Different Research Approaches

Sunil Deepak, 01 July 2018

The basic idea of Emancipatory Research (ER) is that the oppressed and marginalised persons can be the researchers about their own lives. It is a revolutionary idea. I have seen some “research experts”, look incredulous and shocked at this idea.

To understand the ER approach, we need to know about the different approaches to the research and how ER differs from others.

This is the second post of a series of articles about emancipatory research. The first post in this series was an introduction to ER – Research for Promoting Empowerment.

Looking at different research approaches

One way of understanding research is to ask what is the relationship between the researchers and the researched? Researchers are those who do the research and ask questions. The researched are the subjects of the research, who answer those questions.

A disability survey in Mandya district of India

Seen in this way, the research approaches can be of 3 types – scientific, participatory and emancipatory. I will look at each of these terms in this post.

The Scientific research

The common approach to research, also known as “scientific approach” believes that the researchers should be neutral and objective. To ensure neutrality and objectivity, it is felt that researchers should be outsiders, persons who have no personal stake in the findings of the research.

At the same time, the researchers need some specific technical skills such as - how to prepare questionnaires, how to reduce bias, how to collect information and how to analyse data.

Therefore, scientific research is carried out by “experts” who have studied in a university and have specific skills. They write articles about their research findings in scientific journals. To read and understand those articles is not easy for ordinary persons.

A disability survey in Mandya district of India

This research approach has been responsible for a lot of new discoveries and progress of the human society over the past centuries. It continues to play a dominant role even today.

Participatory research

In this approach, used mainly for understanding social and community issues, the researchers accept that persons in the communities may have some valuable information that can improve the quality of their research.

Therefore, in this approach, the researchers involve or interact with some community members (research subjects) before finalising the research.

Some researchers also believe that to understand the real significance of the research findings, local communities must be involved in the discussions about the results of the research. Thus, at the end of the research, they go back to the research subjects to tell them about the results and to ask their opinions.

This is relatively new approach to research, carried out mostly in the past 40-50 years. It has provided a lot of useful information about lives and conditions of rural communities and other specific groups of persons.

Emancipatory research

In this approach, we start with the idea that persons from the oppressed and marginalised communities are the experts about their own lives. Therefore, they are the researchers. They decide the theme and key issues for their research. They collect the information, analyse the findings and discuss their significance.

Communities need to identify the persons who will carry out the research. Those persons require training about how to conduct the research. Throughout the research process, they need the support and guidance from the research experts. At the end of the research, they discuss the research findings and try to understand their significance with the help of experts.

The history of this research approach is very short. It has been carried out mainly in a few developed countries and the experiences with this approach in developing countries are extremely limited.

Summarizing the differences between the three approaches

To understand the differences between the three approaches, we can ask who holds the power in the decisions regarding the research - the researchers or the researched?

Scientific research is carried out by experts, who come to the communities, collect information, analyse it and write articles about it. Usually, they do not provide any feedback to the community where the research was carried out. Therefore, all the power lies with the researchers.

Participatory research is also carried out by experts, but they involve the research subjects in some aspects of the research. The balance of power is still in favour of the experts but local communities get to play some role.

In ER the communities retain the ownership of the research in all its phases, while the experts play a supporting role. Thus, the balance of power lies with the communities.


The above descriptions of different kinds of researches are superficial and simplified. There can be numerous variations in each kind of research approach. How an approach is implemented also depends on the backgrounds, sensibilities and life-experiences of persons involved in the research.

While the basic concepts of the different research approaches may seem clear, the reality of implementing a research is complex and messy. In the next few posts, we will look deeper in to the emancipatory research approach in the context of poor communities in developing countries.

A disability survey in Mandya district of India

To understand and appreciate emancipatory research, we need to understand the different ways in which we think about and understand the processes of oppression and marginalisation. This will be the subject of my next post. Since my personal experience is mainly with disabled persons, my next post will focus on how we understand disability and how that understanding influences our research.


Note: The images used with this post come from a scientific research project in which a disability survey was carried out in the Mandya district (Karnataka), India.

You can check the full list of articles on this theme.


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Dr Sunil Deepak
Schio (VI), Italy

Email: sunil.deepak(at)gmail.com