Blurred Lines: The Complexities of Relational Ethics in Program Evaluation and Participatory Action Research

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By: Clare Culver

“I’m interested in pursuing a career in program evaluation and community-engaged participatory action research,” I told the Neuropsychologist. I was in the middle of an interview for a position as a research intern, ecstatic to have the opportunity to finally start working on research. I was thrilled to talk about what I wanted to do with my career: the problem was, I had no idea what it meant, nor what it entailed. I figured it sounded good enough to get me a job, and I knew I was interested in what the idea of community-engaged research and program evaluation had to offer. In reality, I lacked an understanding of the complex ethical situations that go hand-in-hand with such work. Having been exposed to ethics classes in my undergraduate coursework, I imagined I had a grasp on ethics in research. I was CITI certified- how much more complicated could it get?  Securing the aforementioned position as a research intern at a psychological research institute was my first experience of witnessing how ethical considerations in research, specifically in program evaluation and participatory action research, functioned in the real world. My work on such projects introduced to me the necessity of understanding and considering relational, care-based, and feminist ethical approaches in program evaluation and participatory action research.

Program evaluation and participatory action research may be as unfamiliar to some researchers as they are to the general public. I knew very little of the two methods when I claimed them as my ideal career focus. My naive eagerness to work in such fields proved beneficial as I was given the opportunity to work on a research project that combined aspects of both types of work. The project on which I work was tasked with evaluating the effectiveness and impact of a non-profit’s mindfulness program on its participants, who were members of an underserved, underrepresented, and vulnerable population. This is common in program evaluation work, which is defined loosely as an evaluation of a social program or intervention to better understand its function, impact, and effectiveness (Stake & Mabry, 1998). The aim of program evaluation is often to gain a better understanding of a social program in order to deem it valuable or make improvements on such interventions. It is often associated with funding purposes, as program evaluation can provide evidence of effectiveness for a program, which in turn can garner more funding or monetary support. In my work, program evaluation included building surveys and interview questions to capture the experience of program participants as they were enrolled in the multiple-week mindfulness training. Our program evaluation work also included conducting a type of independent “creative” project that gave participants a loose set of guidelines in which they could express their experience in the program through story, song, poem, or another medium. This aspect of the work speaks to its qualitative nature: in addition to collection of quantitative data on participant experience, we offered a space to express experiences that could not be communicated through numbers alone.  Our project worked in collaboration with the directors, participants, and teachers of the mindfulness program, creating a quasi-participatory action research approach. While program evaluation is not often thought of as related to participatory action research (PAR), my experience on this project is unique in that it combines aspects of PAR.

Participatory action research is an area of research that is dedicated firstly to improving conditions where inequalities exist and involves deeply the subject of the research itself by taking into account the expertise, voices, and experience of those being researched. Engagement of the “subjects” is to the extent where the line between researcher and researched becomes blurred: “subjects” contribute directly to every step of research, from issues being researched, to data collection, to analysis, to feedback and discussion of findings (Baum et al., 2006). PAR works in collaboration with those being researched to ensure accurate and full comprehension of that which is being researched. My experience on this project demonstrated firsthand the extent of involvement of the researched: brainstorm sessions occur often to ensure we are capturing the scope of the projects and its impact; feedback and discussions occur with program directors, staff, teachers, and students; the structure of the research is constantly evolving. As one may imagine, this project brought with it a necessity to be constantly aware of the relationships formed through evaluation and research.

In my time working on this project, the ethical consideration that become most relevant to me was a question of relational ethics and the surrounding guiding principles of relational and feminist ethical approaches: How do we ensure the protection of participants, while also capturing the full impact of the program? How do we handle the relationship between researcher and researched? How do we establish our role as researchers without damaging delicate trust between participants and staff? How do we accurately take into account the voices and experiences of the participants, teachers, and staff who pioneered the program itself? These questions and their solutions were both informed and guided by feminist and relational approaches outlined by Drs. Carol Gilligan and Celia Fisher. Gilligan and Fisher emphasize an ethics of a justice-care approach to research, which demonstrates extreme relevance in participatory action research and program evaluation.

