Is participatory research a scientific practice?

Is participatory research a scientific practice?

Journal of Rural Studies 27 (2011) 414e418 Contents lists available at SciVerse ScienceDirect Journal of Rural Studies journal homepage: www.elsevie...

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Journal of Rural Studies 27 (2011) 414e418

Contents lists available at SciVerse ScienceDirect

Journal of Rural Studies journal homepage:


Is participatory research a scientific practice? Marianne Cerf INRA, UR 1326 SenS, France

The contributions included in this special section report on research strategies relevant to both the study of sustainability and the pursuit of significant and valuable outcomes for non-academic stakeholders in projects led by rural sociologists and geographers. The notion of sustainability as such is not really discussed in the contributions; each of them takes it for granted that the study they report on deals with issues of sustainability. Nor is the way in which the outcomes were actually used by the non-academic stakeholders clarified. Indeed, the core of the contributions is more about the specific ways in which social researchers enact novel realities, or the interactions between researchers and stakeholders in diverse settings. The contributions here address the issues of monitoring the performative effects of social science research, and of the researcher’s commitment with regard to those who will benefit or at least be affected by that research. One can see that the different contributions do not necessarily develop a strong argument about the involvement of the researchers in some kind of participatory or action research process: most of the researchers claim to develop a research process which, to some extent, fits the key principles which are now recognized as underpinning participatory research and action research. There is currently quite an abundant literature about participation and action research. In their handbook, Peter Reason and Hilary Bradbury (2001) give a fairly short, albeit complex, definition of action research: “a participatory, democratic process concerned with developing practical knowledge [my emphasis] in the pursuit of worthwhile human purposes. It seeks to bring together action and reflection, theory and practice, in participation with others, in the pursuit of practical solutions to issues of pressing concerns for people, and more generally the flourishing of individual persons and their communities”. Such a definition can be discussed from many different angles. For example, why should we stick to individuals and their communities: Do we consider that this is the right unit of analysis in such research? How can we overcome the fuzziness of the idea of the “pursuit of worthwhile human purposes” by addressing the way in which a debate on values within the research process should be undertaken? In this paper, my approach is to discuss this definition by exploring the extent to which we can claim that participatory, collaborative, iterative, action research e whatever the name we choose for our practice e can be described as a scientific practice. I first introduce various dimensions of the research process discussed

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in the articles in this special section and which, in my opinion, partially constitute it as a scientific practice consistent with Isabelle Stengers’s proposition. I then discuss the issue of “developing practical knowledge” and suggest the need for further debates among action researchers in order to clarify how this is intertwined with the development of scientific knowledge. I suggest that we should differentiate better between various conceptualization processes and that we need to explain how they are developed in the research strategy. My conclusion highlights the key questions that we should address in the future in order to define our scientific practice more adequately. If, as Bruno Latour stated in 1997, “any research is action”.what is then so specific in the relation between action and research in the kind of scientific practice that we develop?

1. The “right devices” of the participatory research practitioner Olivier Thiery and I (2009), inspired by the work of Stengers (1996, 1997), argue that the researcher must recognize the artificial and constructed link between his/her device and the ‘fact’ [that the device helps to produce]; a link that is always relative and that cannot be rendered invisible. Recognition of this link acknowledges the possibility for the researcher that his/her practice is singularly scientific. Thus, the researcher devotes him/herself to the culture of the “right artefact”. Stengers (1996, 1997) points out that, for what she calls “the sciences of contemporaneousness”, the “right artefacts” are those that are capable of activating the recalcitrance of the living beings questioned e with their agreement, of course, and without torturing them or subjecting them to the scientific device. This recalcitrance is what is demanded of these living beings and it affords them the possibility of challenging and threatening researchers’ questions and hypotheses. Recalcitrance cannot be summed up as these living beings’ resistance to what the researcher proposes to them; it is also their engagement in redefining the questions to ask. In this respect, participation is de facto a demand attached to those sciences that study humans or even all sentient beings. Hence, characterizing a participatory research practice means more adequately defining the device opted for, to “bring out the facts,” and, related to that, the choice of the individuals or groups under investigation. In the studies presented in this special section, the capacity that devices have to activate recalcitrance is sometimes highlighted, but so is the researcher’s capacity to recognize this recalcitrance and to

