Participatory Action Research:
A menu of methods

  • Find and critically review secondary data. They can mislead. They can also help a lot especially in the earlier stages, eg. deciding where to go, and where gaps or contradictions in understanding exist.

  • Observe directly (see for yourself). This can be most effective if combined with self-critical awareness of personal biases that are a result of our own specialized education and background, and consciously trying to compensate these.

  • Seek those who are experts about specific issues. This is so obvious and yet often overlooked, perhaps because outsiders assume that they do not exist. For example: What mechanisms for conflict management/resolution exist and who in the community is involved?

  • Key probes: questions that can lead directly to key issues again based on the assumption that local people are doing something eg. "What net practices have you or others in this village experimented with in recent years?" "What happens when someone's house burns down?"

  • Case studies and stories: a household history and profile, a farm, coping with a crisis, how a conflict was resolved.

  • Groups (casual or random encounter; focus; representative or structured for diversity; community, neighbourhood or a specific social group; or formal). Group interviews are often powerful and efficient, but relatively neglected, perhaps due to continued focus on counting through individual questionnaire-based interviews.

  • Do-it-yourself: Roles of expertise are reversed, with local people as experts, and outsiders as clumsy novices. Local people supervise and teach skills (to fetch firewood, cut and carry fodder grass, level a field, transplant, weed, mud a hut...), allowing others to leam about their realities, needs and priorities.

  • Mapping and modelling: people's mapping, drawing and colouring on the ground, with sticks, seeds, powders, etc. to make social, health or demographic maps (of a residential village), resource maps of village lands or forests, maps of fields, farms, home gardens, topic maps (for water, soils, trees, etc.), service or opportunity maps, making three dimensional models of watersheds, etc. These methods have been one of the most widely used and can be combined with or lead into household listing and wellbeing ranking, transects, and linkage diagrams.

  • Local analysis of secondary sources: Participatory analysis of aerial photographs (often best at 1:5000) to identify soil types, land conditions, land tenure, etc. also satellite imagery.

  • Transect walks: systematically walking with key informants through an area, observing, asking, listening, discussing, learning about different zones, local technologies, introduced technologies, seeking problems, solutions, opportunities, and mapping and/or diagraming rssources and findings. Transects take many forms: vertical, loop, along a watercourse, sometimes even the sea bottom!

  • Timelines and trend and change analysis: Chronologies of events, listing major local events with approximate dates; peoples accounts of the past, of how customs, practices and things close to them have changed; ethno-biographies - local history of a crop, an animal, s tree, a pest, a weed ..., diagrams and maps showing ecological histories, changes in land use and cropping patterns, population, migration, fuel uses, education, health, credit ..., and the causes of changes and trends, often with estimation of relative magnitude.

  • Seasonal calendars - distribution of days of rain, amount of rain or soil moisture, crops, women's, children's and men's work including agricultural and non-agricultural labour, diet, food con- sumption, sickness, prices, migration, income, expenditure, etc.

  • Daily time use analysis: Indicating relative amounts of time, degrees of drudgery, etc., activities sometimes indicating seasonal variations.

  • Institutional or Venn diagraming. Identifying individuals and institutions important in and for a community or group, or within an organization and their relationships.

  • Linkage diagrams: of flows, or conections, and causality. This has been used for marketing, nutrient flows on farms, migration, social contacts, impacts of interventions and trends, etc.

  • Wellbeing grouping (or wealth ranking): grouping or ranking households according to local criteria, including those considered poorest and worst off. A good lead into discussions of the livelihoods of the poor and how hey cope.

  • Matrix scoring and ranking: especially using matrices and seeds to compare through scoring, for example different trees, or soils, or methods of soil and water conservation, varieties of a crop or animal, fields on a farm, fish, weeds, conditions at different times, and to express preferences.

  • Team contracts and interactions: contracts drawn up by teams with agreed norms of behaviour, modes of interaction within teams, including changing pairs, evening discussions, mutual criticism and help; how to behave in the field, etc. (The team may consist of outsiders only, local people only, or local people and outsiders together,)

  • Shared presentations and analysis: where maps, models, diagrams, and findings are presented by local people and/or outsiders, especially at community meetings, and checked corrected and discussed. Brainstorming, especially joint sessions with local people. But who talks? And how much? Who dominates? Who interrupts whom? Whose ideas dominate? Who lectures?

  • Contrast comparisons: Asking group A to analyse group 8 and vice versa. This has been used for gender awareness, asking men to analyse how women spend their time.

  • Drama and participatory video making on key issues: to draw together the problems analysis and explore solutions.
    (Notes on these and other tools, with examples of their use, are in IIED's Participatory Learning and Action: A Trainer's Guide)

    Hari Srinivas -
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