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Participative, Ethnographic, Evaluative Research: Part two

April 20, 2011

So what did ‘participation’ mean in practice? This is a long overdue follow up post from my initial description of the use of the PEER method in Senegal. In between I finished off one job, moved to Mali, and started another.

Turn back the clock several months, and in reality, it turned out, loosing any sense of self-consciousness or embarrassment to perform ‘Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes’ in front of a room of strangers was the easy bit. What proved more difficult was attempting to assure the genuine participation of community member in the training and question selection, whilst keeping both the training, and the research, on track.

The training kicked off not so early on a Saturday morning in late January, with two men and five women willing to participate. Despite my attempt at an introduction in Wolof, the barriers of not speaking the local language made themselves immediately clear: not being able to understand to engage with the participant’s conversation or comments, relying upon accurate and precise translation, and not being able to check what had been said, whilst adding an extra and inevitable layer of awkwardness to interactions.

Launching into a mapping exercise of the community however, in which participants were divided into two groups and asked to draw the community as they saw it, I recognised, despite all of the critiques of participatory rural appraisal methods, the value of such a method in encouraging people to express themselves, and open up issues and points for discussion which a normal conversation may not be able to do. Asking the two groups to then draw, and explain, images which represented ‘problems’ in the community for them, I was surprised at the openness I found, with very little prompting. ‘Not having a sewing centre in the village means girls can be sent away to look for work in cities as maids, and then become prostitutes’.

Moreover, when asking for feedback on the exercises from participants, I discovered that the exercises were genuinely enjoyed, both in the process of sitting together and using drawing as a tool to explore issues, and because participants felt they learnt things about the community they didn’t know before.

This extended to the more specific training on how to conduct interviews, and the development of interview prompts. I had underestimated the difficulties in facilitating feedback from participants in relation to the questions they were going to ask people in the village. In my head, all my pre-written questions were ready to be magically re-phrased by participants to make sure they were appropriate to the local context. No amount of participatory exercises however were able to break down the wall of silence that emerged, and instead of the participants taking an issue, such as early marriage, and defining the questions themselves, I found myself reading out question by question, encouraging the participants to draw a picture to represent each.

Was this such a bad thing, I wonder in hindsight? Even if they participants had been more fully involved in question selection, how genuine would the process have been when they were not aware of the big evaluation picture? And, perhaps selfishly, this way the questions slotted neatly into my evaluation framework.

Three weeks later I walked away with recordings from interviews with the seven participants, who had each interviewed two people in the village on the three topics. I had underestimated how hard it would be to encourage the participants to talk ‘freely’ when reporting on the interviews they had held, preferring to talk about specific responses to each question. Despite this, what the process had managed to do however was create some form of discussion in the village on these three topics integral to the organisation’s work.

What extent of discussion however, I am still not clear. Riding away from the village on the horse and cart at the end of the weekend, I felt both satisfied and guilty. Satisfied because the participants had reported enjoying the process, learning more about their village, and being given the chance to talk on subjects relevant to their lives, and relevant to a project of an organisation which they value. Guilty however because ultimately this process felt extractive. It raised questions about my comfort being a researcher, about what right I have to go into a village and ask probing questions about people’s lives, leaving with the information they had freely given me, yet not then assuring that this was followed up on, either within the village, or the organisation as a whole. Should I have then carried out more sessions with the participants to analyse the data? (I thought about this a lot, but didn’t manage to come up with a solution on how this could actually work). Discuss what implications it has for their village, and the project?

Chris Blattman has a good piece which illustrates this problem in the context of dissertation students traveling, in particular to conflict and post-conflict zones to carry out research, often on the same issue, and without any plan to use the findings to provide input into an NGO’s programme, for example. Slapping the label ‘participative’ on something can add a layer of credibility, and perhaps remove a layer of guilt.

I came away some valuable qualitative data, some fantastic memories, but no clear answers; both to the question of how to facilitate participation in a research or training exercise, or of the value of participatory research. What I can confidently say however is that this project represented a genuine, and I would say largely successful,  attempt at ‘listening’ to those who had been involved in a project for nearly three years, trying to capture these voices, and for a pilot project, that is perhaps an achievement in itself.


2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 20, 2011 3:42 pm

    Very good points. Particularly in the case of students, it is hard to compare the benefits of someone becoming a more informed young researcher or NGO worker (and hopefully making better decisions in future that might affect other people they work with later) vs the immediate costs to the participants from the particular village. I’ve heard of some university courses which feature field trip elements where students can ‘practise’ facilitating participatory exercises with poor people, a format which seems to rely on the long-term learning for the students with little chance of direct benefit for the participants.

    Also agree that Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes has many uses!


  1. Participative, Ethnographic, Evaluative Research: Part One « pas à pas

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