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Participatory Reflection and Action Methods

This paper was published as an Appendix in Whose Eden? An Overview of Community Approaches to Wildlife Management, IIED and ODA, London, July 1994.
Pages 98 – 102. ISBN 0-905347 74 9
The International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) can be contacted at:
3 Endsleigh Street, London WC1H 0DD
E-mail: info@iied.org  Web: www.iied.org 


bulletDifferent Systems of Inquiry
bulletCommon Principles
bulletLearning Leading to Action
bulletFour Classes of Participatory Inquiry Methods
bulletCollective Analysis by all the Investigators
bulletMultiple Perspectives
bulletMutual and Beneficial Dialogue
bulletThe Importance of Oral and Visual Tools
bulletLocal Capacity
bulletEight Step Approach
bulletWide Variety of Tools
bulletGood Preparation is Needed
bulletComposition of the Inquiry Team
bulletSource of Material and References


In recent years there has been rapid expansion of new participatory reflection and action methods (PRA) and related approaches in the context of development and research.

PRA methods are now increasingly used in both rural and urban situations. These have drawn on many long-established traditions that have put participation; action research and adult education at the forefront of attempts to liberate and emancipate disempowered people.

To those practitioners already using these types of methods, participatory inquiry may apparently bring little that is new. But to the much wider body of development programmes, projects and initiatives it represents a significant departure from standard practice. Some of the changes under way are remarkable.

In many government and non-government institutions extractive research is being superseded by investigation and analysis by local people themselves. Methods are being used not just for local people to inform outsiders, but also for people’s own analysis of there own conditions. This is particularly important in community approaches to livelihood improvement and natural resource management.

Different Systems of Inquiry

The interactive involvement of many people in differing institutional contexts has promoted innovation, and there are many variations in the way that systems of inquiry have been put together. These systems of inquiry include, for example:

Agro-ecosystems Analysis (AEA); Beneficiary Assessment (BA); Community Action Planning (CAP); Development Education Leadership Teams (DELTA); Diagnosis and Design (D&D); Diagnostico Rural Rapido (DRR); Farmer Participatory Research; Farming Systems Research; Groupe de Recherche et d’Appui pour l’Auto-Promotion Paysanne (GRAPP); Methode Acceleree de Recherche Participative (MARP); Micro-Planning Workshops; Participatory Analysis and Learning Methods (PALM); Participatory Action Research (PAR); Participatory Monitoring and Evaluation (PME); Participatory Operational Research Projects (PORP); Participatory Poverty Assessment (PPA); Participatory Poverty Monitoring (PPM); Participatory Policy Research (PPR); Participatory Research Methodology (PRM); Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA); Participatory Rural Appraisal and Planning (PRAP); Participatory Social Assessment (PSA); Participatory Technology Development (PTD); Participatory Urban Appraisal (PUA); Planning for Real (PfR); Process Documentation; Rapid Appraisal; Rapid Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge Systems (RAAKS); Rapid Assessment Procedures (RAP); Rapid Assessment Techniques (RAT); Rapid Catchment Analysis (RCA); Rapid Ethnographic Assessment (REA); Rapid Food Security Analysis (RFSA); Rapid Multi-perspective Appraisal (RMA); Rapid Organisational Assessment (ROA); Rapid Rural Appraisal (RRA); Samuhik Brahman (Joint Trek); Self-esteem, Associative Strength, Resourcefulness, Action Planning, and Responsibility (SARAR); Soft Systems Methodology (SSM); Theatre for Development; Training for Transformation (TFT); Village Appraisal (VA); Visualisation in Participatory Programmes (VIPP); and Zielorientierte Projekt Planung (ZOPP).

Common Principles

This diversity and complexity is strength. Despite the different ways in which these approaches are used, there are important common principles uniting most of them. These are as follows:

