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A Short Note on Participatory Research

Professor Sirisena Tilakaratna
Colombo, Sri Lanka
6 January 1990
This paper was presented to a seminar of Sri Lankan social scientists and community specialists in January 1990.

It was part of a series of activities supported and funded by the United Nations/ Government of Sri Lanka, Community Participation Programme 1988 to 1995.

The focus of the programme was the development of community-controlled research methods and techniques for social change and life improvement.

Participatory Research seeks to de-elitise and de-mystify research thereby making it an intellectual tool which ordinary people can use to improve their lives.

 

Participatory Research must be sharply distinguished from conventional Elitist Research which treats people as objects of the research process.
bulletCharacteristics of Elitist Research
bulletCharacteristics of Participatory Research
bulletThe key processes of Participatory Research
bulletThe role of the outside professional
bulletReaching a wider audience
bulletThe reduction of intellectual dependence

Characteristics of Elitist Research

In Elitist Research the fundamental underlying assumption is that people are incapable of doing research - it is a monopoly of the elite who know scientific methodologies. Information is collected from people through surveys and interviews conducted by external investigators. This extracted information is then processed and analysed by professionals without the involvement of local people. Reports are written in professionally accepted formats and styles (often in English) to cater for the consumption of a select groups of persons. Besides the financial rewards, the researcher enriches his or her CV.

People who have been researched are in general not the beneficiaries of this process. The knowledge is not returned to the people. Moreover, the knowledge that is generated is of doubtful value for practical purposes because it has been collected through mechanical means which often fail to capture the perceptions of the people and their living realities. People supply information for the researcher to write a book. They do not, however, see a direct benefit for themselves.

Characteristics of Participatory Research

In sharp contrast to elitist research the key features of participatory research are:

bulletpeople are the subjects of research: the dichotomy between subject and object is broken
bulletpeople themselves collect the data, and then process and analyse the information using methods easily understood by them
bulletthe knowledge generated is used to promote actions for change or to improve existing local actions
bulletthe knowledge belongs to the people and they are the primary beneficiaries of the knowledge creation
bulletresearch and action are inseparable – they represent a unity
bulletresearch is a praxis rhythm of action-reflection where knowledge creation supports action
bulletpeople function as organic intellectuals
bulletthere is an built-in mechanism to ensure authenticity and genuineness of the information that is generated because people themselves use the information for life improvement.

Such participatory research may not get written up. Oral and visual methods characterise this process of knowledge creation. If people can be stimulated to write them up in their own idiom then such research could be an important source of a people’s literature, and reading materials for a wider public.

Some of the material could be translated into pictures, cartoons, graphics, posters and slogans which may be a more effective method of communication. Such documentation may be carried out by community activists who are well placed to articulate the community’s way of thinking.

The key processes of Participatory Research

The promotion of participatory research is basically an exercise in stimulating the people to:

bulletcollect information
bulletreflect and analyse it
bulletuse the results as a knowledge base for life improvement, and
bulletwhenever possible, to document the results for wider dissemination ie for the creation of a people’s literature.

The role of the outside professional

The role of the outside professional is to promote the above processes. This can be done by:

bulletassisting people to collect data and then to process and analyse the information using simple methods which enables them to systematise their knowledge
bulletlinking the local situation (which the people know best) to the larger external situation (about which the outside may know more)
bulletimproving people’s access to new information and formal knowledge (eg technology)
bulletintroducing local people to experiences from outside their environment
bulletthrowing up relevant issues or problems for local people to reflect on and analyse and then assisting them in coming to their own conclusions.

The important thing is that the interaction between local people and the outside professional must primarliy benefit the people concerned by enabling them to articulate and systematise their own thought processes and thereby enhancing their knowledge base so that the can pursue independent actions.

Reaching a wider audience

Along with the above contributions, outside professionals could document the experiences of people’s processes to cater for two audiences:

bulletdevelopment workers who wish to promote participatory processes
bulletpolicy makers and intellectuals who wish to create wider support and facilitating structures for people-centred development

The reduction of intellectual dependence

Participatory Research is an important means of building people’s capacities – their intellectual capacities – and thus reducing their dependence on outside professionals and intellectuals.

Intellectual dependence is a subtle process which makes people feel small and thus dehumanises them; it is more subtle than dependence in the material sphere but no less important.

Outsiders who assist the people to engage in Participatory Research must of necessity be highly sensitised persons who are willing to dialogue with people on more or less equal terms ie who are willing to adopt a horizontal mode of communication.

Participatory Research seeks to de-elitise and de-mystify research thereby making it an intellectual tool which people can use for life improvement.

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