4 Participation, participant observation and participatory action research

Including people in researching and decision making on issues that affect them is becoming more prevalent at many different scales, from the management of multinational corporations to small-scale development initiatives, and from local government to national and international policy formulation. As a result, research on participation or which takes a participatory approach is becoming increasingly popular amongst researchers and policy makers.

Research often requires thinking about how different groups of people can participate in a process for the best outcome. Participation means the involvement of relevant stakeholders in the decisions and activities that affect them. Stakeholder analysis for a particular process involves making an assessment of who it is likely to effect, and in what way. The advantages of a participatory approach can essentially be seen in terms of either efficiency or ethics. The two views are not exclusive, and it is perfectly possible to hold that participation is both effective and the right thing to do.

The pragmatic argument for participation is that processes which are participatory work better than ones which are not. In other words, because participatory approaches include stakeholders in decision-making or implementation, they offer a better match with the facts-on-the-ground, as well as a sense of ownership on the part of stakeholders, and these results in this view are associated with success. The ethical argument is value-driven and to do with respecting the rights of stakeholders to influence decisions which affect their lives. In this way of thinking, stakeholders must be made partners in the processes that affect them because it is their right to be recognised and respected as autonomous human beings. An ethical view of participation is often associated with an interest in issues of power and empowerment, and a shift is sought from ‘experts on top to experts on tap’ (Gibson, 1996, p. 139).

Taking a participatory approach to research or action requires an appreciation of who could or should potentially participate. Experience generally shows that when changes are proposed to existing situations, the effects of those changes will be different for different people – they will have different stakes in the potential outcomes. Thus a fundamental part of most participatory methodologies is some form of stakeholder analysis. Technology innovation is littered with examples of projects which failed to appreciate meaningful differences between different stakeholders in particular contexts: projects which helped men but not women, or which added to the workload of some groups without acknowledging or compensating for this change, or which marginalised other groups from the decision-making process.

When dealing with different stakeholders, one of the things that distinguishes between them is that they have different viewpoints – they see the world differently. One method to try to climb into the role and view the interests of stakeholders is participant observation.

4.1 Participant observation