4 Participatory Research Methods Every Organizer Needs to Know

RiniGroupFistsAll components of organizing involve research, whether it’s recruiting members through community surveys or engaging members in deeper campaign strategy. At DataCenter, we aim to design research that not only answers the research question(s), but also builds the organizing capacity of marginalized communities. Below you’ll find a comparison of the common participatory methods that we use in our research projects along with some tips on what to consider when choosing a research method.

This short guide is part of a larger Research Justice guide coming out early Fall, 2013.  Want news of the Research Justice guide as it’s released? Subscribe to our monthly newsletter.

Participatory Research Method Comparison:

Within a research project, you may choose multiple methods to achieve the various goals of your campaign. Using a variety of methods will allow you to collect data on different audiences (i.e. your community, decision-makers, and everybody in between). This produces a stronger campaign. It’s important that the participatory methods listed below are implemented in a way that encourages engagement and strengthens organizing of impacted communities. Click each method to learn about its advantages and limitations.
[pl_accordion name=”accordion”][pl_accordioncontent name=”accordion” number=”1″ heading=”1: Surveys”]

Surveys allow for information to be gathered from a number of people who respond individually to the same set of questions. The information gathered is tabulated into quantitative data.

Advantages Limitations
  • Provides solid numbers to prove your claim
  • Can be done remotely
  • Can be relatively easy and quick to analyze the data
  • Scalable — can access a large population
  • Easier to maintain confidentiality
  • Doesn’t provide details or stories
  • Can require a lot of resources and time to collect data
  • Susceptible to human error

[/pl_accordioncontent][pl_accordioncontent name=”accordion” number=”2″ heading=”2: Focus Groups”]

Focus Groups bring a small group of people together to discuss a certain issue. It involves a facilitator asking a handful of questions that produce qualitative data.

Advantages Limitations
  • Participants can relate to one another
  • Allows for varied perspectives & elaborate discussions
  • Galvanizes & empowers participants to get involved
  • Collects stories, powerful quotes
  • Discovers new insights
  • Can’t reach as many people as surveys
  • Requires strong facilitation skills
  • May require a particular set-up: interactions, group activities, etc.
  • Difficult to coordinate and meet everyone’s needs: time, place, safe environment, accessibility, etc.
  • Even harder than interviews to maintain confidentiality

[/pl_accordioncontent][pl_accordioncontent name=”accordion” number=”3″ heading=”3: Interviews”]

Interviews feature a series of open-ended questions to sample respondents. The information gathered can be synthesized into both quantitative and qualitative data.

Advantages Limitations
  • Captures in-depth stories about issue
  • Fosters connections & relationships
  • Captures unsaid stories through body language
  • Discovers new insights
  • Requires strong facilitation skills
  • Harder to coordinate (time, place, etc.)
  • Only one person at a time, can’t get to scale
  • Takes longer to transcribe and analyze
  • Requires skills of gaining trust and navigating conversations

[/pl_accordioncontent][pl_accordioncontent name=”accordion” number=”4″ heading=”4: Community Mapping”]

Community Mapping is a method that uses spatial data. The data, identified by community groups, is used to analyze and communicate community issues, assets, and strategies for change.

Advantages Limitations
  • Shows community experiences in a visual way
  • Identifies points of opportunity for social action
  • Requires a lot of time and work
  • Relies on community relationships


Organizing Implications for Research Methods:

In evaluating these methods, it’s important to think of research in the context of organizing goals. Below, we lay out some organizing implications of each research method.
[pl_tabs][pl_tabtitlesection type=”tabs”][pl_tabtitle active=”yes” number=”1″]Organizing Strategy[/pl_tabtitle][pl_tabtitle number=”2″]Resources & Timeline[/pl_tabtitle][pl_tabtitle number=”3″]Data[/pl_tabtitle][pl_tabtitle number=”4″]Messaging[/pl_tabtitle][/pl_tabtitlesection][pl_tabcontentsection][pl_tabcontent active=”yes” number=”1″]If you want get to scale and build a broader base, methods such as surveys and community mapping will connect to you to a larger number of people. They function as great recruitment tools and provide an opportunity to understand your constituency more deeply.

On the other hand, methods such as interviews and focus groups allow you to go deeper with community members, establish trust, and build relationships. Focus groups allow you to connect community members with one another to see the commonalities of their experiences.

All participatory methods will allow you to engage members in their implementation and provide opportunities to develop their leadership through skills-building and learning.
[/pl_tabcontent][pl_tabcontent number=”2″]Your methods will be dictated by how deep you want to go and how much capacity you have to carry out your research. Depending on your goals, some methods are more resource and time-intensive than others. For instance, with enough trained surveyors and good planning, surveys can be a great way to blitz a neighborhood and get a lot of information quickly.

On the other hand, interviews and focus groups may take a longer time because they are more in-depth and require facilitation and coordination of schedules.

All of these methods require some level of investment in skills training and piloting.
[/pl_tabcontent][pl_tabcontent number=”3″]Certain methods such as interviews and community mapping are exploratory and get you both expected and unexpected data. This often helps deepen your analysis about the problem and solutions on a particular issue, but they are often nuanced and harder to navigate.

Other methods, such as surveys and focus groups, are more focused and serve a particular purpose. They ask specific questions and capture particular data that will help you to support your claim on an issue.
[/pl_tabcontent][pl_tabcontent number=”4″]Depending on how you want to convey your message, each method can result in a number of outcomes. Some methods, such as surveys and focus groups, can produce multiple statistics that can be conveyed visually or translated into powerful statements.

Other methods, such as community mapping and observations, can translate into powerful non-verbal statements in the form of visuals. All methods will help you craft a message that speaks to various audiences but some methods have limitations in how specific or broad your message will be.

The stories and anecdotes of community experiences may pull some heart strings of some decision makers, but it’s the hard data that will show the breadth of the issue and compel them to act.

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Artwork: Rini Templeton