Transformative Interviews and Participatory Action Research

When we talk about Transformative Interviews’ interventionist intentions, people quickly think of Action Research as a comparative method. For this reason, I thought it would be useful to discuss the ways in which Action Research and Transformative Interviews are similar and different.

There are many different types of Action Research, just like there are many kinds of Transformative Interviews (discussed in another post). In this post, I focus on Participatory Action Research, mainly based on the work of Kemmis, McTaggart, and Nixon on Critical Participatory Action Research.

Action Research, in general, rejects the notion that the researcher enters the field with the sole purpose of record and represent what is happening. Instead, action researchers aim to make improvements in practice through the research. As a result, Action Research challenges the traditional relationship between research-researched and theory and practice. In this sense, Transformative Interviews and Action Research share a goal of making an impact throughout the research process, as opposed to the traditional approach of conceiving impact as translation and communication of knowledge acquired through research. Both approaches also assume that practitioners are knowledgeable and capable of improving their lives (or practices) and that self-reflection is a crucial step towards better practices.

However, the motivation and application of these methods vary significantly. Participatory Action Research focuses on collectives: organizations or communities. Practitioners in these communities identify issues they want to work on (e.g., student outcomes, worker productivity, quality of care). They collectively engage in a change process that involves a recursive process of planning, acting, observing, and reflecting. Research tools provide the evidence for analysis and reflection and input for new cycles of planning. As such, Participatory Action Research is a “practice-changing practice.” A Participatory Action Research project follows the cycle of the practices (yearly, monthly, daily) and is driven by practitioners embedded in the context. As such, the knowledge generated is highly contextualized to the community or organization and the practices it implements. 

On the other hand, Transformative Interviews are focused on individuals and guided by the recognition of a problem facing a particular population (problem-driven research). Informed by interactions with both the research and practice communities, the researcher focuses on a population facing a challenge or problem (e.g., international students during the COVID-19 pandemic). The researcher then engages with these individuals through a research interview to better understand the challenges and solutions to the population AND support individual participants in finding solutions to cope or deal with their challenges. As such, it departs from Action Research in the sense that change is not a requirement. An outcome of the intervention may be that the participant reflects on and reframes their experience in ways that make them feel more at ease. It also does not (necessarily) engage in the process of assessment of modification of practices. Instead, Transformative Interviews focus on facilitating a sensemaking process that further elucidate (to both participants and researchers) the nature of the challenge and open the possibility of new solutions to be envisioned. 

For example, we explored international students’ experiences living in Canada during the COVID-19 pandemic using Transformative Interviews. We supported each student to find better ways to cope with the pandemic, such as coming to peace with location decisions and finding meaning in virtual connections. At the same time, we identified general patterns such as heightened reliance on support from transnational families and anxieties about their future careers and mobilities. These patterns resulted in practical, policy, and theoretical implications. As such, Transformative Interviews have a dual goal of generating knowledge about a problem within a context and supporting individuals dealing with that problem.