Sustainable Development and Participatory Action Research: A Systematic Review


Sustainable development scholars are employing participatory action research to establish platforms for collaborative inquiry and knowledge integration. While this action research tradition supports the revitalization of scholarly influence in sustainability policy and practice, its recent expansion into new topics and disciplines suggests the need for broad-based evaluation. To fulfill this task, I conduct a systematic review of the last decade of peer-reviewed research. The results of this study advance scholarly knowledge in three critical ways. By mapping the field, I identify global patterns of engagement and assemble an interdisciplinary toolbox of methods for research and action. By interrogating descriptions of methodology and lessons learned, I uncover key issues with research and practice, including threats to methodological integrity. By connecting empirical insights with the discourse on ethics, I clarify research standards and suggest strategies for improving engagement. This article brings coherence to an emergent and potentially transformative field that is located at the crossroads of sustainability and participation.

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Fig. 1


  1. 1.

    Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses.

  2. 2.

    The EBSCO Host search was limited to academic databases not included in Proquest.

  3. 3.

    Spreadsheets captured information on: (1) regions and topics; (2) lead author affiliations; (3) co-authorship and interdisciplinarity; (4) research methods and disciplines; (5) PAR methodology; and (6) lessons learned.

  4. 4.

    Nearly all Oceanic studies were conducted in Australia, with the remainder in New Zealand.

  5. 5.

    The United States, Canada, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand.

  6. 6.

    In accordance with the standards set forth by Stember (1991), cross-disciplinary involves perceiving one discipline through the lens of another; multidisciplinary denotes scholars from different disciplines who are in collaboration; interdisciplinary signals the integration of two or more disciplinary knowledge systems; and transdisciplinary indicates the rise of a new discipline that has synthesized different disciplinary knowledges into a unified intellectual framework.

  7. 7.

    Only 15% of the published studies were single authored and 55% had three or more authors.

  8. 8.

    Nearly one fourth of the institutional affiliation names denoted either a transdisciplinary orientation or combined major branches of knowledge.

  9. 9.

    See Duda et al. 2014 for an informative description of this emerging practice.

  10. 10.

    See for example Kawabe et al. (2013).

  11. 11.

    See for example Campos et al. (2016).


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Keahey, J. Sustainable Development and Participatory Action Research: A Systematic Review. Syst Pract Action Res (2020).

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  • Sustainable development
  • Participatory action research
  • Interdisciplinary methods
  • Development ethics