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learn something new from it. This is clearly stated in the articles of Campbell and Rosin, and Stassart et al., for example. Yet it is not peculiar to social scientists involved in participatory of action research. It is a condition, says Stengers (1996, 1997), for the occurrence of an event that could enable one to say that there is production of a scientific fact for the social sciences. Where then does the particularity of a research-action lie, when it concerns a device? Perhaps in specifying the “right artefacts” that it consists in building? Without claiming to be exhaustive, I would like to make a point that I see as crucial in the research-action process: The device is based on the development of an ‘artefact’1, owing to which and around which changes will occur. The artefact can be materialized, as in the case of the film produced by the pluriactive farmers and the researchers in the article of Stassart et al., or can be less materialized, such as the narratives constructed in spaces dedicated to this purpose, as described in the article of Petit et al. It can be a procedure of working in common, as presented by Charles and by Cuéllar and Calle. It seems that, in all cases, an artefact is designed to produce an effect over and above the inter-subjectivity that it contributes to establishing. It is deliberately designed to product a shift, a change that must help the partners to address the problem which triggered the work undertaken with the researchers. In his work, Engeström (1987, 1999), based on the distinctions of Wartofsky (1979), argues for the introduction of tertiary artefacts. Wartofsky (1979) defined primary artefacts as tools and practices directly used in human labour and other activities. Secondary artefacts are models or representations of types of activity involved in the primary ones used in preserving and transmitting the acquired skills, modes of action or practices of production. Tertiary artefacts no longer have a direct representational function; they represent visions, anticipated changes and possibilities that may be used to change the world. This point would certainly warrant debate comparing the type of artefact with the change that it allowed for, and that would therefore need to be resituated in relation to an acceptable change and/or one desired by those concerned. Furthermore e and this is a key element in the approach e the artefact is produced jointly between the researcher and his/her partners in the research-action process. It evolves along with the interactions, and is adjusted to the way in which the change itself evolves and the way in which the different actors adopt it and make it exist for themselves or for other publics whom they also define as they go alongdsee the articles by Cuéllar and Calle and Stassart et al., in particular. Let us consider these two characteristics: constructed with the partners, and evolving along with the interactions. To construct the artefact with his/her partners, the researcher must recognize that the dynamics of actual change stem from a constantly renewed tension between knowledge with a general scope, his/her own, and knowledge linked to local situations, that of his/her partners. The various articles in this special section clearly emphasize this, along with the intertwining relationships between heterogeneous forms of knowledge and the forms of interaction and dialogue found in this type of research. Yet it is a matter not only of knowledge but also of power. All the articles posit that the partners are legitimate actors, capable of contributing to the decisions that bind them. There is thus a two-fold movement that makes the construction of the artefact possible: the singularization of a researcher’s general knowledge, if this knowledge has to contribute to a dynamic of transformation; and the construction of the legitimacy of the partners’ knowledge, resulting in recognition of the

1 With O. Thiery (Thiery and Cerf, 2009), we used the term ‘disruption’. I use the word artefact to emphasize the fact of it being constructed by an individual or, here, by a collective, and the intentional character of the disruption introduced.


mode of functioning of this knowledge and attention paid to the possible heterogeneity of knowledge among the partners in the research process. Participatory research recognizes the partners as practitioners in their own right, engaged in a relationship to the world and to knowledge of that world. Yet what happens within the research-action process e as Petit et al. put it e has to come to terms with what happens in the other ‘arenas’ to which the participants (researchers and partners) refer, in which they are stakeholders. This is one of the difficulties: how does the legitimacy built during the action research process become a resource for acting and being recognized as a legitimate actor outside of the process? Scant attention has been paid to this point in the articles in this special section. The artefact makes it possible to create a dynamic between practitioners who wish to learn something new, even if that learning takes place in their own spheres of reference. It evolves during the interactions, through its mobilization and activation in the dialogue between the researcher and his/her partners and/or in the partners’ own action. Experienced in this way, the artefact becomes a resource for learning about that which counts for each of the partners, which should not be lost and must therefore be preserved and taken care of. But it also serves to identify that which can or could pose other problems in the future, and require further changes. The experience of this artefact should therefore allow one to foresee its effects or possible futures. Note, however, that this experience is a moment of uncertainty as to the interest that these effects will have for both the partners and the researcher. It has to be organized to manage a tension inherent in the artefact: attention has to be paid to the unexpected parasitic and potentially destructive effects that the artefact may generate, and to the way in which the artefact is potentially moved and transformed. How this tension is managed is moreover a key point in the article of Stassart et al., and is also mentioned in those of Charles and of Campbell and Rosin. 2. The engagement of the practitioner of participatory research: between scientific interest and facilitation? The transformative dimension e which we have just qualified by suggesting the importance of an artefact in the process built and experienced jointly by the researcher and his/her partners e is at the heart of any research-action or participatory research. Authors like Kurt Lewin (1951) pointed that out long ago already. I won’t revert to this point, which is acknowledged in the community of research-action practitioners. Instead, I would like to consider reflection on the position of the researcher, who is often described as a facilitator in the process of change. But if we agree that the researcher participates in the production of the artefact and in experiencing it, can we accept the idea of him/her being a facilitator, the guarantor of process only? Do not we have to explore the forms of his/her engagement, not only with others in the process but, globally, with the situation, the case? I see this as a different dimension which enables us to define this participatory research process in relation to other scientific practices. From my point of view, this question of engagement in the situation of change is often analysed only from the perspective of risk-taking with regard to the scientific community. I think that it is useful to point out that engagement in the situation creates a radical uncertainty on the process of knowledge-production itself. Hence, there is a switch, which potentially eliminates any guarantee that this practice can actually be called scientific. In this respect I would like to mention some of the propositions made in the paper that I co-authored with Thiery (2009). For the practitioner of participatory research, risk-taking stems from the fact that the ‘partners’ are not initially ‘summoned’ by researchers. It is not researchers who steer the relationship with the actors and the


