Participatory Research & Action Learning

Participatory Research & Action Learning

Participatory Action Research


Standard agricultural research has not always addressed the real world complexity of agriculture and livelihoods. Smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa for example face high levels of environmental uncertainty, a rapidly changing context due to globalization and market fluctuations, and value conflicts associated with rural development. Participatory Action Research was developed as an alternative to a classical, reductionist model in an effort to improve the relevance of research for smallholder farmers given their diverse agroecological and socioeconomic conditions. In a Participatory Action Research approach, farmers and researchers collaboratively engage in practical problem-solving utilizing diverse research methods. Farmers, researchers and other stakeholders innovate together and co-learn in order to iteratively address the complex challenges faced by smallholders.


There are three essential elements of participatory action research:

  • Researchers and community members join together in a process of collaborative inquiry,
  • Aim is to address real-world issues and practical problems,
  • A variety of research methods are used to co-generate knowledge about the problem and possible solutions through iterative cycles of action and reflection

(Greenwood and Levin, 2006; Reason and Bradbury, 2008)


  • Agricultural research in the region largely focuses on carrying out classical science and this provides many important findings related to soil science, pest control, plant breeding, etc. The challenge is how to find the balance between technical elements of agronomic research and engaged research with farmers.
  • Interdisciplinary teams of scientists can help enhance collaboration across classical and engaged science; however this requires new skill sets and investment of time and resources.
  • Similarly, researchers designing participatory action research projects need to find a balance between the level of farmer participation and the level of researcher control to meet objectives of a project or testing a hypothesis.


Managing Natural Resources for Sustainable Livelihoods: Uniting Science and Participation

Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL)

Scaling Up and Out (pdf book chapter)

Learning Lab Resources:

Bezner Kerr, R., Snapp, S., Shumba, L., Msachi, R., 2007. Participatory research on legume diversification with Malawian smallholder farmers for improved human nutrition and soil fertility. Experimental agriculture 43, 437–453.

Kanyama-Phiri, G.Y., S.S. Snapp and S. Minae. 1998 Partnership with Malawian farmers to develop organic matter technologies. Outlook on Agriculture 27:167-175.

Snapp, S.S., Blackie, M.J., Gilbert, R.A., Bezner-Kerr, R., Kanyama-Phiri, G.Y., 2010. Biodiversity can support a greener revolution in Africa. PNAS 107, 20840–20845. doi:10.1073/pnas.1007199107  

Extended Bibliography & Works Cited

Batie, S.S., 2008. Wicked Problems and Applied Economics. American Journal of Agricultural Economics 90, 1176–1191.

Greenwood, D.J., and Levin, M., 2006. Introduction to Action Research: Social Research for Social Change, 2nd edition. SAGE Publications, Thousand Oaks, Calif.

Reason, P., Bradbury, H. 2008. The SAGE handbook of action research: participative inquiry and practice, 2nd edition. Los Angeles, Calif, SAGE.

Shaw, A., Kristjanson, P., 2014. A Catalyst toward Sustainability? Exploring Social Learning and Social Differentiation Approaches with the Agricultural Poor. Sustainability 5, 32.

Tags: Agronomy, Extension, Geography, Sociology, Sustainability Science.