Section 3: Initiating interactions and building trust

Building trust by engaging meaningfully with the values and perspectives of different collaborators and partners is an essential part of participatory research:

Researchers should not assume that because their own intentions are noble that they are immediately entitled to local peoples’ trust—they should consider ways to demonstrate the legitimacy of their process at the earliest stages of collaboration.” (Djenontin & Meadow, 2018, p.896) 

The literature also emphasises the importance of transparency, which should be grounded in reflexive thinking and a clear articulation of the following:

Who is undertaking the research and by what right? Whose agenda drives the collaboration? How might this shape and impact the research, including how it is designed and undertaken, who participates, what is made visible, and what may be rendered absent?” (Atem et al., 2021, p.7).

Key Insights

Building trust and transparency

Clear and honest communication about processes and expectations is key to building transparency:

“Transparency is created by clarifying understandings of approaches and power dynamics in the research, understanding the expectations of the individuals and communities involved in the research, and paying attention to those whose perspectives are usually marginalised.” (Atem et al., 2021, p.7).

A key element relates to recognising when it would be more appropriate for partners to initiate the interaction, before trust-building can take place: 

Researcher Insight:
‘So I think it will very much depend on the demographic that people are looking to work with. So if it's doing participatory research with local businesses or local residents, for example, then I think it's appropriate for researchers, if they have the skills, to make those connections; but, working with very marginalized populations, as a researcher, I didn't necessarily feel comfortable to start that level of engagement that was required for this type of project. *Name of Advocacy group* took the lead on bringing together the research team: they held a few different meetings, and flyers were distributed through the local services.’ (Researcher 8)

Developing culturally safe and respectful practices

There is an important movement in participatory research to ensure processes and interactions are respectful and develop in ‘culturally safe’ ways (Brockie et al., 2022; Lenette, 2022a). The concept of cultural safety originates from the practice and critical reflection of Maori nurses: Irihapeti Ramsden, often identified as the architect of cultural safety, describes the following in her PhD thesis:

“Cultural Safety is simply a mechanism which allows the consumer to say whether or not our service is safe for them to approach and use. Safety is a subjective word deliberately chosen to give the power to the consumer. Designed as an educational process by Maori, it is given as a koha [gift/offering] to all people who are different from the service providers whether by gender, sexual orientation, economic and educational status, age or ethnicity. It is about the analysis of power and not the customs and habits of anybody.” (Ramsden, 2002, p.183).

The concept of cultural safety now plays a key role in both research and practice (e.g., Curtis et al., 2019; Power Wiradjuri, et al., 2021) and emphasises that all interactions should proceed with respect for each individual’s dignity and ensure there is ‘no assault on a person's identity’ (Williams, 1999, p.213); Williams adds ‘ To facilitate culturally safe environments, those of us who are working in cross-cultural situations must address this issue at all professional and personal levels’ (p.231). Lenette (2022a) offers very helpful guidance to developing culturally safe practices and summarises five important reflective questions to consider before starting: 

“What is your motivation for undertaking the research?... 

What are the origins of your method(s)?..

What needs changing?... 

How do you use methods in culturally safe ways?... 

How do you know you have achieved your aim? ...” (Lenette, 2022, pp.10-11) 

Each of these questions is then clarified with helpful prompts and it is thoroughly recommended to read the full article (Lenette, 2022a) and use the questions in the conclusion as a reflective tool before and during embarking on participatory collaborations.

Further Reflective questions to consider

The following questions may also be helpful to consider:

How has this population/community engaged with or led research previously (and recently)? 

- How might this impact the way they perceive research participation and collaboration? 

- How might this affect the way they perceive knowledge exchange within research encounters? 

- How can this inform the way you communicate about how you value their expertise, experience, advice and knowledge?  

- Has previous research been genuinely valuable to, and valued by this community? If not, seek to learn how can you co-create something that is both valuable and meaningful to those involved, as well as the broader community.  

What detail is there in community-developed communications that should inform research processes? 

- Is there detail in community-developed manifestos, advocacy blogs and glossaries that could inform research co-design and research interactions. See for example, community developed glossaries of language)?  

What language is preferred and who has the right to use this language? (i.e., is some language only to be used by those who identify as part of that group)? 

- Is there detail of preferred communicative modes and valued interactive behaviours : this should be established with each individual participating, as well as checking  community-developed literature (e.g., should eye contact be made, when co-designing research questions would they prefer to do this hand written, typed, through drawing, or through graphic design online, etc)? 

What factors might facilitate or hinder participants giving meaningful consent? 

- What would support a process of on-going assent where both parties can communicate openly about which elements of the research they do and do not wish to participate in/lead? 

- How can you support participants to indicate times when they do not feel they want to participate or confirm consent (e.g., when experiencing the effects of certain medications, see also discussions around influence in Souleymanov et al., 2016).  

What research skill-sets, literacies and capacity would be valuable to participant co-researchers and how can these be developed? 

- Which elements of the research do participant co-researchers perceive as valuable to their future (whether professional or personal)? 

- Which capacities do they perceive could be useful to their communities in the future 

- How can the benefit of the research be made more sustainable over time to other members of that community. 

Key Literature 


  • Power Wiradjuri, T., Wilson, D., Geia, L., West, R., Brockie, T., Clark, T. C., Bourque-Bearskin, L., Lowe, J., Millender, E., Smallwood, R., & Best, O. (2021). Cultural Safety and Indigenous authority in nursing and midwifery education and practice. Contemporary Nurse, 57(5), 303–307.

  • Power Wiradjuri, T., Geia Bwgcolman, L., Wilson Ngāti Tahinga, D., Clark Ngāpuhi, T. C., West Kalkadoon and Djaku-nde, R., & Best Gorreng Gorreng, Boonthamurra and Yugambeh, O. (2022). Cultural Safety: Beyond the rhetoric. Contemporary Nurse, 58(1), 1-7.DOI: https://10.1080/10376178.2022.2087704J

  • Ramsden, I. (2000). Cultural safety: Kawa Whakaruruhau ten years on: A personal overview. Nursing Praxis in New Zealand, 15(1), 4-12.

  • Ramsden, I. (2002). Cultural safety and nursing education in Aotearoa and Te Waipounamu (Doctoral dissertation, Victoria University of Wellington).

  • Souleymanov, R., Kuzmanović, D., Marshall, Z., Scheim, A. I., Mikiki, M., Worthington, C., & Millson, M. P. (2016). The ethics of community-based research with people who use drugs: results of a scoping review. BMC medical ethics, 17(1), 1-13.

  • Sriprakash, A., Tikly, L., & Walker, S. (2020) The erasures of racism in education and international development: re-reading the ‘global learning crisis’, Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education, 50:5, 676-692, DOI: 

  • Thambinathan, V., & Kinsella, E. A. (2021). Decolonizing Methodologies in Qualitative Research: Creating Spaces for Transformative Praxis. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 20. 

  • Williams, R. (1999). Cultural safety - what does it mean for our work practice? Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, 23(2), 213–214.

Creative Commons Licence This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Cite as: Scott-Barrett*, J., Marshall-Brown*, A., Livingstone-Banks, M., Chrisinger, B., Scher, B., Hickman, M. (2023) Participatory Research: Researcher Insights. University of Oxford *(joint first authorship)