Our role as researchers in this work is complicated. We must maintain the validity of the research while also acknowledging our close involvement in the program and its development. As I learned about ethical approaches through my coursework, feminist and care-based approaches came to the forefront of my mind as I worked. These approaches focus on acknowledging the relationships formed between researcher and subject and demand that power imbalances be examined. While normative or traditional ethical approaches rely on Kantian ideas that emphasize the autonomy and rights of each individual, they often fail to consider the possible benefits of developing and being aware of the emotionally relevant relationships formed through the research (Israel, 2014). In my work, this presented as an awareness that I was coming in as an outside researcher to a group that was vulnerable. It took effort to ensure our work was not invasive. My coursework helped me to make these acknowledgements: Gillian endorses an ethics of care approach and advocates for the necessity of researchers to evaluate and understand how the power dynamics of their relationships with subjects may affect their involvement (Israel, 2014). Her approach focuses on relationships between participants and researchers, emphasizing context as a consideration in ethical decision making (Fisher, 2000). I saw myself applying these theoretical frameworks in real time and came to realize their relevance. 

Fisher contends the best way to ensure the validity of research includes an ongoing dialogue between scientist and participant. This occurrence of “colearning” recognizes the moral agency of both researcher and participant (Fisher, 2000). The experience of colearning is especially present in my experience, as we maintain a constant dialogue with participants and learn how to best measure and assess the intervention through their feedback and guidance. As researchers, we learn as much from our “subjects” through conversation and relationships as they learn from the research results.  We sought to “harmonize justice and care,” working to evaluate the intervention in the hope it could be improved and legitimized from a research perspective (Fisher, 2000). In numerous instances, the research methods we proposed as researchers simply did not work with the participants or scope of the project- but this mismatch was only able to be identified through collaboration and dialogue. Such discussions allowed us to better fit the needs of participants as we researched, ensuring their protection and allowing them to communicate their experiences accurately. The collaboration was effortful and continuous; it is a process that is still ongoing as we continue to engage in this research. As Fisher advocates, recognizing both scientists and participants as moral agents was a necessary step. It was critical that as researchers, we did not blindly apply a one-size-fits-all approach. We considered the vulnerabilities of our participants, working closely with staff and directors to maintain relationships of trust that demonstrate our care of subjects and their experiences.

While I may not have known what PAR and program evaluation involved when I stated my desire to do such work, my experiences have offered me a glimpse of what it means to be an ethically conscious researcher. I have been lucky enough to work on research that has handled ethical concerns with immense care and consideration, serving as a fantastic example of care-based and relational ethics in practice. Following a justice-care approach in my own work has proved most beneficial as it has opened a continuous dialogue without which our research would be one sided and lacking. My experiences have only increased my desire to pursue further program evaluation and participatory action research, the difference now being I can say more confidently my current and future work will be informed deeply by critical and care-based ethical frameworks.


Baum, F. (2006). Participatory Action Research. Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, 60(10), 854–857.

Fisher, C. B. (n.d.). Relational ethics in psychological research: One feminist’s journey. Practicing Feminist Ethics in Psychology., 125–142.

Israel, M. (2015). Research ethics and Integrity for Social Scientists: Beyond Regulatory Compliance.

Stake, R., & Mabry, L. (1998). Ethics in program evaluation. Scandinavian Journal of Social Welfare, 7(2), 99–109.

Clare Culver, ’23, is a senior at Fordham College Rose Hill. She is majoring in psychology and minoring in bioethics. She was awarded third place in the Fordham University Center for Ethics Education 2022 Dr. K. York and M. Noelle Chynn Undergraduate Essay Prize in Ethics and Morality.

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