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Ethics case study: Keeping it fluid

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Participatory ethics in river management research

Description of the project

This project, officially titled Building Adaptive Strategies for Environmental Change with Rural Land Managers, was a RELU-funded research project to develop and implement Participatory Action Research (PAR) in river catchment management. The PAR group consisted of social and physical geographers from Durham University, and members of the Lune Rivers Trust. Traditionally, land management issues are researched - that is academics are often commissioned by research councils or government agencies to carry out a piece of research, which is then used to inform legislation or policy changes that local communities then have to implement. This approach has often failed to either tackle the root causes of land management problems or to be well thought of by local communities. On this project, in contrast, we used participatory action research (PAR). At the heart of PAR is the belief that research should be done with and for communities driven by their priorities. The role of external researchers here is as facilitators not researchers. This has not been applied to this area before in the UK and so this project was experimental.

The research involved a 9-month Participatory Action Research process involving the three academic members of the research team working collaboratively with local members of the Lune Rivers Trust in Lancashire. During this time we identified research questions, conducted fieldwork and analysis using the modelling software SCIMAP, and co-produced a series of map-based field tools and a PAR toolkit based on our collective experiences of knowledge production. An evaluation of the process involved an audio diary kept throughout the field period by the three academic team members; periodic short reviews conducted at the end of meetings; a whole group discussion conducted at the end of the research process; and follow-up interviews were conducted with PAR group members.

Ethical issues anticipated in the project

The usual ethical issues in participatory research were considered and discussed in the group; a protocol for decision-making, confidentiality, authorship, ownership of data and outputs, etc. These issues were discussed at the start of the project, and/or when they arose during or after the research as appropriate. 

In addition, there was an ethical imperative underpinning the whole research approach. This is the idea that widening participation in research is an ethical practice in itself. Particularly in the ‘harder’ sciences, participatory research practice has tended to be quite shallow, limited to ‘including’ relevant publics/stakeholders in what is being done, or aiming to build trust in policy. In other words, it still tends to serve the needs of academic/scientific researchers or policy-makers. On our project we saw PAR as devolving the process of knowledge production to a local group, with external facilitation, skills, and resources such as computer hardware and software and available from the university where the group decided that was needed. The ethic that research should be oriented towards priorities and foster changes that are determined by those involved in river management at the local scale, was one of the key recommendations for future practice in research and policy.

Ethical issues emerging and developing

The main issues that emerged were: 

  1. How to conduct research that was critical and accountable, without alienating any of the many stakeholders/users of the rivers. It is important in PAR, as in any other research approach, that research is rigorous, valid, critical of its practices, and faces (and preferably makes an effort to resolve) any difficult issues that arise. Inevitably when working in communities of any diversity on controversial topics, difficult issues do arise. In this case, the topic chosen was farm slurry pollution, and the group were concerned that the research would not be seen as ‘finger-pointing’, especially by farmers. The Rivers Trust had good working relationships with farmers and ultimately their buy-in would be important to further preventive work around slurry pollution. So the group designed the research with this in mind, involved farmers in discussions, and wrote notes to accompany the final model and maps that made it clear that these indicate the potential for pollution, rather than actual incidents.    
  2. How to influence the way that policy-making operates. This experimental use of PAR in river management – an example of bottom-up research, decision-making and action – was judged innovative and successful. But the wider context in which priorities are identified, funding is distributed and policy decisions are made is predominantly top-down. This is despite the rhetoric about local participation and user engagement – the reality is that even those participatory approaches that are used tend to constitute fairly shallow participation. Thus while there might be an appetite and competence locally for research to be conducted differently, the key issue of how to change the structure of knowledge production at a large scale persists.  

Learning from the experience of working with these ethical issues

The project worked well as a collaborative venture where decisions were shared, and evaluations showed that everyone in the group was happy with the experience of knowledge co-production, and with the outcomes. One of the reasons for the success of this PAR process was the energy and ownership of the group in driving the research forward, being ready to critically appraise it, and in taking up the findings afterwards. 

Further details

Pain, R., Whitman, G., Milledge, D. & Lune Rivers Trust (2012) Participatory Action Research Toolkit: an introduction to using PAR as an approach to learning, research and action


Prof Rachel Pain, Department of Geography, Durham University, Co-Director Centre for Social Justice and Community Action,