Sophia Opferman – Power and Agency in the Research Process

At the Jailhouse Lawyers Initiative, we practice Participatory Action Research, which I had never heard of before joining the team. Participatory Action Research, or PAR, is defined as “a framework for conducting research and generating knowledge centered on the belief that those who are most impacted by research should be the ones taking the lead in framing the questions, the design, methods, and the modes of analysis of such research projects.” (Carleton College) For JLI, PAR means actively and continuously engaging with incarcerated and formerly incarcerated members as partners, if not leaders, rather than subjects in the research process. Practicing PAR is essential to upholding the values of legal empowerment, which prioritizes community knowledge and agency.

Graphic Describing PAR

My research over the summer has evolved into a consideration of legal empowerment as a tool for abolition with a focus on the role of power and agency. Considering this focus as a backdrop, I think it is interesting to understand the ways that typical research methods have necessitated the PAR approach, especially amongst populations such as JLI’s membership. With my own project, I initially hoped to interview our members to learn more about their experiences as jailhouse lawyers, the limitations and struggles within their work, and their experiences of hope and joy in the face of their struggles. Yet, in order to interview our members, I would have had to follow a specific procedure that, in many ways, runs counter to the core tenants of PAR and the community-building efforts of the JLI.

From the outset, the procedures frame the research process and one between researchers and their “subjects.” As such, researchers, following the standard procedures, are able to extract stories from their subjects without a deeper consideration of the “subjects” beyond the scope of the research. This is especially evident when the research process ends. The standard procedures do not dictate that the autonomy of the participants should be protected in the analysis or presentation of their information, thereby allowing researchers to construct analyses and conclusions without the involvement of their research “subjects.” Therefore, despite trying to protect “subjects,” this process perpetuates a power dynamic in which researchers are able to co-opt others’ stories and experiences, thereby framing research as a transactional process rather than part of a larger, equal relationship. 

PAR demands further accountability on the part of the “researcher” to be not only someone in pursuit of knowledge but someone who recognizes that knowledge production is a collaborative practice that should include those who hold knowledge in their lived experience. PAR assures that there are no “subjects,” only co-collaborators, which social geographer Deborah Martin describes as a process in which “the direction and benefits of the research are as much a product of the participants’ involvement as the researcher’s.” (Martin 2007). My experience this summer has taught me a lot about mindfulness in the research process and maintaining a critical attitude toward existing practices, especially as it concerns the agency of those who participate in creating knowledge.

A PAR-developed community resource created by the Bernstein Institute that highlights the power of PAR in action. View the resource here:

Deborah G. Martin & Joshua Inwood (2012) Subjectivity, Power, and the IRB,

The Professional Geographer, 64:1, 7-15