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situation e unlike the case of a scientific practice of social science. This applies even when the researcher, as in most of the articles in this special section, goes out looking for a ‘field’. It is of course possible that, through his/her concrete actions, the researcher actively triggers the expression of a problem. We see this transpiring in the articles of Charles and Stassart et al. However, I would say that the origin of this problem lies not in scientific theories but in the field of the partners’ concerns. Thus, the researcher is never sure that when the partners express a problem, it coincides with what he/she can consider likely to “teach him/her something new” in his/her field. Moreover, Charles’ paper clearly shows the difficulty that sometimes exists in reverting to the academic world. And while Lyon et al. make propositions on knowledge to be produced by scientists, they do so from a different standpoint to the one they had in their interaction with ‘graziers’. They adopt a point of view that they build during these interactions but that was not at the origin of their way of interacting with the farmers. It is the partners’ objective that sets the tone, without any prior construction of hypotheses in an academic discipline. Nothing guarantees a priori that it will coincide with the aim of learning something new about the problems set by scientists. From this point of view, the risks and constraints are not identical to those prevailing in other scientific practices. It is a matter of engaging in a relationship which does not guarantee: - that, in fine, something new will be learned on established and pre-constructed scientific questions, - or that the devices and questions materializing the relationship will even be oriented by the possibility of such learning. In other words, participatory research is a ‘pragmatic’ practice e in the sense of concerning the partners’ problems e whereas its ‘epistemic’ character is not given a priori and defies the definition of what will be constructed in the research-action process. How can this risk be reduced? It seems that, in the process of change engaged with partners, it requires constant effort to ensure that the researcher’s interest is recognized in a set of heterogeneous other interests. Recognizing an interest does not mean imposing a point of view and a method, or having any particular power to achieve that recognition. The forms of inter-subjectivity that are established have to create this possibility without it prevailing and structuring the entire process. The researcher’s evaluation of this possibility of his/her scientific interest being recognized is also what prompts him/her to engage in the process. The researcher must therefore trust in the process in which he/she agrees to engage, and in the capacity of this process to produce what is needed to nurture, challenge, affect and change his/her discipline as the relationship develops. Note that, in a sense symmetrically, there is also some degree of risk-taking by the partners. If the researcher’s interests are to be recognized, then the partners have to agree to some indeterminacy of the solution and even of the formulation of the problem that they submit to him/her. The partners do not put in an order; they express a ‘concern’, a ‘preoccupation’, a problem that is not only unsolved but also not entirely defined. For the engagement in the research action to have a chance of producing scientific knowledge, the partners also have to be able to say: “I need your help in seeing through my changes, but I don’t know what exactly that help consists of, nor how I am going to be able to use it, nor even the concrete nature of my objectives”. The partners are practitioners who are worried and who seek assistance with changes underway. That may be why the role of a facilitator is often emphasized. However, this process of facilitation takes place in dynamics where the researcher’s and practitioners’ interests may diverge. It seems that these divergences,

