Social Innovation and Participatory Action Research: A way to research community?

  • Gerald Taylor Aiken Universite du Luxembourg


This paper seeks to outline a methodological approach that can be used in order to help understand such movements, and more fundamentally, the role of community in Social Innovation (SI). The article offers an overview of Participative Action Research (PAR), and outlines its strengths and weaknesses in studying community-based social innovation, in this case the Transition movement. PAR is not an ‘off the shelf’ kit, or a ‘conforming of methodological standards’, but rather a series of approaches that ought to inform the research. The paper argues that these approaches, rather than techniques, are essential to get right if the intangible, granular, and incidental-but-fundamental aspects of community are to be grasped by researchers. Given the small-scale nature of community low carbon transitions a granular analysis is preferred to a more surface, superficial overview of such processes. Qualitative research is preferred to quantitative aggregation of initiatives, due to the need to understand the everyday, more phenomenological aspects of community, and the specific tacit relations and subjectivities enacted through their capacity to cut carbon.





Avelino, F., Wittmayer, J.M., 2016. Shifting Power Relations in Sustainability Transitions: A Multi-actor Perspective. J. Environ. Policy Plan. 18, 628–649. doi:10.1080/1523908X.2015.1112259

Avelino, F. Wittmayer, J., Haxeltine, A., Kemp, R., O’Riordan, T., Weaver, P., Loorbach, D. and Rotmans, J. (2014) Game-changers and Transformative Social Innovation. The Case of the Economic Crisis and the New Economy, TRANSIT working paper 1, TRANSIT: EU SSH.2013.3.2-1 Grant agreement no: 613169.

Bastian, M., B. Brangwyn, N. Giangrande, T. Henfrey, and L. Maxey. 2012. Transition Research Network: New Knowledge for Resilient Futures. Plymouth: Transition Research Network. Accessed 1 May 2017.

Blackstock, K., Dinnie, L., Dilley, R., Marshall, K., Dunglinson, J., Trench, H., Harper, K., Finan, K., MacPherson, J., Johnston, E., Griffin, A., 2015. Participatory research to influence participatory governance: managing relationships with planners: Participatory research to influence participatory governance. Area 47, 254–260. doi:10.1111/area.12129

Breitbart, M.M., 2010. Participatory Research Methods, in: Clifford, N., French, S., Valentine, G. (Eds.), Key Methods in Geography. SAGE, Los Angeles, pp. 141–156.

Cahill, C., 2007a. Doing Research with Young People: Participatory Research and the Rituals of Collective Work. Child. Geogr. 5, 297–312. doi:10.1080/14733280701445895

Cahill, C., 2007b. The Personal is Political: Developing new subjectivities through participatory action research. Gend. Place Cult. 14, 267–292. doi:10.1080/09663690701324904

Cameron, J., Gibson, K., 2005a. Participatory action research in a poststructuralist vein. Geoforum 36, 315–331. doi:10.1016/j.geoforum.2004.06.006

Cameron, J., Gibson, K., 2005b. Alternative Pathways to Community and Economic Development: The Latrobe Valley Community Partnering Project. Geogr. Res. 43, 274–285. doi:10.1111/j.1745-5871.2005.00327.x

Chatterton, P., 2008. Demand the Possible: Journeys in Changing our World as a Public Activist-Scholar. Antipode 40, 421–427. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8330.2008.00609.x

Chatterton, P., 2006. “Give up Activism” and Change the World in Unknown Ways: Or, Learning to Walk with Others on Uncommon Ground. Antipode 38, 259–281. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8330.2006.00579.x

Edwards-Schachter, Mónica and Tams, Svenja (2013) How empowering is social innovation? Identifying barriers to participation in community-driven innovation (Paper presented at the international conference Social Frontiers : The next edge of social innovation research, at GCU's London Campus on 14th and 15th November 2013).