bulletA defined methodology and systematic learning process: the focus is on cumulative learning by all the participants and, given the nature of these approaches as systems of inquiry, their use has to be participative.
bulletMultiple perspectives: a central objective is to seek diversity, rather than characterise complexity in terms of average values. The assumption is that different individuals and groups make different evaluations of situations, which lead to different actions. All views of activity or purpose are heavy with interpretation, bias and prejudice, and this implies that there are multiple possible descriptions of any real-world activity.
bulletGroup inquiry process: all involve the recognition that the complexity of the world will only be revealed through group inquiry. This implies three possible mixes of investigators, namely those from different disciplines, from different sectors and from outsiders (professionals) and insiders (local people).
bulletContext specific: the approaches are flexible enough to be adapted to suit each new set of conditions and actors, and so there are multiple variants.
bulletFacilitating experts and stakeholders: the methodology is concerned with the transformation of existing activities to try to bring about changes which people in the situation regard as improvements. The role of the expert is best thought of as helping people in their situation to carry out their own study and so achieve something. These facilitating experts may well come from the community, and thus be stakeholders themselves.
bulletLeading to sustained action: the inquiry process leads to debate about change, and debate changes perceptions of the actors and their readiness to contemplate action. Action is agreed, and implementable changes will therefore represent an accommodation between the different conflicting views. The debate and or analysis both defines changes which would bring about improvement and seeks to motivate people to take action to implement the defined changes. This action includes local institution building or strengthening, so increasing the capacity of people to initiate action on their own.

Learning Leading to Action

The principle of participation overarches these packages of methods. In this context, appraisal implies a process of learning leading to action. Livelihood improvement and sustainable resource management, with all its uncertainties and complexities, cannot be envisaged without all actors being involved in a continuing process of learning. Participatory inquiry can, therefore, be defined in the following way:

Participatory inquiry is a structured methodology centred on the principle that participation is a moral right, in which multiple perspectives are sought through a process of group inquiry, developed for the specific context, and so using systematic methods to help people organise to bring about changes in problem situations that they see as improvements.

Four Classes of Participatory Inquiry Methods

In recent years, the creative ingenuity of practitioner’s worldwide has increased the range of participatory reflection and action methods in use. Many existed in other contexts, and were borrowed and adapted. Others are innovations arising out of situations where practitioners have applied the methods in a new setting, the context and the people themselves giving rise to the novelty. The methods are structured into four classes namely those for group and team dynamics, for sampling, for interviewing and dialogue, and visualisation and diagramming (See chart for an illustration of some of the tools and techniques). It is the collection of these methods into unique approaches, or packages of methods, that constitutes systems of inquiry.

Collective Analysis by all the Investigators

Participation calls for the collective analysis. Even a sole researcher must work closely with local people (often called beneficiaries, subjects, respondents or informants). Ideally, teams of investigators work together in interdisciplinary and inter-sectoral teams. By working as a group, the investigators can approach a situation from different perspectives, monitor one another’s work carefully, and carry out a variety of tasks simultaneously. Groups can be powerful and productive entities when they function well, as performance and output is likely to be greater than the sum of the individual members (Steiner, 1972; Handy, 1985 Belbin, 1992). Many assume that simply putting together a group of people in the same place is enough to make an effective team. This is not the case. Shared perceptions, essential for group or community action, have to be negotiated and tested in a complex social process. Yet, in general, the complexity of multidisciplinary teamwork is poorly understood. A range of workshop and field methods is available to help in the formation of groups.

Methods for Participatory Inquiry

Group and Team Dynamic Methods

Sampling Methods

Interviewing and Dialogue Methods

Visualisation and Diagramming Methods

Team contacts
Team reviews and discussions
Interview guides and checklists
Rapid report writing
Work sharing (taking part in local activities)
Villager and shared Presentations
Process notes and personal diaries
Transect walks
Wealth ranking and well-being ranking
Social maps
Interview maps
Semi-structured interviews
Direct observation
Focus groups
Key informants
Ethnohistories and biographies
Oral histories
Local stories, portraits and studies
Mapping and modelling
Social maps and wealth rankings
Mobility maps
Seasonal calendars
Daily routines and activity profiles
Historical profiles
Trend analyses and timelines
Matrix scoring
Preference or pairwise ranking
Venn diagrams
Network diagrams
Systems diagrams
Flow diagrams
Pie diagrams

Source: Pretty, J.N, Guijt, I. Scoones, I. Thompson, J (1994) A Trainer’s Guide for Participatory Learning and Action, IIED, London.

Multiple Perspectives

In order to ensure that multiple perspectives are both investigated and represented, practitioners must be clear about who is participating in the data gathering, analysis and construction of these perspectives. Sampling is an essential part of these participatory approaches, and a range of field methods is available.

Mutual and Beneficial Dialogue

Sensitive interviewing and dialogue are a third core element of the process of participatory inquiry. For the re-constructions of reality to be revealed, the conventional dichotomy between the interviewer and respondent should not be permitted to develop. Interviewing is, therefore structured around a series of methods that promote a sensitive and mutually beneficial dialogue.

