog for others looking to engage in a participatory style of research with marginalised* groups. All the core team have spent at least three years in the field working on a range of funded activities that aim to empower or give voice to those thatmight be considered marginalised*, including residents at a homeless centre, women at a drug and alcohol rehabilitation centre, serving prisoners, offenders on community sentences and ex-offenders. The means of engaging these groups has been through a participatory style using creative/arts-based methods, such as art practice, food-related activities and photo-voice techniques, to encourage dialogue and maintain meaningful engagement, as well as to facilitate change and/or lead to social inclusion. In some instances, these participatory styles and creative/arts-based methods engage the wider community directly with the voices of the vulnerable, marginalised or hard-to-reach, through public engagement events or social media/online blog posts.

This represents a unique opportunity for an interdisciplinary interrogation of the processes, practicalities and realities of working in a participatory style using creative/arts-based methods. The research team will consider what is participatory about a participatory style? What works/does not work when engaging with marginalised* groups? What evidence is there? What matters to the research respondents? Is this the same for the researchers/ stakeholders? How is public engagement important in the process?


The use of creative/art-based methods as part of a participatory style is ‘an emerging qualitative research approach [that] refers to the use of any art form (or combinations thereof) at any point in the research process (Cole and Knowles 2001; Knowles and Cole 2008) in generating, interpreting, and/or communicating knowledge’ (cited in Boydell et al 2012). It is argued that incorporating creative/art-based resources within the research process promotes dialogue and storytelling (Jones 2006). Further that knowledge conceptualised in this way is more accessible to diverse stakeholders (Colantonio et al 2008). Moreover, Boydell et all (2012:30) carried out a scoping review of literature on the topic and conclude that creative/arts based methods provide:

  1. an opportunity for enhanced engagement for participants and audiences alike (e.g. Levin et al., 2007);
  2. a way to enrich communication and make research accessible beyond academia (e.g. Colantonio et al., 2008); and,
  3. a method for facilitating conversation and reflection during individual interviews, generating data beyond what was considered the normal scope of most interview-based methods alone (e.g. Dyches et al., 2004; Oliffe and Bottorff 2007).

Indeed, the participatory research that informs this inquiry has either made use of creative/arts-based research as part of a process to produce knowledge and/or as a product to disseminate results. This residential therefore gives the researchers space to be reflexive and engage themselves in a participatory style using creative/arts-based methods to cross-examine their own and each-others research practice. To use a participatory style to interrogate a participatory style.

The Focus

Bergold and Thomas (2012:20) identify a basic dilemma in participatory approaches, notably that marginalised* communities are usually not in a good position to initiate or control research nor other aspects of their lives, particularly in terms of vulnerability, mental health, drug/alcohol abuse, chronic/acute health, which can lead to feelings of disempowerment, low motivation, reduced opportunity, and lack of personal support strategies and networks (Pettinger et al 2017). Yet, the disclosure of personal views, opinions and experiences of these groups is essential not least when trying to initiate change, develop policy initiatives and/or challenge social exclusion. Hence, the ‘primary aim of a participatory style is to give members of marginalised* groups a voice, or to enable them to make their voices heard. What counts is that they bring their experiences, their everyday knowledge, and their ability into the research process and thereby enable new perspectives and insights (Russo, 2012)’ (cited in Bergold and Thomas, 2012:42).

When making use of a participatory style, one of the main issues of concern is the creation of a ‘safe space’ for communication and the development of trusting relationships with respondents, that requires ‘closeness, empathy and emotional involvement’ (Bergold and Thomas 2012:47). However, whilst the emphasis is on research ‘with’ rather than doing research ‘on’ people (Bradbury and Reason, 2003), in practice, the participatory paradigm has found itself having to work hard to gain legitimisation in the eyes of research funders (Cook 2012:14). Mostly, because it strays away from traditional qualitative measures of reliability and replication.

Theoretical Novelty

The research residential aims to develop a ‘tool-kit’ of best practice for a participatory style of creative/arts-based working with marginalised* groups, based on experience and evidence from the field. This will draw on work from a community-based artist, criminologists and sociologists, who have engaged in a participatory style of working with these groups over the last three years. The research team are looking to consolidate their knowledge and evolve their expertise over the five days into an on-line teaching and research resource that can be used by others looking to employ a participatory style that incorporates creative/arts-based methods.

