Introducing “Democratising Participatory Research: Pathways to Social Justice from the South”

By Carmen Martinez-Vargas

    Introducing “Democratising Participatory Research: Pathways to Social Justice from the South”

    About the Author

    Carmen Martinez-Vargas
    Post-doctoral Research Fellow
    Bloemfontein, ZA
    2 Articles Published
    Carmen Martinez-Vargas

    Carmen Martinez-Vargas holds a PhD in Development Studies from the University of the Free State (South Africa) where she also taught postgraduate courses in Participatory Research Methodologies, Southern Theories and Development Studies. Her doctoral thesis focused on conceptualising and operationalising a Capabilities based participatory research project with university students in South Africa. She has published her academic work on epistemic capabilities, participatory research and colonial conversion factors in higher education in refereed journals, and as book chapters in various edited volume books. Her research interests broadly focus on Decolonial and Southern thinking using the Capabilities Approach in Higher Education.

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    Editorial Note: This essay continues the recently initiated SPF Knowledge Base additions of introductions/commentaries/reflections on resources available to support practitioner, participatory, and action research initiatives. In the present case, Carmen Martinez-Vargas of the University of Free State in South Africa, shares her work on democratizing participatory research. Her book presents a framework for what she calls Democratic Capabilities Research (DCR), which acknowledges the plurality of knowledges in the world and promotes a “socially just higher education from a Global South perspective.” Her hope is that the book helps clarify “what might be called an imperfect but meaningful democratization of knowledge.” Social Publishers Foundation is pleased to present Dr. Martinez-Vargas’s essay, with links to individual chapters of her book and to the free edition of the entire book. Of note, the book is published by Open Book Publishers (OBP), which is an open access academic book publisher based in the United Kingdom.  As their website explains, all OBP titles are open access, and are available in free editions in PDFHTML and XML formats on the publisher’s website.

    Introduction to the book

    In this book Carmen Martinez-Vargas explores how academic participatory research and the way it is carried out can contribute to more, or less, social justice. Adopting theoretical and empirical approaches, and addressing multiple complex, intersectional issues, this book offers inspiration for scholars and practitioners to open up alternative pathways to social justice, viewed through a Global South lens.

    Martinez-Vargas examines the colonial roots of research and emphasises the importance of problematising current practices and limitations in order to establish more just and democratic participatory research practices. Although practitioners have been challenging the Western roots of research and participatory research for decades, their goals can be compromised by pluralities and contradictions in the field. This book aims not to replicate past participatory research approaches, but to offer an innovative theoretical foundation—the Capabilities Approach—and an innovative participatory practice called ‘Democratic Capabilities Research’.

    Democratising Participatory Research is not only timely and relevant in South Africa, but also in the Global North owing to the current crisis of values jeopardising the peaceful existence of diverse societies. The book gives essential recommendations for capabilities and human development scholars to reframe their perspectives and uses of the Capabilities Approach, as well as for participatory practitioners to critically reflect on their practices and their often limited conceptualisation of participation.

    Academic research is a central component and function of higher education institutions and how we go about it can contribute to more, or less, social justice. De Sousa Santos (2015) claims that it is not possible to achieve social justice without taking into account the unjust and limited process of knowledge production hegemonised by the Global North. Equally, scholars such as Smith call research ‘one of the dirtiest words’ due to its colonial roots and its implication of ‘the worst excesses of colonialism’ (1999, p.1). For decades, practitioners around the world have challenged Eurocentric views of knowledge production, building a strong and heterogeneous family commonly referred to as Action Research. The aim of this family of disciplines is to transform and decolonise research practices in higher education and beyond as a means of advancing social justice. Nevertheless, these goals are at times compromised by the plurality of practices and contradictions within this field. For these and other reasons, the field is in need of alternative theoretical grounds that can be used to reinforce and reorient practices towards addressing challenges related to problems associated with Western or imperial domination in the higher education sector. 

    Democratising participatory research: Pathways to social justice from the South aims to contribute to this body of knowledge from a fresh and alternative perspective in two ways: first, by introducing an innovative theoretical foundation—the capabilities approach—to conceptualise a type of participatory research called Democratic Capabilities Research; and second, by exploring and giving guidance to higher education research practitioners on how alternative practices of knowledge production can be implemented under this DCR frame, drawing on a case study in South Africa.


    1. Introduction    Download
    2. Coloniality and Decoloniality in the Global South Higher-Education Context   Download
    3. Traditions and Limitations of Participatory Research   Download
    4. Democratising Participatory Research: A Capabilitarian Conceptualisation   Download
    5. Co-Researchers’ Valued Capabilities   Download
    6. The South African DCR Project: Undergraduates as Researchers   Download
    7. Broadening Our Participatory Evaluations: A Southern Capabilitarian Perspective    Download
    8. DCR for Socially Just Higher Education: Perspectives from the South    Download
    9. Redrawing Our Epistemic Horizon    Download

    Link to download the book (free PDF) or order copies: 

    Current research project by Carmen Martinez-Vargas

    TESF Project: Universities as Sustainable Communities (2021-2022).

    National Research Foundation (NRF) Project: Exploring the impact of Indigenous Knowledge System (IKS) University programmes as decolonising strategies in the Global South (2022-2023). NRF, Pretoria, South Africa.

    Latest publications by Carmen Martinez-Vargas

    Walker, M., Boni, A., Martinez-Vargas, C. & Cin, M. (2022). An Epistemological Break: Redefining Participatory Research in Capabilitarian Scholarship. Special Issue, volume 23. Journal of Human Development and Capabilities.

    Martinez-Vargas, C. (2022). Democratising Participatory Research: Pathways to Social Justice from the South. Cambridge, UK: Open Book Publishers. 

    Martinez-Vargas, C., Walker, M., Cin, M., & Boni, A. (2021). A Capabilitarian Participatory Paradigm: Methods, Methodologies and Cosmological Issues and PossibilitiesJournal of Human Development and Capabilities.

    Mathebula, M. and Martinez-Vargas, C. (2021) Broadening the normative and evaluative space for assessing the impact of photo diary research in higher education: A capabilities approach in Cao, X. & Henderson, E. (Edit.) Exploring Diary Method in Higher Education Research: Opportunities, Choices and Challenges. London: Routledge SRHE Series.

    To cite this work, please use the following reference:

    Martinez-Vargas, C. (2022, February 14). Introducting “Democratising Participatory Research: Pathways to Social Justice from the South”.  Social Publishers Foundation.

    Copyrighted by Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

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