Good and bad practice in participatory research

"The best of both worlds: representativeness and insight?"

Term Paper, 2008

12 Pages, Grade: distinction


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Participatory research - good and bad practices
2.1. Principles of RRA/ PRA as good practices
2.2. Criticisms of participatory research and bad practises

3. The best ofboth worlds - representativeness and insight
3.1. Qualitative vs. quantitative methods - insight vs. representativeness
3.2. Participatory research - best ofboth worlds?

4. Conclusion - participation, a contested field


1. Introduction

Development research serves different purposes - from informing policy-making on a macro level, to conducting large scale poverty assessments of countries and regions, and planning, managing, evaluating and impact assessment of development projects and programs. Since the 1970s, participatory research methods have become increasingly important in this field. Whereas initially they were used to inform project practice on the mirco-level, they are now also used to inform policy making and enhance governance. “They moved from the margins of development practice to the very heart of development mainstream” (Mikkelsen 2005: 58). Participation is for example a basic requirement for Good Governance of aid receiving coun­tries or for the formulation of national Poverty Reduction Strategies (PRS).

Participatory research can be seen as the methodological basis of participatory development. However, there is ongoing debate on whom those methods inform - the instrumental practice of aid/ governmental agencies (‘participation as means’) or the local communities themselves, providing them with the means to conduct their development (‘participation as end’). This ambiguity is the main reason why a coherent definition of participatory development and re­search does not exist. The notion 'participatory' is blurred and definitions differ widely. Com­mon to most definitions is the view that an active involvement of stakeholders will enhance development research and projects. An important advantage of participatory research is seen in the deeper insight into local life and need (Mikkelsen 2005). In chapter 2 of this paper, I will try to outline the different aspects of the concept and will discuss good and bad practices in participatory research, paying particular attention to the conflict between participation as means and as end.

The wider scope of current participatory research led to the need for valid and robust data gathered through participative research methods which raises the question for the representat­iveness of participatory gathered data. Chambers (2001) claims that participatory research can provide the “best ofboth worlds” (ibid: 25) - as it meets the requirements of deeper holistic insight represented by qualitative research and representativeness, represented by quantitative approaches. In Chapter 3 I will discuss the scope of qualitative and quantitative approaches and to which extent Chambers claim is cogent.

Having analysed participation from those different analytical perspectives, following Parfitt (2004) I will argue in the conclusion that participation is a contested field as it has to meet competing interests - from radical empowerment to effectiveness of research and development measures - which is due to the ambiguity of the concept.

2. Participatory research - good and bad practices

In this chapter I will outline the history of participatory research as its emergence refers much to criticisms on 'conventional' research what refers to the discussion in chapter 3. Furthermore I will briefly introduce the main methodologies and principles of participatory research. Those principles outline the presentation of good practices whereas criticisms of participatory re­search in practice (see Mosse 1994, Cooke and Kothari 2001, Mohan 2001a) inform the dis­cussion ofbad practises.

2.1. Participatory research - history and principles

Participatory research appeared due to a dissatisfaction with 'conventional' development re­search and practice. Those are that the top-down approach to development was biased, follow­ing inadequate blueprint approaches and was generally seen as being disempowering and inef­fective (Chambers 1994a). This lead to an emergence ofbottom-up, people- and process- centred participatory approaches which emphasize learning and acting with the local com­munities. In the already introduced sense of participation as means it is seen as a strategy to improve and inform development research and projects whereas top-down power structures of the aid/ governmental agencies or research institutions are not questioned. In which way prac­titioners understand participation will have different implications for development practice (Parfitt 2004).

The emergence of Rapid Rural Appraisal (RRA) in the 1970s is an important milestone in the history of participatory research. It evolved as an alternative to large scale survey studies for rural development. These survey studies had not been giving sufficient attention to local people's knowledge and conditions, and were conducted by experts in short rural visits close to cities, and in favourable seasons, which did not display rural reality. Furthermore, the central role of expert-knowledge underestimated the analytical skills of the local people. Participatory research aims to incorporate this knowledge in development research with techniques and methods that encourage the active involvement oflocal people (Chambers 1994a).

