Research for Promoting Empowerment

Dr. Sunil Deepak, 27 June 2018

Can we use research for promoting empowerment and emancipation of marginalised persons?

Over the past 15 years, I have been involved in different initiatives of “Emancipatory Research” – initiatives that aim to promote empowerment of a marginalised group - persons with disabilities. In a series of posts, I would like to share my experiences from these initiatives.

My aim is to use simple language to explain how emancipatory research can be carried out in poor communities in developing countries, its usefulness and limitations. Though I am going to draw mainly from my experience with persons with disabilities, the basic principles of this approach can be applicable to different marginalised groups.

Emancipatory research project, Mandya, India, image by Sunil Deepak

This is the first post of this series on “Research for promoting empowerment”. I will start with two examples of research that led to empowerment of individuals and then follow it with some basic concepts and how these concepts have involved.

Example 1: Sports for persons with disabilities

A research about barriers faced by persons with disabilities brought together some disabled persons who had been active in sports in the past. They talked about the difficulties faced by disabled persons in taking part in a sport and how people seem to think that sports are not meant for them.

As a result of those discussions a small group of disabled persons decided to form an association and to organise sports events. They wrote to the state authorities and were able to get a government grant for a sport event. Around 200 persons with disabilities, mostly teenagers and young adults took part in the event. The event was so successful that they decided to organise this event annually. In this example, an emancipatory research provided the stimulus for starting an association and for promoting sports for persons with disabilities.

Example 2: Learning about homeless persons

A research about homeless persons decided to involve some homeless persons in going around and interviewing other homeless persons in their city. When they found other homeless persons, they asked them information about their families, their education levels, their original villages, their dreams and their challenges. They were surprised to find that there were so many of them. Persons involved in this research decided to  form an association with the aim of fighting for their basic human rights from the city administration.

The above two examples must have raised some questions in your mind - such as, what is empowerment and can it be promoted? In one of my future posts, I will share my ideas on this subject.

Paulo Freire’s ideas

The roots of emancipatory research can be traced to the works of a Brazilian educationist called Paulo Freire.

During the 1960s Freire had proposed some practical approaches for promoting greater understanding about the causes of marginalisation and systematic exploitation among the poor and excluded groups of persons.

Freire believed that if marginalised persons can understand the systematic causes of their marginalisation, it will lead to empowerment. Today his approaches are known as Freirian Praxis (Freirian practices) and have had a decisive influence on what is known as “participatory research approaches”.

Freire used different ways to stimulate discussions and promote understandings among the poor peasants. For example, in adult education classes for illiterate persons he showed pictures of people’s lives and asked questions about their understanding about the reasons of poverty and illiteracy. Thus, learning to read and write became an opportunity to promote wider discussions about the challenges faced by those persons in their daily lives.

Influence of Freire’s ideas on research

Freire’s ideas have influenced a large number of persons working with marginalised population groups. For example, it led to the  “participatory research approaches” in which marginalised persons play an active role in different aspects of the research – from defining the problems to be researched to participating in the analysis of the collected information.

The term “emancipatory research” was proposed by a British academic and disability activist Mike Oliver in 1992. He thought that research about disabled persons carried out by disabled researchers will have the potential to promote their emancipation. He felt that it was not possible to research oppression in an objective or scientific way, it had to be subjective, that is research by the persons about their own lives. He expressed his idea of emancipatory research in the following words:

The issue then for the emancipatory research is not how to empower people but, once people have decided to empower themselves, precisely what research can then do to facilitate this process. This does then mean that the social relations of research production do have to be fundamentally changed; researchers have to learn how to put their knowledge and skills at the disposal of their research subjects, for them to use in whatever ways they choose.

Emancipatory disability research (EDR)

Over the past 25 years, the emancipatory research approach has been used to understand the issues related to disability, especially in the developed countries. Experiences with this approach in the poor communities in developing countries are more limited.

Emancipatory research project, Mandya, India, image by Sunil Deepak

I think that basic idea of emancipatory research can be applied to all the different groups of oppressed persons - from persons with alternate sexualities to ethnic minorities. My experience in this area is linked specifically to persons with disabilities specially in developing countries. I will be sharing my reflections about these experiences of Emancipatory Disability Research on this blog over the next few months.


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The pictures used with this post are from an EDR project in Mandya district of India.

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Dr Sunil Deepak
Schio (VI), Italy

Email: sunil.deepak(at)