Transformative research is an evolving concept rooted in the conscious action of embedded scholar-activism. Opening up possibilities for mutual learning can be an important first step for interested scholars in making their research transformative. In this blog, Holly A. Ritchie proposes that subtle social change may be triggered through the research process itself by what she terms ‘interactive research’.
From participatory to interactive research
Qualitative research aims to explore the “meaning of people’s lives, under real-world conditions” (Yin 2011: 8) by examining the views and perspectives of actors in specific contexts. Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) is an innovative approach to qualitative data collection that seeks to engage local people in sharing, analyzing, and reflecting upon their lives. These ethnographic techniques can incorporate visuals and exercises that include ranking, mapping, and Venn diagrams. Yet whilst PRA may be considered somewhat transformative in actively involving participants in the research process, there remains a lack of thoughtful reflection with participants that inhibits potential processes of learning in local communities.
In taking participative research a step further, I have coined the term ‘Interactive Research’ to describe a deliberate two-way research process in which both researchers and local communities interact and learn from each other. On the one hand, through the PRA exercises, the researcher can better understand the community by actively engaging with local actors. On the other hand, facilitated discussions and reflections on emerging findings can help foster new community perspectives and dialogues. The approach thus benefits both the researcher and target communities by illuminating nuanced understandings of local lives (for the researcher) and by triggering new local knowledge and awareness (for the community).
Interactive research may be particularly significant in more fragile research contexts including conflict environments, refugee situations, as well as slum areas where respondents may be less educated and marginalised. In these contexts, a new consciousness can spark critical processes of social change from within, particularly amongst vulnerable groups such as women that may suffer illiteracy, oppression and violence. For example, conversations and reflections around women’s social norms in my research in Afghanistan and East Africa have encouraged women to take stock of their efforts and to look critically at pathways of change for women and girls.
A critical realist approach to exploration and learning
My evolving research approach has been shaped and inspired by critical realism, a philosophical standpoint that takes a holistic approach to understanding ‘reality’. With an emphasis on the ‘social’, Tony Lawson (1997) maintains that the phenomena of the world can be better explained through reference to powers, mechanisms, and related tendencies. In fragile contexts, I have highlighted that a critical realist approach benefits from a “creative researcher” with a strong self-reflective capacity to explore subtle themes and dynamics, drawing attention to the value of participatory techniques. A critical realist investigation has also been shown to require researcher sensitivity and trust. This exploratory and grounded research approach with intimate community engagement has prompted a new awareness for me around the potential for deep reflection and learning of vulnerable groups that may be enabled through the research process.
In adopting a conscious critical realist approach, the PRA exercises I have conducted have stimulated both fruitful exchange as well as nuanced reflection on social change, especially in fragile environments. I found that “[p]articipatory-oriented sessions permitted both relaxed, and strikingly open discussions, in an informal style that was arguably more suitable for less-educated women in low-trust contexts who were unaccustomed to interview style questions and/or afraid to speak out…these techniques were especially useful in delving into sensitive topics around culture, religion, and power”.
Interactive research in practice: creating space for reflection
In my various research studies, visual tools have sought to be imaginative and have included self-designed group exercises and networking diagrams often using a mix of cards, string, and beans (or stones). As a researcher, I guided the activities, but local actors took the lead in making sense of the tasks and formulating responses. The central focus of the tools has been on engaging participants, particularly women, in exploring and unpacking their thoughts, ideas, and perspectives. This allows for the confident relaying of local phenomena and experiences and creates a space for storytelling. It also offers the opportunity for facilitated reflection.
I drew on such methods initially in my doctoral research in which I investigated institutional change in women’s enterprise development in grassroots communities in Afghanistan (2009-2013). In some of the PRA exercises that I conducted, female participants used various coloured cards to represent different actor ‘strategies’ in faciliating or holding back social change for women at the community level, particularly related to women’s public mobility and work. Handfuls of beans were then to used indicate relative involvement of different community actors in discussions around women’s changing roles. In these explorative sessions, elaborate discussions were held on the women’s individual and collective ‘journeys’ of changing norms and what this has meant for their social and economic lives.
In subsequent NGO research, I looked more broadly at gender norms, and trends of change in pastoralist communities across the Horn of Africa – Ethiopia, Kenya, Somaliland, South Sudan and Darfur (2014-2018). In PRA exercises, I examined the scope of different social norms and their prevalence for women and girls, including harmful traditional practices such as female genital mutilation (FGM), early and forced marriage, as well as norms around domestic chores, community participation, and attending school. In these cases, various norms were explored by making use of picture cards. Once again, with encouragement, some women reflected on their own experiences of change and persisting barriers that were still holding them back both individually and as a community.
From new dialogue and ideas to enjoyment and trust
The dynamic but sensitive reflections with community groups in interactive research can nurture conversations, perspectives, and ideas in fragile research environments. This can generate new insights into often opaque beliefs, values, and habits, and what might be changing and why, particularly for vulnerable groups. Such an approach may be gently transformative for participants in the new potential clarity gained on their own experiences and realities. On a human level, interactive research approach has also permitted an important sense of enjoyment with many sessions and learning moments generating humour and laughter, influencing local wellbeing in meaningful exchange. In longer-term studies, interactive research may foster a sense of trust and rapport between the researcher and respondents.
Towards the development of conscious research for activist scholars, interactive research may offer a ‘light touch’ approach to pursuing transformative methodologies through integrating mutual learning and fostering subtle community-led social change. In further developing this approach, research projects can explore the co-development of tools and reflective exercises with local actors that may allow the identification of unexpected themes and analysis. This could stimulate a deeper level of social dialogue and exchange, presenting a greater potential for learning and local transformation, both cognitively and socially.
 Yin, R. (2011). Qualitative Research From Start to Finish. London: Guilford Press.
 The Participatory Rural Appraisal method originally stems from rural development work and entails various approaches and methods that “enable local people to share, enhance and analyse their knowledge of life and conditions, to plan and to act” (Chambers 1994: 953).
 Ritchie, H. A. (2019). ‘Investigating Gender and Enterprise in “Fragile” Refugee Settings: The Use of Critical Realism to Explore Institutional Dynamics and Change’. In Sage Research Methods Cases Part 2. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications.
 Ritchie (2019). ‘Investigating Gender and Enterprise in “Fragile” Refugee Settings: The Use of Critical Realism to Explore Institutional Dynamics and Change’. In Sage Research Methods Cases Part 2. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications.
Chambers, R. (1994) ‘The Origins and Practice of Participatory Rural Appraisal’, World Development 22(7): 953-969.
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About the author:
Holly Ritchie is a (post-doctorate) research fellow at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS), part of Erasmus University Rotterdam (EUR).
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