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Posted May 1997

Participatory action research and people's participation:
Introduction and case studies

by Gerrit Huizer

1. Participatory action research as a methodology of rural development

Contents/preface2. Alternative strategy >

IN A RECENT critical assessment regarding the conventional approach to development studies Edwards shows that in most cases research in this field has "become part of the problems of underdevelopment rather than being part of the solutions to these problems" [1]. This is related to the fact that advising developing countries had become a "major industry, employing 80.000 expatriates in Africa south of the Sahara. As an alternative to the conventional academic survey and policy (top-down) research Edwards pleads for the introduction or extension of participatory or action research. This kind of research appears the only type that can seriously take into account the knowledge about their own environment and problems that exists among the common people for whom all the studies are allegedly to serve.

Fortunately, at the margins of the mainstream academic and policy-studies participation- and action-research and - even better - participatory action-research has been carried out over the last few decades in several countries. This was mostly related to such fields as community- and peasant organization, adult education, and similar grassroots oriented development efforts, designed to lead to "empowerment of the poor" [2]. A brief overview of the emergence of action research and participatory action research as its offshoot should be given.

Action research has emerged just before and during the Second World War in social psychology as a form of social research in which the researcher learns about certain group processes or change processes by actively participating in or manipulating certain aspects of these group- or change processes. It is a kind of learning by doing. The inventor of the term action research, Kurt Lewin, once said: "If you want to know how things really are, just try to change them" [3]. His work intended to benefit minority groups in the USA, such as Jews and Blacks, but it could well be applied to rural areas in Third World countries. Lewin himself was a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany with a background in the Frankfurter Schule. He created within social psychology a current or school dealing with democratic and authoritarian leadership patterns in groups and conducted a great deal of group dynamics experimentation among various kinds of people [4]. Later his approach was applied also in group formation and community organization work in Southern Italy and Latin America [5].

During the 1960's and early 1970's an increasing number of social scientists particularly in Latin America recognized that most current forms of sociological or anthropological research were not able to deal adequately with the political implications of people's participation in development particularly where this manifested itself in acute local contradictions or conflicts. As controversial aspects were too often ignored, it was difficult for such research to contribute to any solution. In fact unintentionally such research often served the most powerful and vested interests in such cases. As an alternative form of social research which proved more apt to play a role in conflict situations and contribute effectively in finding solutions certain types of action research became increasingly practised [6].

Different forms of action research have been distinguished. One form is manipulative action research: the knowledge acquired through action research can be utilized to manipulate people e.g. workers in industry. This happened in certain fields of industrial "human relations" programmes in USA and Europe where this form of social psychology following Lewin's initiative has been widely used.

In grassroots work in Third World countries a form of action research has emerged which tried to utilize the research itself as well as knowledge acquired through it, to enhance the grip of the local people, the participants on their own communities. From research objects they became research subjects. This was called participatory action research. In this participatory form of action research, several important contributing elements can be distinguished for the activist-researcher:

  1. Required is an awareness of one's own limitations, a sense of insecurity and one's relative ignorance (compared with the local people involved). In addition to this one needs consciousness of oneself as working with certain values, which may differ considerably from those of the local people.

  2. Accepting one's relative ignorance, one tries to learn from the people concerned through empathy and friendship what their problems and needs and feelings are. Knowledge of the history and the overall political-economic situation in the village or area concerned is essential background information. This can be obtained through data-gathering from official statistics or through local informants and group interviews, where people check one another's information.

  3. After acquiring sufficient knowledge and understanding of local problems further dialogue with the local people, particularly through discussions in small groups, searching together for possible solutions is undertaken. This will be done prudently, since most problems are due to conflicts of interest existing in the village or area concerned. Although risky, it is important to not ignore but rather to discover such conflicts and underlying social structural contradictions. It is needed to bring them into the open and initiate step by step, to support or help the people concerned, to undertake activities or create organizations to remedy and correct the situation and to overcome the existing contradictions.
Participatory action research mostly had as a purpose to find solutions to concrete problems and conflicts. The results of such research, however, if carried out systematically and consistently, at the same time contributed to a greater knowledge of conflict-solving methods as such, which apply to a variety of concrete situations. This is important for the replication elsewhere of general theoretical knowledge in this field, from which grassroots groups in a variety of circumstances can benefit. The methodology of participatory action research has gained impact and recognition from the established social science circles in Latin America where special symposia on this method have been organized or sponsored by Unesco, Int. Sociological Association and other bodies, in Cartagend, Colombia (1977), Ayacucho, Peru (1979), Lubljana, Yugoslavia (1980) and Patzcuaro, Mexico (1982), and most recently in Managua (1989) [7].

Also in other parts of the Third World the importance of including participatory strategies into social science methodology has been applied for some time [8]. In the case of African countries where in the rural areas polarization between rich and poor and concentration of land property in few hands has not (yet) taken the alarming forms visible in Latin America and large parts of Asia, the need to practice participatory methods of research to mobilize peasants for effective rural development efforts has also been recognized [9]. Such research was related to study planning and implementation of concrete small self-sufficiency projects such as grain storage or local problem-solving for broader self-reliance as the Jipemoyo-project in Tanzania [10].