rather than being reduced, should be explored to enable the process to produce not only knowledge of use to the partners, but also knowledge that researchers are able to position in their own professional world. 3. Ethics and reflexivity: taking care of the effects and contributing to constructing a public? The last dimension that is often mentioned in participatory research concerns the researcher’s ethics. In her article, Charles emphasizes this point in relation not only to the practice of research-action, but also by outlining the obstacle that an institutionalized and formatted ethics can represent within the university for those who adopt a research-action approach. Yet, would it not be relevant here to distinguish between that which lies in the field of obligations and demands, as defined by Stengers (thus referring to the above argument on devices), on the one hand, and that which concerns the construction of a relationship between heterogeneous practitioners engaged in a process of change, on the other? Thiery and I have proposed the notion of ‘care’ to address the question of the researcher’s responsibility regarding the effects of an intervention with other practitioners that was designed to produce change. This concern of the researcher for what happens to the change that he/she helps to produce obviously does not consist in showing that there really has been change. The aim is not to attest to a change in order to justify it and to show our “dear colleagues” or funders who question the real usefulness of research-action approaches that “we did it”. Likewise, we should not see this care ethic as something oriented only towards people; it is an attention to the process underway and the effects that it produces. That is why it is largely based on reflexivity and the way of achieving it. Any research-action approach emphasizes this reflexivity which is one of the steps mentioned by Kurt Lewin (1951) in his “iterative spiral”. But the idea here is to question the way of equipping it with tools so that researchers and their partners can effectively stand back to assess what has changed positively or negatively for the partners, identify the extent to which the change should be continued or reoriented, see whether they are autonomous or not in the pursuit of a dynamic and, finally, identify what public has been constituted in the process (both for the researcher and for the “laypersons” engaged in the research-action) and to which extent recognition for that which has been learned by such a public can be achieved. The construction of the film narrative in the work of Stassart et al. is a way of illustrating how the artefact that serves the change becomes a medium for reflexivity, if a specific assessment be made of the evolution of this artefact, and if a debate is launched on the differences that it reveals. It is also in this reflexivity that we find the tensions that may exist between that which is at play in the process of action research and that which is likely to be said or heard by others, outside of this process. Although within the action research process, the legitimacy of the researcher’s partners, of the knowledge produced and of the changes that take place is built. But how could the process also contribute to build such legitimacy in the researcher’s communities of reference as well as in those of his/ her partners? How can the public that will be able to participate in this process of legitimization, over and above the work engaged in the research-action, be constituted? At what point does this happen in the process and how is it integrated? 4. What knowledge is produced in a research-action process? As noted above, in my opinion nothing guarantees that participatory research can really lead to scientific knowledge; in other words, nothing enables a researcher to integrate into his/her discipline what he/she learns through the participatory research.

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Moreover, as Reason and Bradbury (2001) point out, as action researchers we mainly claim to produce practical knowledge. But what do we really mean by practical knowledge? If the main idea is to enable “the pursuit of practical solutions to issues of pressing concerns for people”, my understanding of this idea is that this does not only mean producing local solutions to hic and nunc problems. It also means being involved in a process of concept formation in relation to an activity. It is not only a matter of producing procedural knowledge (rules of action) but also of trying to identify what can orient the action for similar problems in various situations. I identify two research traditions which have developed a theoretical approach to deal with this issue since the end of the 1980s. While both traditions address developmental issues in workplaces, one is mainly grounded on Piaget’s psychology, whereas the other is based on Vygotski’s or Davydov’s work. While the first one mainly looks at the activity and at concept formation at individual level, even if it is embodied in social work settings (see for example Pastré, 1997; Mayen, 2001), the second one focuses on the system of activity (Engeström, 1987) and captures concept formation as historically and culturally embodied (see for example Virkkunen, 2007; Pihlaja, 2005). Such differences could indeed be fruitfully debated in order to clarify what we mean by practical knowledge and by addressing learning issues in relation to concept formation in action research or participatory research. Rather than reviewing each of these two traditions and their respective approach to concept formation, I will focus on Pastré’s definition of a pragmatic concept. Pastré (2009a) argues that a pragmatic concept is characterized by three properties: (i) its origin means that it is a concept embedded in practice rather than being taught; in this respect it resembles the “everyday concepts” of Vygotski, like brother and sister; (ii) its function means that a pragmatic concept serves to orientate and guide action, by founding a diagnosis of the situation [.]; and (iii) a pragmatic concept also has a social dimension: it has a name, it is spoken about in the workshop; it is denoted, without being defined, and is passed on from seniors to juniors, a transmission consisting of situated gestures and words, even if, like any concept, the novice has to appropriate it in his/her own way in order to be able to use it as a diagnostic tool. With a pragmatic concept, origin and function are inextricably interlinked; constructed in practice, it serves to guide practice.2 Whether the pragmatic concept is really constructed in the action or results from a process of selection of scientific or technical knowledge in order to guide action, the important thing is its function; it organizes the action. Pastré (1997) seeks to understand how individuals identify, acquire and transform invariants such as these pragmatic concepts that will enable them to steer their action in situations. We clearly see a difference emerging, compared to a theoretical concept. This difference is expressed in the function but also in the elaboration of the concept. Pastré (2009b) argues the necessity to distinguish between a process of abstraction (underlying the construction of a pragmatic concept) and a process of generalization (underlying the construction of theoretical classes or concepts). Hence, if we present the work of research-action as the production of practical knowledge, how can we position ourselves in the scientific community? What status can we give to this practical knowledge, when it was produced according to modalities corresponding to another form of epistemology, as Cook and Brown (1999) note?


