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Participant Action Research is No Help to a Perfectionist View of Engaged Theology’s Moral Superiority

The introduction to the Spanish summary of my book (held in picture) reads: “The book Witnessing Peace seeks to honor a key source of hope for transformation amidst Colombia’s armed conflict: the violence-affected communities that self-protect and struggle to change the conditions of violence that threaten them. This summary is a tool to discuss ideas from the book with you, the communities that inspired it, contributed to the theory-building, and are featured throughout. This is your book too.”

 

Todd Whitmore devoted a significant portion of his Society of Christian Ethics 2024 conference paper session to a discussion about methods of ethnographic theology. While thinking with those gathered, questions that challenged engaged research have stayed with me.

The conversation surfaced three issues: helping, representation, and accountability. One participant worried that people who do action research think they are helping. In response, Traci West observed that academics tend to be unreliable partners in collaboration because we move from one project to the next. At another moment, she questioned the possibility of representation tied to collaboration with collective processes. In response, after the session, I asked West a version of Kamala Visweswaren’s question from, “Defining Feminist Ethnography” (2003, 89),[1] asking whether the question was not whether we can represent people better but if we could be accountable to peoples’ struggles for self-representation and self-determination. West’s response surprised and intrigued me. She said that at different times the same people represent themselves differently to her. At least sometimes this difference concerns the various aspects of her subject position: at times people foreground her black identity and other times the same people relate to her US citizenship identity, for example. So, the notion of accountability to collective self-representation and self-determination fixes what is dynamic, fluid, and multi-faceted.

The worry about helping in relation to action research is relevant to me because I advance theologies of peacebuilding through engaged research, by which I mean research that uses some methods that I position in relation to Participant Action Research (PAR). West’s representation and accountability charges pose a serious objection to the approach I take to meet the first challenge, namely dialogue in the context of research as praxis with grassroots organizations and processes. I have doubted my own strategies of engaged research. Reflection on reservations and the kind of exchange we enjoyed at the SCE continue to shape my views, and I look forward to more back and forth on these questions. In this essay, I am going to think through the above comments given my work grounded in Colombia first as a long-term accompaniment worker and then as an engaged researcher.

Taken to their logical extreme, the expressed perspectives suggest moral perfectionism that is unattainable. Their charges hold PAR to a morally perfectionist standard that applies if practitioners of PAR claim to be involved in a morally superior enterprise, but not if they understand their work as morally fraught. By my lights, the first comment does not refute engaged research because “helping” misconstrues the relationships of PAR. West’s comment on unreliability does not refute engaged research. Still, her observations make it clear that engaged research is not about moral superiority because she calls it out as being morally fraught.

My argument is that engaged research can be an ethical and worthwhile form of praxis even if it cannot achieve a utopic view of moral idealism. Engaged research can be ethical when characterized by long-term commitment with ongoing efforts and continuing relationships in which dialogue is the method for arriving to understanding and agreements. Long-term commitment, ongoing efforts, and dialogue are keys for what I call accountability. Relational desire facilitates it.

Engaged research is no help. 

First, the logic of helping often focuses on immediate needs or problems, whereas PAR fosters research that is more likely to engage with underlying causes and long-term social change. This emphasis complements the Conflict Transformation lens of research for peace that aims to focus not only on the episode that catches our attention, usually a problem of direct violence, but the epicenter of problem.[2] The involvement and relationships of PAR invite scholars to move from reflection on praxis to research as praxis, understood as a practice undertaken for theological, ideological, or theoretical reasons.[3] Viewing research grounded in historical processes as praxis shifts academic publications from their privileged position as end product, makes scholarship itself a site of contestation and struggle (rather than diminishing its significance), and emphasizes continuous efforts. The thematic emphasis on underlying causes and processes of social change is of a piece with an emphasis on engaged researchers’ long-term commitment and ongoing efforts, which shape the formulation of the research question and analysis and mean that the final project will be returned after a book project is complete.[4] The communication that developed with my colleagues and collaborators is what Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz calls dialogue, a decolonial praxis and method through which we “arrive at a shared understanding that is acceptable to all.”[5] For example, in 2023, collaborators and I had an extensive dialogue about how the final product of the research, in my case the book Witnessing Peace,[6] would be returned and presented to communities and people featured by name as interlocutors. (See photo caption.)

