Myles Horton’s Definition of Participatory Research

Myles Horton is one of my biggest heroes. The founder of the Highlander Folk School, now called the Highlander Research and Education Center, Myles Horton believed in people’s power to change their lives and communities for the better. A true activist and constant learner, Horton put this belief into action when he created Highlander in rural Tennessee. I can’t do justice to Highlander’s work in this short post, so if you are unfamiliar with their work I urge you to spend some time on their webpage and read about both their history and current work. Highlander was instrumental in the Civil Rights Movement, farm workers’ movements, and organizing for miners in Appalachia.

I just finished reading Horton’s autobiography The Long Haul. I’ve been reading it on and off now for probably seven months. It’s so full of great stuff that it will probably take me the rest of my life to really digest it all. I have countless notes in the margins and the first few blank pages are covered in scribbled ruminations. It’s one of those kinds of books. So, as I say, I will probably be coming back tot his work over and over.

But for now I wanted to share Horton’s definition of “participatory research” found near the end of the book. We public folklorists, as a group, don’t tend actively embrace this concept. But I think our work would be better served if we did. Sure we might have to give up our “expert” title, but one could argue we never had it anyway. Or at least we didn’t have it to claim only for ourselves. After all, what good are our skills if we can’t pass on these skills to others? Instead of experts we would see ourselves as partners in research, possibly in a facilitator-type role, standing alongside and helping the communities of which we are also a part. In this way we would recognize we are all always learners, especially when it comes to cultural studies. This is not to say that some public folklorists are not already doing this kind of research in their varied forms of work. But as profession we don’t hold participatory research as the standard. Perhaps we should.

Here is what Horton had to say in 1998 when The Long Haul: An Autobiography was published:

“Participatory Research is defined by different people in different ways, but there are some universal characteristics. It is an in investigation and an analysis of a problem by a group of people whose lives are directly affected by that problem. Ideally, their investigation will lead to action. Participatory research differs from the more conventional kind done by experts, usually identified with universities, in that it doesn’t take decision making away from the people. Instead of becoming dependent on experts, the people become experts themselves.”