RRA has to be seen in the tradition of participation as a means, as it is perceived (cost) effect­ive way to gather better information - which reflects its instrumental orientation. More em­powering approaches to participation have evolved since the 1990s under the umbrella term Participatory Learning and Action (PLA). One of the most significant and most recognised family of approaches and methods is Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA), which evolved from RRA (Chambers 1994a).1 The scope changed from understanding local knowledge from an outsider view, to enabling local people to develop their capabilities, conducting their own research and action.

There is a wide range of participatory methods which can be categorised as techniques to en­hance team and group dynamics, sampling techniques which will ensure that multiple per­spectives are represented, especially including the most marginalized and powerless. Further­more interviewing and dialogue techniques which emphasise on sensitive and empowering dialogue and visualisation and diagramming techniques which have the potential to reflect the cultural background of the community. However, Chambers (1995) notes that the creativity of the researcher is important and that PRA should never be seen as a rigid set of rules. Rather it is more important to follow wider principles especially about behaviours and attitudes of the researcher.

2.1. Principles of RRA/ PRA as good practices

Principles which reflect this requirement are especially worked out by Chambers (1994b) for RRA and PRA,but apply in my point of view to PLA in general. These principles can be di­vided into those which are addressed to the optimisation of research outcomes (participation as means), advocated by both RRA and PRA, and those addressed to ensuring empowerment (participation as end) stressed by PRA. All of these principles constitute good practices in par­ticipatory research, depending on the aims of the research in an optimising or emancipating sense.

Goodpractices (participation as means)

RRA and PRA both place an emphasis on a reversal of learning which means that local know­ledge is emphasised over “expert” knowledge. Learning is seen as a process and not as a short­term exercise to extract knowledge. Methods should be applied flexibly and creatively and be informed by the ongoing research process. The researcher should furthermore try to offset bi­ases by being relaxed and not rushing, listening instead of lecturing, holding back instead of displaying importance and expert behaviour, and by including the marginalized. Plural invest­igation by triangulation, which means utilising at least three different methods, places or groups, will ensure that findings can be cross-checked and the learning process will be better informed. Another aspect of gaining a greater depth of information is through seeking diversity, meaning “looking for and learning from exceptions, oddities, dissenters, and outliers in any distribution” (Chambers 1994b: 1254).

Good Practices (participation as end)

In addition to these principles, PRA stresses the importance of offsetting biases and the changed behaviour of the researcher. One principle is “they do it,” or “handing over the stick” (Chambers 1994b: 1254), which implies that the researcher functions mainly as a facilitator rather than as a data collector. The aim is to facilitate people to conduct their own investigation, analysis and presentation. Therefore the researcher should not rush and let pro­cesses happen. Furthermore, it is important to show “self-critical awareness” (ibid: 1255), to critically examine and correct behaviour. In this sense, failure has to be seen positively and as a learning process. As there is no blueprint approach or a set of rules which should be used, another principle is that the PRA practitioner has to take responsibility for the research design and its outcomes. Therefore it is important to rely on one’s own bestjudgement. Finally it is important to share information and ideas in the local community, as well as learning experi­ence regarding PRA, with other practitioners and practising institutions.

Following all those principles is in practice not always happening, as will be discussed in the following chapter.

2.2. Criticisms of participatory research and bad practises

In the following discussion I will mainly focus on practical experiences extracted from the lit­erature. It is again split into bad practices in participatory research as means and as end.

Bad practices -participatory research as mean

Mosse (1994) argues that the actual participation in PRA exercises is on the one hand con­strained through physical presence or absence. For example, the poorest may be unable to in­vest their precious time to attend a public meeting, or migrated community members may not be included. On the other hand, the public orientation of PRA exercises which involve import­ant and influential outsiders (e.g. the researchers) can create a formal setting where less powerful members may not feel free to participate. There are also criticisms that communities are treated as homogeneous, and internal power structures - between the poor and the better- off or between women and men - are not addressed adequately.


1 In the following I will refer to more emancipatory approaches as PLA, as Mikkelsen (2005) suggests.

Excerpt out of 12 pages


Good and bad practice in participatory research
"The best of both worlds: representativeness and insight?"
University of Manchester  (Institute for Development Policy and Management)
Development Research
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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418 KB
partcicipatory research, participatory approaches, participation, development
Quote paper
Cynthia Dittmar (Author), 2008, Good and bad practice in participatory research, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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