Second, the relations of power to which PAR aspires clash with the notion of helping. Traditional helping relationships often involve an implicit power imbalance between the helper (who presumably has resources, knowledge, or skills) and the helped (who is in need). This imbalance can reproduce the very inequalities and injustices that PAR seeks to address. While power inequalities always exist, power dynamics are not static. PAR methods and practices strive to flatten hierarchies and empower local communities as they define approaches to redress the problems they identify. I use aspirational language because action researchers have exaggerated the significance of their contributions to social movements, and they have fallen short and always will fall short of perfectionism and moral superiority.[7] Moral superiority is not a legitimate aim.

Most basically, “helping” language reveals problems in how relationships are construed. In my case, returning the final publication in the form of a booklet and group study sessions was not about helping but rather fulfilling an ethical obligation in the context of ongoing commitment, engagement, and relationships of care. Dialogue was the method used to determine the shape of the fulfillment of that obligation. Relationships facilitated it.

Engaged research is morally fraught yet can be ethical.

This brings us to Dr. West’s observations. To her first point on reliability, I wonder if we can give space for the kind of contribution scholarship can make that is not interpersonally engaged and can still be reliable in the sense of seeing research through to a place where it could provide insight for liberatory and peacebuilding initiatives in which communities are involved. My particular concern is engaged scholarship, however. Even if the features mentioned above—namely long-term commitment, ongoing efforts, return of final product, and dialogue, as method and praxis—do not resolve the concern, they suggest a register of engaged research ethics.

Second, with respect to the challenges with accountability to peoples’ struggles for self-representation, Visweswaren’s question is resonant because my work is grounded in grassroots organization and processes that have been variously imperceptible, ignored, maligned, and violently targeted by state entities and their armies. My Colombian colleagues and collaborators consistently emphasize collective efforts (power) developed through micro-level corporate action and then broader organizing processes to build peace. Efforts to stay alive, extend life, and transform the epicenter of the episodes are linked to collective struggles for recognition of corporate, constructive agency under duress enabled by marginalized (subaltern) forms of power and knowledge. In my work, accountability to collective self-representation therefore supports individuals and communities in the face of death, forced displacement, and land dispossession. Their collective agency defends life, threatens the ruling class, and is transformative.

I wonder if the following two strategies, also from my work, speak to West’s concern about homogenizing and fixing what is heterogeneous and dynamic. First, long-term involvement in organizations and process surface exchange among distinct standpoints in collectively defined spaces. Not only do people respond to “the researcher” differently at different times, but people also foreground different aspects of their lives and others’ lives in their interactions with each other. Theorizing with dynamic plural spaces and the intersubjective humans responding to and from the complex lives we are living is a way of being accountable to the dynamism, role changes, and major shifts that it is possible to observe and experience when involvement extends through years.[8]

Second, special attention to marginalized voices surfaces the structures and flow of power within collective spaces.[9] Consider, for example, what engagement, dialogue, and focus groups that center women reveal within the Working Group of Land and Territory of Córdoba (Grupo por la Defensa de la Tierra y el Territorio de Córdoba), composed largely of grassroots organizations and processes in the northwest department of Córdoba. These approaches surface strategies of women to negotiate power within the group while experiencing sexual violence outside of it, as reprisal for their political activity related to the group’s purpose; strategies to contest male-perpetrated gender discrimination within the group, with and without male allies; and strategies to create internal processes (eg: women listening to women of distinct social groups in their homes) and restructure other internal processes (eg: the organization of collective forums) to ensure that women’s voices are part of the collective analysis and decision-making, among others.[10]

Paying attention to these strategies works with the intersubjective challenge to representation West identifies and might enhance “transnational solidarity in opposing multiple forms of sexualized violence.”[11]

The experiences and arguments of my colleagues and collaborators have challenged and changed me, including the ideas, commitments, and theologies that first led me to them. For example, the collective process demonstrated the shortcomings of dominant theologies of pacifist nonviolence. The marginalized voices of women within it provided targeted critique that helped to shine a light on the correspondence of John Howard Yoder’s sexual violence with his theologies of peace,[12] and prod us toward theological peacebuilding that is at once self-critical and directed towards contributing to new realities. Accompaniment that unfolded into engaged research challenged and changed the ways I think about peace theology.

In sum, we are no help, and engagement can go horribly wrong. Each exchange and effort to dialogue carries risk of injustice and misunderstanding; this is a part of our human vulnerability. Ethics cannot protect us from the risks of engagement, but ethics can help us think through risks worth taking.

Works Cited

Patricia Hill Collins, “Intersectionality’s Definitional Dilemmas,” Annual Review of Sociology 41, no. 1 (August 14, 2015): 1–20, at 5 and 15. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-soc-073014-112142; Angela Jill Lederach, Feel the Grass Grow: Ecolologies of Slow Peace in Colombia (Redwood City: Stanford University Press, 2023), 24.

