Participatory System Inquiry (PSI) helps to map and understand the bigger picture and the wider system affecting any particular initiative or issue.

Systemic Action Research (SAR) draws on multiple lines of inquiry in a real-time assessment process that continually draws on empirical data for collective reflection, analysis and responsive action.

PSI uses multiple methods of participatory data gathering to understand all the different actors and factors affecting the initial issue of interest and analyse them with participants to better understand what is influencing that issue. This often leads to new insights and awareness of deeper factors influencing the initial issue of interest.

As part of a more comprehensive SAR process, this inquiry is one step in a repeated cycle of learning, planning and action that addresses successive aspects of an issue that come into view as the project develops.

Rooted in complexity theory and participatory community development, SAR promotes a proactive combination of participation, learning and networking that also seeks to link the learning and inquiry to action and policy change. By involving a wider range of stakeholders from different parts of the system related to the initial focus issue, the method builds accountability, ownership and momentum for change at a range of different levels.

PSI and SAR are not evaluation methods. They form part of an overall process that combines planning, action, learning and evaluation. This involves generating real-time theories of change and constantly reviewing and developing them through empirical inquiry. A consolidation of methods that have been under development over the last two decades, their central concern is to help navigate complex and constantly shifting ground of social change in a way that is informed by the experience and insights of the people living it, including those who are often the most marginalised.

Further Reading

Paper: Assessing Impact in Dynamic and Complex Environments: Systemic Action Research and Participatory System Inquiry (10 pages)

Burns, D, 2014, CDI Practice paper Number 8 

This short paper outlines how two methods rooted in complexity theory - Systemic Action Research and Participatory System Inquiry - can support a useful and practical approach to assessing impact in social programmes and initiatives. Design, planning, action and evaluation are merged in Systemic Action Research in a real-time assessment process that continually draws on empirical data for reflection, analysis and responsive action.

Book: Navigating complexity in international development: facilitating sustainable change at scale (180 pages)

Burns, D and Worsley, S, 2015, Rugby: Practical Action Publishing

This book focuses on Systemic Action Research and related approaches and provides a complexity informed account of how change happens in international development contexts. While evaluation tends to be collapsed with iterative planning and action in the method, key concepts from complexity help to illustrate how social changes and development unfold, and can be driven by a combination of participation, learning and relationship building. This covers similar ground to the Burns 2014 paper above, with a more comprehensive account of the method and related approaches and a wealth of case study examples.

Case Study: The Role of Volunteering in Sustainable Development (58 pages)

VSO and IDS 2015 

This research/evaluation used PSI and SAR to develop its findings, and the methodology is described in an introductory section of the report, and through a number of different case studies exploring the role of volunteering.

More resources on Participatory System Inquiry and Systemic Action Research can be found in the Mesh Participatory System Inquiry and Systemic Action Research category. To see how this resource fits in with the rest of Mesh's evaluation resources, and to learn how to navigate them, visit the Mesh evaluation page

This resource was developed by Robin Vincent as part of supporting the Wellcome Trust linked community of practice on evaluation of public and community engagement and was originally hosted on the eMOPs website.

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