A guide for field projects on adaptive strategies Layer 3 Layer 4 Layer 2
Underlying principles
Ecosystem-based approach
Participatory research methodologies-You Are Here-
Participant Observer
Rapid Rural Appraisal (RRA)
Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA)
Participatory Action Research (PAR)
Project Stages
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[Off-Site Link] IDRC:Participatory development communication

Participatory approach to research

The development paradigms of the 1960s and 1970s derived from the legacy of colonial rule, especially the planning systems of the late 1930s and post-WW2 period. The conception was top down (development was something governments did for or to people), and the language military-bureaucratic - by WW2 out of US management literature: "objectives", "targets", "strategies", "capability". The formal social science methods of the late 1950s, combined with digital processing, produced much spurious (and some credible) quantification, usually at great cost. There was little stakeholder involvement of those undergoing "development", a fact which must rank high among the causes of the failures of development to improve the lives of the majority poor of the "developing" world. Participatory development arose as a reaction to this realization of failure, popularized particularly by Gordon Conway and Robert Chambers (1992), and more recently by David Korten (1996).

Another guiding principle therefore is that research is participatory, a much abused word that encompasses several virtues and vices. As with all methods, its merits vary with the research situation and the practitioner. At its best, the process can be liberating, empowering and educative, a collegial relationship that brings local communities into the policy debate, validating their knowledge. At its worst, it can degenerate into a process of co-option of local communities into an external agenda, or an exploitative series of empty rituals imposing fresh burdens on the community's time and energy and serving primarily to legitimize the credentials of the implementing agency as "grassroots oriented". While participation must be integral to the research process, it must be understood and practiced as a genuine process.

Together, the many methods of participatory work are now often referred to as Participatory Learning and Action (PLA). Jules Pretty (1995) provides an excellent overview in his Trainers Manual for Participatory Learning and Action, available from IIED. Despite a wealth of alternative and often confusing names, participatory research methods can be conveniently classified into four main types, each with a distinctive style and ethos.

  • Participant Observer
  • Rapid Rural Appraisal (RRA)
  • Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA)
  • Participatory Action Research (PAR)

National country implementing agencies and participants should have some, preferably extensive, experience of participatory research techniques and processes, so that they can make a creative contribution to the development of project methodology.

It is therefore up to each team to select the best mix of methods to suit their chosen research site. This guidebook cannot make that choice, but can offer some guiding observations. Not every single method or technique to be used must be participatory; but the overall ethos of the research must be so, and the question of the ultimate ownership of the knowledge is an important consideration.

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