Fals Borda, Orlando ‘Investigating reality in order to transform it: the Colombian experience’, Dialectical Anthropology, 4 (1979):33-55, at 49;

 —. “Knowledge and People’s Power Lessons with Peasants in Nicaragua, Mexico and Colombia.” New Delhi Indian Social Institute (1988), 88.

Janna Hunter-Bowman, Witnessing Peace: Becoming Agents Under Duress in Colombia (New York, NY: Routledge, 2022).

 —.  “Constructive Agents Under Duress: Alternatives to the Structural, Political, and Agential Inadequacies of Past Theologies of Nonviolent Peacebuilding,” in Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics 38, no. 2 (Fall/Winter 2018), 149-168.

Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, “Justice as Reconciliatory Praxis: A Decolonial Mujerista Move,” International Journal of Public Theology 4 (2010), 37-50, at 46-49.

John Paul Lederach, Preparing for Peace: Conflict Transformation Across Cultures (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse Univ Pr, 1995).

Andrea Lopera Lombana, Catalina Serrano, and Javier Lautaro Medina, Tierra y Territorio en el Departamento de Córdoba en el Escenario del Posconflicto (Bogotá: CINEP, 2016).

Kamala Visweswaran, “Defining Feminist Ethnography,” in Turning Points in Qualitative Research: Tying Knots in Handkerchief, ed. Yvonna Lincoln and Norman Denzin, Crossroads in Qualitative Inquiry (New York: AltaMira Press, 2003), 73–92.

Traci C. West, Solidarity and Defiant Spirituality: Africana Lessons on Religion, Racism, and Ending Gender Violence (Religion and Social… Solidarity and Defiant Spirituality: Africana Lessons on Religion, Racism, and Ending Gender Violence (New York: NYU Press, 2019), 30.

[1] Kamala Visweswaran, “Defining Feminist Ethnography,” in Turning Points in Qualitative Research: Tying Knots in Handkerchief, ed. Yvonna Lincoln and Norman Denzin, Crossroads in Qualitative Inquiry (New York: AltaMira Press, 2003), 73–92.

[2] John Paul Lederach, Preparing for Peace: Conflict Transformation Across Cultures (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse Univ Pr, 1995).

[3] Patricia Hill Collins, “Intersectionality’s Definitional Dilemmas,” Annual Review of Sociology 41, no. 1 (August 14, 2015): 1–20, at 5 and 15. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-soc-073014-112142; Angela Jill Lederach, Feel the Grass Grow: Ecolologies of Slow Peace in Colombia (Redwood City: Stanford University Press, 2023), 24.

[4] See also Angela Jill Lederach’s elegant articulation of her ethnographic research methods situated in relation to PAR and ethics of research articulated by collaborators Dionisio Alarcón, Hernando González, and Glenda Jaraba, which include long-term commitment, ongoing involvement, and returning the final product to knowledge-producing communities. Feel the Grass Grow, 22-25.

[5] Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, “Justice as Reconciliatory Praxis: A Decolonial Mujerista Move,” International Journal of Public Theology 4 (2010), 37-50, at 46-49.

[6] Janna Hunter-Bowman, Witnessing Peace: Becoming Agents Under Duress in Colombia (New York, NY: Routledge, 2022).

[7] Fals Borda, Orlando ‘Investigating reality in order to transform it: the Colombian experience’, Dialectical Anthropology, 4 (1979): 33-55, at 49; “Knowledge and People’s Power Lessons with Peasants in Nicaragua, Mexico and Colombia.” New Delhi Indian Social Institute (1988), 88.

[8] Hunter-Bowman, Witnessing Peace: Becoming Agents Under Duress in Colombia, 129-192.

[9] Isasi-Diaz, 47.

[10] Hunter-Bowman, Witnessing Peace, 168, 172.

[11] Traci C. West, Solidarity and Defiant Spirituality: Africana Lessons on Religion, Racism, and Ending Gender Violence (Religion and Social… Solidarity and Defiant Spirituality: Africana Lessons on Religion, Racism, and Ending Gender Violence (New York: NYU Press, 2019), 30.

[12] Hunter-Bowman, “Constructive Agents Under Duress: Alternatives to the Structural, Political, and Agential Inadequacies of Past Theologies of Nonviolent Peacebuilding,” in Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics 38, no. 2 (Fall/Winter 2018), 149-168.