The Many Faces of Participatory Methodologies

At our recently concluded annual seminar, Prof. Rajagopalan, of the International Institute of Information Technology, Bangalore (IIIT-B), mentioned that the idea of “participative approaches” has gained currency within development work and literature. Stating this, he pointed to how participatory approaches are  seen as the panacea for all ills that plague development-related work. A significant point he drew all our attention to was the need to really think about how far participatory approaches would take us in addressing issues of inequality and development.

What he was hinting at, I think, is the need to think about what “participation” means and entails, and the many different ways in which it is applied.  This is something that I myself have grappled with, right from the start of my involvement with our project on “Assessing the Impact of Women’s Action Groups on Social Change in India.” The project focuses on the impacts of the Mahila Samakhya (MS), a government funded non-governmental organisation’s approach to women’s empowerment. As part of the project, very early on, I was required to train the sahyoginis (the field workers and facilitators) of the MS in ethnographic methods, along with a colleague of mine. The sahyoginis or facilitators are women who travel extensively through the field sites in rural India, forming women’s collectives within the villages, in an effort to bring about critical change to women’s lives. As part of our ethnographic study of the MS we had hoped to enlist the sahyoginis in keeping ethnographic diaries that would help us obtain a ‘thick description’ of the process of empowerment and change. Thus, the training was to coach them in techniques of ‘participant observation’ that is at the heart of the ethnographic method.

But how does one train those who are in the everyday business of facilitating and using  participative methodologies? What does one train the sahyoginis in, whose primary job is that of encouraging women to take active control of their lives, and participating in matters that affected their lives? How does one distinguish between ‘participation’ as pedagogy (which is how I think of the MS approach) and ‘participation’ as a technique of data collection? Is there at all any difference between the two, and do the two forms of participation pan out differently? These were the things that were bothering me as I headed to the training session, still worrying about what I would be able to accomplish. The session was planned such that our training on ethnographic methodologies was to follow an internal training by the MS district office in Haveri.

As I sat watching the early activities and sessions of the day by MS trainers, a tiny seed of conviction started building up within me, and it grew stronger as the day progressed. There is a difference between participation-as-pedagogy and participation-as-research methodology, I could see. For participation-as-pedagogy, in the ways that it took shape during the training, seemed to have a teleological end. While women were to be drawn out through participation to reflect over their own lives and see the importance of being an agent, it was clear that this form of participation was to lead to specific ends. More importantly it was to understand the workings of power and society in specific ways that marked out the oppressors, the oppressed and the process of oppression. Inherent in the structure of training was the assumption that women had not been exerting their agencies in the ways in which their lives were/had been shaped prior to the training.

The aim of training was therefore to help women identify or uncover certain other ways of exerting agency, that would upturn social power and oppressive forces (which are implicitly positioned as unidirectional in their effects). This understanding of social power and ways to address it within the MS project can loosely be attributed to the Freiran model of critical pedagogy. According to the Freiran model of critical pedagogy, the aim of education should be to guide individuals to uncover the ‘false consciousness’ that prevents them from seeing how everyday practices lead to certain forms of domination.[1] The goal of critical pedagogy is to pose questions that challenge these alleged practices of domination, and thus open up participants’ minds to the possibilities of thinking and acting differently.

What is central to such projects of critical pedagogy then, is as Ian Hunter (1996) notes, the notion of ’emancipation.’ This is suggestive of a rescue from a prior scenario that is seen as a failure or inadequate in some ways,  as opposed to a post-training scenario in which these short-comings have been righted. Thus, rather than being an open-ended process of learning, the learning process is already value-laden in certain ways since there is a goal towards which training must be directed.

What this also means is that participation-as-pedagogy is very different in its orientation from participant observation, or  participatory methods in research in general. For at least in principle, research must be undertaken without a predetermined end or value judgements. What this means is participation in ethnographic research must be towards no predetermined ends. Thus, it involves what is called ‘ethnographic immersion’, in order to be able to see and experience everyday events as the “native”, or “locals” of that culture. It also requires what Ananya Roy (2010) calls a process of “rendering the familiar strange” to one’s own self, questioning even that one is accustomed to take for granted or socialised to accept in a particular way. That is, it is to reflect on the everyday events and experiences and raise questions about its rationales and significance, without the intention of settling for commonsensical or pre-given explanations. In fact, it is this very aspect of our everyday life, of making sense of the world through categories and explanations given to us, that makes itimperative to reflexively immerse ourselves within the social milieu as a participant observer. As a self-reflexive observer one must  go beyond the stated, to discover what is the underlying meaning of the text, who is doing the saying, and how does one’s own positionality condition how we make sense of this.

This clarity regarding the two forms of participation having been achieved, we went about with our training on ethnographic diaries, for the sahyoginis, using an activity called ‘The River of Life’. The aim of the activity was to have the participants reflect over their own lives and represent it as a river’s life story (in art and narrative form) as it passed through various terrains. The metaphor of geographical conditions (e.g., rocky terrain, green fields, through a valley or over a hill), was to be used to describe significant life experiences (e.g., unstable childhood, or a strong, happy relationship, etc.). At the end of the exercise, the sahyoginis had to exchange their pictures with a partner and have them interpret the picture. What sealed my conviction about the differences between the two approaches was the sahyoginis own reflection about the training. While the sahyoginis were practised in the art of using narration and metaphor as a pedagogic tool, they expressed a realisation of how interpretations of the same metaphor could differ. Thus, they concluded stating that while the journey of their rivers looked more or less similar in form, the interpretation of their lives added much more to the narrative account of their pictures. In this process, the sahyoginis did acknowledge the fact that while united in a cause, there were different ways of being and seeing.

Thus, in that session, we did manage to establish the critical difference between participation-as-pedagogy that the sahyoginis were used to, and participant observation that they were required to undertake for the project. But in this process, perhaps we did something more than that? Perhaps we also managed to identify why there are limits to the development that can be achieved through participatory frameworks? For developmental agenda is most-often guided by the participation-as-pedagogy approach. Thus, intrinsically it is guided by the interests of those in power, thereby completely missing out on the ways in which participants themselves see, and would like to shape the process of development!


Roy, Ananya. Poverty Capital Microfinance and the Making of Development. New York: Routledge, 2010.

Hunter, I. (1996). Assembling the school. In Andrew Barry, Thomas Osborne, and Nikolas Rose (Eds.), Foucault and Political Reason: Liberalism, Neo-liberalism and Rationalities of Government (pp.143-166). Chicago:University of Chicago Press.

[1] “‘False Consciousness’ refers to ideology dominating the consciousness of exploited groups and classes which at the same time justifies and perpetuates their exploitation.” (Source:

Maithreyi R
Research Advisor, CBPS

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