Using participatory action research to operationalize critical systems thinking in social-ecological systems

We present a research approach that seeks to develop and strengthen participatory action research (PAR) when applied in social-ecological systems (SES) by combining it with critical systems thinking (CST). This research approach responds to the urgent societal need to move beyond predefined project framing in development projects. While PAR acts as a basis for operationalizing participatory research processes, CST supports PAR by including explicit questions about system and problem boundaries. We first present this approach in the context of existing approaches and then go on to illustrate it by investigating a SES case study of a marine system on the Caribbean Saba Island as part of a project to protect sharks from extinction. The case study illustrates that strengthening PAR with the explicit framing questions used by CST combines the strengths of these two approaches. This combination allows participants: (1) to (re)frame the problem definition and scope as perceived by the different stakeholders, and (2) to find, co-create, and implement viable solutions with local stakeholders to improve a SES based on local needs and diverse stakeholders’ perspectives on potential solutions. 

Key words: Caribbean; critical systems thinking; fisheries; marine ecosystems; participatory action research; social-ecological systems

Back to search results