Franz, H.-W. (Ed.), 2012. Challenge social innovation: potentials for business, social entrepreneurship, welfare and civil society. Springer, Berlin.

Freire, P., 2014. Pedagogy of Commitment. Paradigm, Boulder, Colo.

Freire, P., 1996. Pedagogy of the oppressed, New rev. ed. ed, Penguin books. Penguin Books, London.

Freire, P., Freire, A.M.A., 2004. Pedagogy of hope: reliving pedagogy of the oppressed, Continuum impacts. Continuum, London.

Fuller, D., 1999. Part of the action, or “going native”? Learning to cope with the “politics of integration.” Area 31, 221–227. doi:10.1111/j.1475-4762.1999.tb00086.x

Gibson‐Graham, J.K., 1994. “Stuffed if I know!”: Reflections on post‐modern feminist social research. Gend. Place Cult. 1, 205–224. doi:10.1080/09663699408721210

Goldsmith, S., Georges, G., Burke, T.G., Bloomberg, M.R., 2010. The power of social innovation: how civic entrepreneurs ignite community networks for good. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, Calif.

Greenwood, D.J., Levin, M., 2007. Introduction to action research: social research for social change, 2nd ed. ed. Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks, Calif.

Hargreaves, T., Hielscher, S., Seyfang, G., Smith, A., 2013. Grassroots innovations in community energy: The role of intermediaries in niche development. Glob. Environ. Change 23, 868–880. doi:10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2013.02.008

Hopkins, R., 2013. The power of just doing stuff: how local action can change the world. Green Books, Cambridge.

Hopkins, R., 2011. The transition companion : making your community more resilient in uncertain times. Transition Books, Totnes.

Hopkins, R., 2008. The transition handbook : from oil dependency to local resilience. Green Books, Totnes, Devon.

Kearns, R.A., 2010. Seeing with Clarity: Undertaking Observational Research, in: Hay, I. (Ed.), Qualitative Research Methods in Human Geography. Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford, pp. 241–258.

Khanlou, N., Peter, E., 2005. Participatory action research: considerations for ethical review. Soc. Sci. Med. 60, 2333–2340. doi:10.1016/j.socscimed.2004.10.004

Kindon, S., 2010. Participatory Action Research, in: Hay, I. (Ed.), Qualitative Research Methods in Human Geography. Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford, pp. 259–278.

Kindon, S.L., Pain, R., Kesby, M. (Eds.), 2007. Participatory action research approaches and methods: connecting people, participation and place, Routledge studies in human geography. Routledge, London ; New York.

Lahiri-Dutt, K., 2004. “I plan, you participate”: A southern view of community participation in urban Australia. Community Dev. J. 39, 13–27. doi:10.1093/cdj/39.1.13

Law, J., 2007. After method: mess in social science research, Transferred to digital print. ed, International library of sociology. Routledge, London.

Longhurst, N. (2015) Transformative Social Innovation Narrative of the Transition Movement. TRANSIT: EU SSH.2013.3.2-1 Grant agreement no: 613169 | 31st of March 2015

Marres, N., Lezaun, J., 2011. Materials and devices of the public: an introduction. Econ. Soc. 40, 489–509. doi:10.1080/03085147.2011.602293

Mason, K., 2015. Participatory Action Research: Coproduction, Governance and Care: Participatory Action Research. Geogr. Compass 9, 497–507. doi:10.1111/gec3.12227

Mason, K., Brown, G., Pickerill, J., 2012. Epistemologies of Participation, or, What Do Critical Human Geographers Know That’s of Any Use? Antipode 45, 252–255. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8330.2012.01049.x

Mulgan, G., 2006. The Process of Social Innovation. Innov. Technol. Gov. Glob. 1, 145–162. doi:10.1162/itgg.2006.1.2.145

Mulugetta, Y., Jackson, T., van der Horst, D., 2010. Carbon reduction at community scale. Energy Policy 38, 7541–7545. doi:10.1016/j.enpol.2010.05.050