My translation.


There are two questions that are often overlooked in many definitions of action research. The first concerns the conditions needed for pragmatic concepts and, more broadly-speaking, practical knowledge to acquire a status in the field of scientific production. This is one of the main issues considered in the paper of Lyon et al., and is also addressed by Petit et al. when they look at what is constructed with researchers, based on their narratives. The second question seems to be largely absent from the papers in this special section. When we set our work in a process of research-action, is it always the practical knowledge produced that we exhibit in a scientific publication? Is it not above all what we have learned from the ‘case’, that is, the change in which we have participated? This is what emerges from some of the papers. Is understanding the emergence of a collective (Stassart et al.), identifying the collective interest, or pointing out the limits of ways of theorizing the development of New Zealand organic agriculture (Campbell and Rosin) not steering a process of generalization based on a case, and endeavouring to fit that which has been learned from this case into existing theoretical frames? The process of generalization from a case, which Peirce formalizes by distinguishing logics of abduction, deduction and induction, is discussed by David (2005), who specifies the relations between generalization and production of actionable knowledge3. Would we not all stand to gain by defining more adequately the processes through which we embed this case-based generalization in the research-action work itself? Should we not discuss the processes through which we implement this generalization approach in various ways (Davydov, 1990)? Being able to describe how, in a research-action dynamic, we articulate what I have called conceptualization in action, on the one hand, and theoretical conceptualization, on the other, seems to be a point that needs to be worked on to better define how participatory research is a singular scientific practice. Other points can also be made, and that is what I would like to do now, to consider the practice of participatory research as a scientific practice. 5. Conclusion In this paper my stance on action research is deliberately oriented by a specific question: is action research a scientific practice? I suggest that four main points need to be further investigated by action researchers in order to qualify the singularity of such a scientific practice more adequately. My first point is about the way in which we analyse our engagement and its consequences. While Reason and Bradbury (2001) say that action research “starts from an orientation of change with others”, I propose to consider that it starts from people expressing a need for change and being willing to clarify with researchers why and how to achieve that change. My second point is about the settings and processes that are designed to achieve this. I suggest the need to pay more attention to the key role of the codesign and co-evolution of tertiary artefacts, the effects and transformations of which must be more accurately described and understood. Indeed, I don’t really support the point of view that researchers and non-academics are co-researchers. While they are both involved in the transformation process, they both also stick to their respective social and professional worlds. It is the researcher’s responsibility to promote his or her own scientific interest during the transformation

3 David (2005) talks of actionable knowledge, while other authors talk of practical knowledge, of pragmatic concepts, and so on. This proliferation of terminology would clearly warrant debate to allow for a better definition of what researchers wish to produce with non-academic actors.


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process and to find out how the process will enable him or her to learn something new regarding his or her own discipline. Moreover, while both researchers and non-academic participants are involved in a research process (problem finding and solution designing, acting and reflecting), the non-academic participants will be the ones who will really take in charge the implementation of the solutions and be directly concerned by the effects that it will have on their everyday lives. Such a distinction seems to be required if we still wish to address our results to the academic world. But this distinction does not mean that we do not give room and legitimacy to so-called “lay people” and their own knowledge and practices. I agree with Mary Brydon-Miller (2001) that “a respect for people and for the knowledge and experience they bring to the research process, a belief in the ability of democratic processes to achieve positive social change, and a commitment to action [.] are the basic values which underlie our common practice as action researchers”. Butdand this is my third pointdmy proposal is also to consider that this furthermore implies a care ethic, which means a constant awareness and a reflective stance oriented towards the future: How do we assess the effects of the change underway for those involved in the process? How will such change modify their relations with others who might also be concerned by its effects? How should this be made public and to whom? Finally, a fourth point concerns our way of defining actionresearch knowledge. Reason and Bradbury (2001) say that it is “what we’ve learned working in a context of action and that is the result of the transformation of our experience in conversation with both self and others that allows us consistently to create useful actions that leave us and our co-inquirers stronger”. But what does “stronger” mean here? I propose that we look closer at how the learning process can be addressed in terms of concept formation, and how it articulates different forms of conceptualization, considering that practical knowledge and scientific knowledge do not reflect the same way of conceptualizing the relationship between humans and their environment.

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