The Importance of Oral and Visual Tools

The fourth element of participatory inquiry is the emphasis on diagramming and visual construction. In formal surveys, information is taken by interviewers, who transform what people say into their own language. By contrast, diagramming by local people gives them a share in the creation and analysis of knowledge, providing a focus for dialogue, which can be modified sequentially and extended. Local categories, criteria and symbols are used during diagramming, which include mapping and modelling, comparative analysis of local perceptions of seasonal and historical trends, ranking and scoring to understand decision-making, and diagrammatic representations of household and livelihood systems. Rather than answering questions, which are directed by the values of the researcher, local people are encouraged to explore creatively their own versions of their worlds. Visualisations therefore, help to balance dialogue and increase the depth and intensity of discussion.

Local Capacity

Local people, using the methods of participatory inquiry, have shown a greater capacity to observe, diagram and analyse than most professionals have expected. In some programmes this has led to local people conducting investigations without outsiders being present (Shah, 1992). Here, participatory inquiry methods become the locally owned means to collective action.

Eight Step Approach

Typically, participatory inquiry involves eight clearly defined steps. An outside team works with members of the local community to:

  1. Select a location and gain approval from local administrative officials and community leaders;
  2. Conduct a preliminary visit (steps 1 and 2 include community review and a planning meeting to share the purpose and objectives of the participatory inquiry and initiate dialogue between all parties as well as full participation);
  3. Collect both secondary and field data (spatial, time-related, social, environmental, economic and governance), and share information with selected communities;
  4. Synthesise and analyse that data;
  5. Identify problems and opportunities to resolve them;
  6. Rank opportunities and prepare maps, action plans, reports and costings (including basic work plan for all members of the community);
  7. Adopt and implement the plan;
  8. Follow-up, evaluate and disseminate any findings, maintain momentum through addressing new issues.

Wide Variety of Tools

A variety of data collection tools exist: sketch maps, transects, time and trend lines, seasonal calendars, household interview charts, institutional diagrams, problem priority sheets. Based on these data, the local community organises and ranks problems and opportunities as a prelude to the creation of a community action plan.

Good Preparation is Needed

As a participatory inquiry team begins work, it meets with the community and other leaders to ensure that they support the initiative and perceive the potential for their control over the process. Meetings with the community as a whole are then held to explain the process and initiate data collection. Separate meetings are also held with specific interest groups (i.e. women, youths, the elderly, and economically active persons) and with individual households. This mixture of public meetings and dialogue with smaller groups makes it more likely that all members of the community will participate constructively.

Composition of the Inquiry Team

A participatory inquiry team needs to be made up of people who specialise in community work and relevant technical specialists (agriculture, business, local government, social services – education, health, etc, natural resource management, etc). At least half the members of the team should be women, and a minimum of two should be from the participating community. While the participatory inquiry emphasises local participation, it must be noted that individuals from outside the society can make positive and sometimes catalytic contributions to the process. Participatory inquiry is a learned skill and can be acquired by formal training or by participating with those who are experienced in the approach and method. However it does require on the part of individual professionals that they undergo a process of attitudinal and behavioural change. They must be willing to give up both power and their role as the expert and enter into a more horizontal form of communications. This is often referred to as the unlearning and relearning process.

Source of Material and References

This paper was published as an Appendix in Whose Eden? An Overview of Community Approaches to Wildlife Management, IIED and ODA, London, July 1994. Pages 98 – 102. ISBN 0-905347 74 9
The International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) can be contacted at:
3 Endsleigh Street, London WC1H 0DD
E-mail: info@iied.org  Web: www.iied.org 


Belbin, M. (1992), Building the Perfect Team. (Video Arts, Video)

Handy, C.B. (1985), Understanding Organisations, 3rd Edition, Penguin Books, London.

Pretty, J.N, Guijt, I. Scoones, I. Thompson, J (1995) A Trainer’s Guide for Participatory Learning and Action, IIED, London, 1994.

Shah, P. (1992) Participatory Watershed Management Programme in India: Reversing our Roles and Revising our Theories, Paper for Joint IIED/IDS Beyond Farmer First: Rural People’s Knowledge, Agricultural Research and Extension Practices Conference 27 – 29 October 1992, IIED

Steiner, I.D. (1972), Group Process and Productivity, Academic Press, New York.



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