More Search
We help universities engage with the public

Ethics case study: Permaculture, co-production and ethics in participatory research

< Back to all case studies

Description of the project

The presentation draws on experiences of several collaborations over the past few years relating to the general theme of Permaculture, particularly its applications in community development such as Transition Towns. These began with the Durham Local Food research project, a collaboration between the Anthropology Department at Durham University and the Durham Local Food Network, coordinated by Transition Durham. It sought to investigate the range of perceptions and motivations of different people in the local food sector – including producers, consumers, retailers, advocates – in order to expand the membership and range of activity of the Durham Local Food Network. Learning from this project has since fed into the design of subsequent projects in collaborative environmental research involving Transition groups.

Ethical issues anticipated in the project

The key issue was how to reconcile the academic aims of the project, whose core was production of a thesis for a MA by research, with the practical outcomes required by the Durham Local Food Network. A common experience among Transition groups involved in research projects is that they become a drain on precious time and energy with no compensating benefits for the group. We addressed this by using an action research approach and collaborative ethnography methodology. The research student became embedded within Transition Durham as a local food activist, and her work fed directly into development of an online directory of local food in County Durham. Data collection exercises all directly fulfilled the practical goals of engaging new people – particularly local food producers – in the network, and of compiling the data necessary for developing the directory. Time spent cultivating relationships with producers and other local food activists was an opportunity for ethnographic immersion, and interviews and questionnaires fed into the online directory and gave participants an opportunity to influence the shape and coordination of the network.

Ethical issues emerging and developing

The key emerging issue was the contrast between how ethical issues arose and were addressed in this project and how this happens in more conventional research. There were two main reasons for this: the highly engaged nature of the research and consequent hands-on involvement of the research team in its practical and applied dimensions, and the common familiarity of all participants with Permaculture. The engaged approach meant that applications were built into the research methodology and the activities of the researcher responsive to the project’s practical needs. It also enabled ethnographic immersion in the field of local food activism and facilitated access to participants, and thus enhanced rather than clashed with academic aims.

On reflection, this was in large measure a result of the influence of methods derived from Permaculture, a design approach rooted in three overlapping ethics: earth care, people care and fair share. Permaculture design applies of a set of principles derived from observations of natural systems to the design of human habitats and organisations that reflect and promote its three core ethics. Common adherence to these ethics, and familiarity with associated methods, shifted the way ethical issues arose and were acted upon. Rather than a collaboration between researchers and community partners seeking to reconcile divergent interests, the research team operated as a coherent unit that took on board and sought collectively to address the needs of everyone involved.

Learning from the experience of working with these ethical issues

The prevailing ethical theme of this and subsequent collaborations has been how research approaches rooted in permaculture, along with established methods for acting upon them, transforms the way in which ethical issues arise and negotiated within research partnerships. We have developed a deeper understanding of the affinities between permaculture ethics and those of collaborative research, and how applying Permaculture principles in the design of research projects can allow a foregrounding of ethical issues as an integral part of the research process, not a separate issue potentially conflicting with academic or other criteria. This learning has been systematised as part of the background to a set of guidelines for research involving Transition and other forms of community-led sustainability action.

These experiences contrast strongly with less engaged partnerships, which reveal the incompatibility of the dominant values shaping academic research – self-interest, acquisitiveness, and competitiveness – and the basic ethical preconditions for sustainability. They thus raise broader questions about clashes between ethical frameworks that prioritise environmental protection and social justice and institutional ethics that are often implicit. Situating research in relation to established ethical frameworks with clear linkages to practice allows these hidden ethics to be revealed and challenged.

Further details

Draft Guidelines for Transition Research:  

Durham Local Food Network:

UK Permaculture Association’s research strategy:

Transition and Permaculture in North East England:

Transition Durham:


Tom Henfrey (, Durham University/Transition Research Network and Wilf Richards (, Transition Durham/North East Permaculture Network/Durham Local Food Network