North, P., Longhurst, N., 2013. Grassroots Localisation? The Scalar Potential of and Limits of the “Transition” Approach to Climate Change and Resource Constraint. Urban Stud. 50, 1423–1438. doi:10.1177/0042098013480966

Pain, R., 2004. Social geography: participatory research. Prog. Hum. Geogr. 28, 652–663. doi:10.1191/0309132504ph511pr

Pain, R., 2003. Social geography: on action-orientated research. Prog. Hum. Geogr. 27, 649–657. doi:10.1191/0309132503ph455pr

Pain, R., Finn, M., Bouveng, R., Ngobe, G., 2013. Productive tensions—engaging geography students in participatory action research with communities. J. Geogr. High. Educ. 37, 28–43. doi:10.1080/03098265.2012.696594

Pain, R., Kesby, M., Askins, K., 2012. The politics of social justice in neoliberal times: a reply to Slater: Commentary. Area 44, 120–123. doi:10.1111/j.1475-4762.2011.01073.x

Pain, R., Kesby, M., Askins, K., 2011. Geographies of impact: power, participation and potential: Geographies of impact. Area 43, 183–188. doi:10.1111/j.1475-4762.2010.00978.x

Parkes, M., Panelli, R., 2001. Integrating Catchment Ecosystems and Community Health: The Value of Participatory Action Research. Ecosyst. Health 7, 85–106. doi:10.1046/j.1526-0992.2001.007002085.x

Phillips, R., Johns, J., 2012. Fieldwork for human geography. SAGE, London.

Reason, P., Bradbury, H. (Eds.), 2001. Handbook of action research: participative inquiry and practice. SAGE, London ; Thousand Oaks, Calif.

Scott-Cato, M., Hillier, J., 2010. How could we study climate-related social innovation? Applying Deleuzean philosophy to Transition Towns. Environ. Polit. 19, 869–887. doi:10.1080/09644016.2010.518677

Seyfang, G., Haxeltine, A., 2012. Growing grassroots innovations: exploring the role of community-based initiatives in governing sustainable energy transitions. Environ. Plan. C Gov. Policy 30, 381–400. doi:10.1068/c10222

Seyfang, G., Smith, A., 2007. Grassroots innovations for sustainable development: Towards a new research and policy agenda. Environ. Polit. 16, 584–603. doi:10.1080/09644010701419121

Smith, A., Hargreaves, T., Hielscher, S., Martiskainen, M., Seyfang, G., 2016. Making the most of community energies: Three perspectives on grassroots innovation. Environ. Plan. A 48, 407–432. doi:10.1177/0308518X15597908

Wittmayer, J.M., Schäpke, N., 2014. Action, research and participation: roles of researchers in sustainability transitions. Sustain. Sci. 9, 483–496. doi:10.1007/s11625-014-0258-4

Wittmayer,J.,N.Schäpke,G.Feiner,R.Piotrowski,F.Van Steenbergen, and S. Baasch. 2013. Action research for sustainability: Reflections on transition management in practice. Research Brief/Deliverable 5.2. InContext. EU ENV.2010.4.2.3-1 Grant Agreement No. 265191. http://www. (last accessed 1 May 2017).

Wittmayer, J.M., Schäpke, N., van Steenbergen, F., Omann, I., 2014. Making sense of sustainability transitions locally: how action research contributes to addressing societal challenges. Crit. Policy Stud. 8, 465–485. doi:10.1080/19460171.2014.957336

Wynne-Jones, S., North, P., Routledge, P., 2015. Practising participatory geographies: potentials, problems and politics: Practising participatory geographies. Area 47, 218–221. doi:10.1111/area.12186

How to Cite
Taylor Aiken, G. (2017). Social Innovation and Participatory Action Research: A way to research community?. European Public & Social Innovation Review, 2(1), 17-33. Retrieved from
Research articles