Participatory research for environmental justice: a critical interpretive synthesis

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38 Scopus citations


BACKGROUND: Environmental health risks are disproportionately colocated with communities in poverty and communities of color. In some cases, participatory research projects have effectively addressed structural causes of health risk in environmental justice (EJ) communities. However, many such projects fail to catalyze change at a structural level. OBJECTIVES: This review employs Critical Interpretive Synthesis (CIS) to theorize specific elements of participatory research for environmental health that effectively prompt structural change in EJ communities. METHODS: Academic database search was used to identify peer-reviewed literature describing participatory research with EJ communities to address environmental health. Synthetic constructs were developed iteratively related to study characteristics, design elements, and outcomes; and data were extracted for included records. Statistical analyses were performed to assess correlations between study design elements and structural change outcomes. Through critical, comparative, and contextual analyses of the “structural change” case study group and “non-structural change” group, informed by relevant theoretical literature, a synthesizing argument was generated. RESULTS: From 505 total records identified, eligibility screening produced 232 case study articles, representing 154 case studies, and 55 theoretical articles for synthesis. Twenty-six case studies resulted in a structural change outcome. The synthesizing argument states that participatory research with EJ communities may be more likely to result in structural change when a) community members hold formal leadership roles; b) project design includes decision-makers and policy goals; and c) long term partnerships are sustained through multiple funding mechanisms. The assumption of EJ community benefit through research participation is critically examined. DISCUSSION: Recommended future directions include establishing structural change as a goal of participatory research, employing participatory assessment of community benefit, and increased hiring of faculty of color at research institutions. The power, privilege, and political influence that academic institutions are able to leverage in partnership with EJ communities may be as valuable as the research itself.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number026001
Pages (from-to)1-20
Number of pages20
JournalEnvironmental health perspectives
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2021

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health
  • Health, Toxicology and Mutagenesis


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