Participatory Action Research (PAR) Shifting Paradigms: An Applied Anthropologist and a Socio-Spiritual Movement Meet the Ozarks By Matt Oppenheim, Ph.D

Posted by on June 5, 2012 in Community Research | 0 comments

In the fall of 2001, I began to experiment with a process of participatory action research
(PAR) in the spiritual movement I have been dedicated to for over twenty- five years, Ananda
Marga (Ananda Marga is a global spiritual movement, based on the teachings of eastern
mysticism – see www.anandamarga.org) and its associated organization for social liberation
Proutist Universal (see www.prout.org). While our philosophy encourages a process of social
liberation through a synergy of social activism and the cultivation of spiritual awakening, our
members largely lack a praxis to apply this knowledge to the lived experience of real
communities. Our discourse remains largely theoretical.

This paper tells the story of an initial paradigm shift from theory to action that is evolving
as I write this. In the summer of 2002, a friend and town planner, Allan Rosen, and I facilitated
four-day PAR training at our national retreat center in the Ozarks of Missouri. Our members
formed teams and did fieldwork in the local community. The objective was to simultaneously
transform our relationship with the surrounding community and shift the local community’s
perception of us. We often came to the retreat as “spiritual tourists,” coming for spiritual
renewal while ignoring local history, culture and social issues. At the same time local community
members called us “orange people” and one of our nuns was told that people thought we
kidnapped and killed people. The PAR experience transformed our relationship with the
community and planted the seeds for a partnership with community organizations.

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