Volume 52   Number 1 Winter 2019

Student Issues

Edited by Erin Godly-Reynolds, University of North Carolina Charlotte

One Recipe for a Successful Critical Participatory Action Research Dissertation

Written by Natalie Kivell, University of Miami

As graduate students, most of us have heard some iteration of the following sentiments while exploring topics and methodologies for our thesis and/or dissertation - ‘wait until you’ve earned your degree (or better yet, wait until you have tenure) to do time-consuming participatory work’; ‘your dissertation is not your life’s work, finish it, and then go do your real work’. While I agree that it should not take an unreasonable amount of time to complete a doctorate, I also believed that my dissertation could be something beautiful, creative, and critical – a research project grounded deeply in my own understanding of how knowledge works, whose knowledge is valued and legitimate, and whose knowledge is seen as central enough to inform theory and practice. My graduate advisor and committee members supported my decision to undertake a Critical Participatory Action Research (C-PAR) Dissertation – a PAR that Torre (2009) argues centers around power and oppression, and which is justice oriented and politically engaged.

My doctoral journey was built on a deep interrogation of what Sandler (2007) refers to as structural injustice. I wanted my dissertation to continue this interrogation. I understand structural injustices as historically constructed and continually reproduced systems of oppression, and I believe that research in Community Psychology has the responsibility to understand, challenge, and/or dismantle deeply rooted structural injustices.

Due to a series of fortunate events and a lot of hard work, I was able to complete a deeply participatory and critical dissertation project, “Reframing the role of size in transformation: A Participatory Theory Development study with community organizers and activists”. This article provides a short overview of my dissertation, followed by a recipeof the many interdependent supports that were necessary to help me see the possibilities in this research, and to bring them to fruition within the framework (and timeline) of a dissertation.


‒  A dash of dissertation funding from the SCRA NSR Grant

‒  1 cup supportive mentor

‒  1 dollop supportive program and faculty

‒  5 bowls full of committed and passionate community partners

‒  Mix in a foundation of Community Psychology values, and a deep questioning of traditional epistemologies.




A Quick Note on my Dissertation

Because I have submitted my dissertation methodology and findings for publication elsewhere, I will not focus on those; however, I will provide a brief background for context. My dissertation emerged after a prolonged engagement with the Social Justice Table (SJT) in Miami, where I was as a member of the Engagement, Power, and Social Action Research Team (EPSA) at the University of Miami. Prior to constructing my dissertation, I worked with the SJT for three years on action research with the goal of building collective power and collective organizing practices. The SJT was comprised of partners working in social movements including black liberation, immigrant and worker rights, gender justice, and climate action. It was quite obvious that these community partners and social movement activists held rich theories that informed their work, including theories of power, community organizing, and theories driving their understanding of structural injustices and social transformation. These community theories were rich and grounded in truth, experience, and collective knowledge.

I constructed my C-PAR dissertation to surface and interrogate these community theories in partnership with my community co-researchers in order to identify limitations of our academic theories in Community Psychology around the concept of transformation. We co-created a community driven contextually-based, transferable, and adaptable local theory of transformative change, with, by, and for grassroots community organizers in Miami-Dade County (Kivell, 2018). To do this I constructed a custom Critical-PAR methodology (Participatory Theory Development (PTD)) - an epistemically rich theory development process, which centers community knowledge(s) in the construction of generalizable and transferrable theories.

Although it is likely that there are many contributing factors to my ability to complete this C-PAR dissertation that I am not naming here (including my stubborn nature), the following recipe covers the most important components of my process.

Defining the Necessary Ingredients

     To carry out any dissertation project, a student requires a host of supports, including a mentor who helps to build the necessary knowledge and skills, an encouraging program, and ideally a supportive family and community. Dissertations are hard. Period. However, to do a C-PAR dissertation I strongly believe that a student requires the following, unique ingredients:

  1. A funding source that understands the importance and rigour of participatory research: Much of the dissertation funding available supports more traditional projects. Convincing both internal (e.g., university) and external funding committees that C-PAR research is a legitimate and rigorous methodology is its own challenge. The SCRA Student Representatives (SR) Research Grant Committee understood my project and awarded me the funding that made my dissertation possible. I paid my community co-researchers $200 stipends for their participation in 20+ hours of research design, data analysis, and collective theory building. Because other sources questioned why I would need so much time from my participants, without SCRA’s SR Research Grant funding I am confident that the participatory nature of my study would have suffered. Although I am sure that my co-researchers would have consented to participate regardless of funding (we constructed this project together and believed it would have a positive impact on our collective ability to transform communities), I believe this funding helped uphold the values and process of this research in the following, important ways: (a) by providing fair recompense, community co-researchers were treated as valued knowledge holders and could justify the time away from work to complete this project; (b) co-researchers identified the financial support as a validation that what we were doing was important and relevant to others; and (c) the recompense provided an example of how we can live our values in every aspect of our research in Community Psychology without recreating processes of epistemic injustice in our research processes.
  2. A faculty mentor who can provide C-PAR opportunities prior to a dissertation. Long-term relationships are required to do any PAR research. A mentor can support the cultivation of PAR research by involving students in research that centers on relationship building with community members. C-PAR is emergent and can benefit from a mentor who sees its relevance, and who provides opportunities to learn how to do it before beginning a dissertation.
  3. A department that builds Critical and PAR competency. As with any other form of research, PAR requires time and effort to learn what it is and how to do it. Offering course options that teach PAR and providing opportunities to engage with the methodology throughout a program can build a foundation for students. Additionally, in Evans, Duckett, Lawthom, and Kivell (2016) we argue that “we need programs that educate students to be critical agents who learn how to take risks, engage in critical dialogue, and determine what it means to be responsible to communities over the long run” (p. 119). Learning C-PAR is about more than technical skills; for example, students must learn about critical paradigms/theories and how to problematize power structures in our own research.
  4. Community Partners. Last, but certainly not least, committed community partners are required, without whom C-PAR is not possible. Community partners have to believe in what you are doing, see the value in it, and choose to participate in a time-consuming, research-focused process. Having community partners who are excited about and understand the value of C-PAR research is a necessary ingredient for any project.

Together these ingredients make up one possible recipe for a C-PAR dissertation. Participatory projects should be supported and encouraged for students who dream of doing this kind of research, because the “no” messages in the opening of this article seem to be common and discouraging. I want all students to know that C-PAR projects are possible with the mix of supports and partners outlined in my recipe. If this is how you feel, I want you to know that your dream is possible, and there are those of us out here who have made it to the other side and are happy to help support this research in Community Psychology with future students.


Evans, S. D., Duckett. P., Lawthom, R. & Kivell, N. (2017). Positioning the critical in community psychology. In M. A. Bond, I. Serrano-Garcia & C. B. Keys (Eds.). APA Handbook of community psychology, volume 1, Theoretical foundations, core concepts and emerging challenges (p. 107-128). Washington, DC: American Psychological Foundation.

Kivell, N, (2018). Reframing the role of size in transformation: A Participatory Theory Development study with community organizers and activists. Open Access Dissertations. 2167.

Sandler J. (2007). Community-based practices: Integrating dissemination theory with critical theories of power and justice. American Journal of Community Psychology, 40, 272-289. doi:10.1007/s10464-007-9131-2.

Torre, M. E. (2009). Participatory action research and critical race theory: Fueling spaces for Nos-otras to research, Urban Review, 41, 106-120.