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
- 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
- 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 learn 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 well being 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 resources and findings. Transects take many forms:
vertical, loop, along a watercourse, sometimes even the sea
- 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
- 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 connections, and causality. This
has been used for marketing, nutrient flows on farms, migration,
social contacts, impacts of interventions and trends, etc.
- Well being 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
- 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)