Through discussion and reflexive practice the research team will draw out key themes and issues around the benefits and dis-benefits of a participatory style that incorporates creative/arts-based methods. The team will discuss how they operationalised their research questions, using arts-based practice, and/or photo-voice. Each of these areas will be conceptualised and defined, with the team working on what makes them distinctive, participatory and/or creative. What are the benefits/dis-benefits of using these in practice? What have the team learned from practice? What are the similarities and differences in and across these creative/arts-based methods? For example, Catalani and Minkler 2010 in a systematic review of literature on the use of photographs in community based participatory research found that whilst photo-voice was an iterative participatory tool for engaging communities as partners, it tended to be used as a photo-elicitation method and/or only engaged the community later.


The lead researcher on the team is a sociologist with a commitment to the principles of democracy and equality in social research processes. She has worked collaboratively with colleagues on a range of funded research projects that utilised a participatory style, notably photo-voice with residents of a homeless centre. She has also worked as a consultant on another research project using photo-elicitation/photo-dialogue techniques. The community-arts practitioner has received Arts Council funding for two community based participatory arts projects with prisoners, offenders on community sentences and ex-offenders. Both the community based artist and the sociologist have also worked together on an externally funded project that uses photo-voice techniques to encourage prisoners, offenders and ex-offenders to reflect upon their desistance journeys, with the aim of engaging the wider community. Other members of the team, as well as invited speakers will provide invaluable input from their experiences of working in the field with prisoners, offenders and ex-offenders.

A facilitator will be employed to encourage reflexivity and interdisciplinary working and academics from criminology, sociology and/or human geography who have used a participatory style, will be invited to talk at the residential. The team will work on differentiating between the tools of scientific enquiry and the principles that determine how such tools are utilised and interpreted (Mauthner and Doucet 2003) and this will inform the development of the website/blog.

Work Plan

For the first two days of the residential a facilitator will be employed to consolidate the research project outcomes for the week and beyond. They will be fully briefed on the expected outcomes from the residential, its aims and objectives. On one of these two days, there will also be input from invited speakers who have also worked in a participatory style with creative/arts-based methods and who are considered experts in their field. They will be questioned on their methods and methodological considerations and whether the research met its outcomes. The focus on prisoners and/or offenders here is because they are often considered to be one of the most vilified and marginalised* groups in society, and therefore potentially the most difficult to engage in research due to issues of trust. There will be input from a community-arts practitioner to enable us to document and develop our understanding of participatory processes and practicalities.

On days 3-4, the core team will work together based on the plan developed with the aid of the facilitator over days 1-4. This will inform the development of a toolkit and pages to be uploaded on to the website/blog, which will be available as a teaching/research resource for those interested in a participatory style using creative/arts-based methods of working with marginalised* groups. Day 5 will be spent finalising this, alongside a next steps document, which will include an outline bid to funding bodies for further research.


The team will develop a vision statement on what a participatory style of creative/arts-based research with marginalised* groups might look like. They will develop a broadly defined methods toolkit outlining the key areas to consider when developing a research proposal for working with these groups. The website/blog will include an overview of the field and answers to questions such as what is a participatory style? How does this work in practice in the field? What are the potential drawbacks and issues to look out for? What is public engagement and how might this be achieved? The website/blog will include highlights from the teams’ experience and expertise. There will be specific sections on creative/art-practices, food-related activities and photo-voice, again these will include research data and reflexive accounts from the team about the realities of working in the field. Team members will promote the website/blog via social media.

In the longer term, outputs from the residential could also include the development of; a research paper detailing the key findings from the week; a training workshop run by team members for other researchers and/or practitioners; as well as a public engagement event. The team will be looking to develop a proposal for funding to enable further research in participatory styles of working with marginalised* groups and public engagement. Ultimately there is a need to engage vulnerable, marginalised and/or hard-to-reach groups in research that changes or at least challenges social exclusion, wider public opinions and attitudes.


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  • Julie Parsons, Plymouth University
  • Gayle Letherby, Plymouth University
  • Chrissie Rogers, Aston University
  • Geraldine Brown, Coventry University
  • Andy Whiteford, Plymouth University
  • Jonathan Harvey, Independent Scholar
  • Sarah-Jane Hodge, Community Artist and Arts Coordinator for an offender resettlement project
  • Sarah Hocking, Criminologist and Resettlement Project Coordinator