There are several ways in which action research, if properly implemented, can directly serve the population in peasant villages. Properly implemented means here that research should be undertaken in close dialogue with the people concerned. As regards the, often problematic, internal situation of villages it is important to discover the existing stratification and the kinds of contradictions between social strata if they exist. The nature of such contradictions can be discussed with the people concerned, particularly with the lowest categories which generally form the majority.

Discussion of these contradictions can be used creatively in a process of conflict-resolution. Thus dynamic mobilization of the people for their own benefit became an integral part of such action-research as happened in cases in Latin America or India. In cases where such contradictions have not developed too strongly, they can be checked or corrected before they become acute and violent. An important aspect of the uncovering of contradictions and polarization between rich and poor is to study the historical process through which these emerged in the near of far-away past, particularly in respect to land tenure.

As regards the external relations of peasant villages or rural areas study was made of the dependency patterns which existed between the local economy and the broader society, regionally, nationally and internationally (e.g. the world market). Such studies, also undertaken in close dialogue with the local people tried to design strategies in which relationships of dependence could be managed in such a way that the local villagers achieve a maximum of bargaining power to assure a measure of independence or even self-reliance. Also this research had to include a look into the history of the emergence of such dependency relationships with the broader economic and political structures and what the effects of these relationships were for the local population. In this context the recovering of oral history often was a strongly motivating force.

These forms of action research have contributed to awakening or heightening poor people's awareness about the conflicts and contradictions existing in their situation and ways to overcome these. Researchers supplied the people they worked with, with useful background information which helped those people to interpret more accurately their own situation. Such action research could direct itself simultaneously towards the development of theories and to the solution of concrete social problems. Some forms of action research are undertaken to facilitate the solution of concrete problems while other forms are directed towards a (more theoretical) search for general problem-solving methods which could apply to a variety of concrete situations. Thus in addition to helping conflict-resolution such action research could lead to valid scientific insights supplementing the type of research generally practised with orthodox methodologies which do not always capture sufficiently the realities of rapid social change.

In the course of years of experimenting it was learned that the processes of rapid change in which most communities and societies are involved at present, anywhere, can probably most fruitfully be studied and understood by participating in those change processes, from within, through active but careful participation in ongoing processes. In addition to this, such action research also had to be undertaken from below, which implied that the realities were being seen critically, through the eyes of those who were suffering the effects of changes, and watched these effects with suspicion, distrust and doubt. This view from below implied a kind of structural and historical consciousness about the causes of subordination, which can help poor peasants and women to maintain their self-esteem to some extent in spite of their down-trodden situation.

However, practising this view from within and from below is often difficult as a consequence of the ways in which the social sciences are generally being taught and implemented. At present social scientists are amply trained in tabulating, drafting questionnaires, observation and interviewing, but there is hardly any systematic training to become sensitive to the needs and values of fellow human beings, individually or in groups. Even less attention is given to oneself, as a researcher and as a human being, grown up with all the biases one's society imposes.

Similarly neglected is development of the capacities to bring 'experiences', impressions and biases through introspection and discussion in small groups into the 'objective' sphere, something that can be learnt like good interviewing as is amply demonstrated by many feminist consciousness-raising groups. Such 'sensitivity-training' is probably a good way to overcome the alienating, dehumanizing effects of most of the current social research methodology which is basically manipulative and not emancipatory. Introducing such a sensitive methodology, in addition to possibly helping the people being researched, may well have a liberating effect on the social scientists concerned themselves.

There exists a certain variety in forms of participatory action research in which research and action (understood as processes of social transformation) are related. The most important distinctions are: Participatory Research-for-action and Participatory Research-through-action.

1. Participatory Research-for-action mostly consists of the regular forms of survey research though questionnaires or interviews, with a view of quantifying data on the situation of villagers. It is self-evident that before starting such investigation in a concrete village or area, statistical and other overall material on the village which is available at competent government offices or statistical bureaus, should be collected and studied. Relevant topics are population, land tenure, economic activities, on-going or past project activities, if available also historical data.

In relation with certain action projects - e.g. various types of people's participation projects - it is necessary to involve participants according to criteria of relative poverty [11]. At the start of a project the activists or promoters visit local families. By making an inventory of the inhabitants of a village and their (lack of) wealth, income, land tenure, measure of indebtedness, number of cattle, they can in dialogue with the people determine who qualifies for participation in the project and who not. It is a principle of people's participation projects to exclude the better-off, to ascertain that they will not become the main beneficiaries of the project or dominate it as happened too often in all kinds of current development schemes as promoted by the World Bank and similar agencies.

The participatory action aspect of this simple quantifying survey research is that the results of inventarization are being fed back into the community in group meetings to verify in open discussions that the data are largely correct (most people in villages know the economic situation of other villagers and a mutual check, particularly if announced beforehand, can be a guarantee for correctness of data supplied). Of course such research should be explained in public meetings in advance, before it actually starts. Such public discussions can enhance awareness and the possible solution of certain contradictions or injustices existing within the village or in its relation with outsiders (merchants, transporters, moneylenders, landlords).

As will be shown below people's participation projects are launched by some governments or nongovernmental organizations in order to specifically help the poor sectors of the rural areas (often the majority) which have not benefited from or were even marginalized by the current Green Revolution and other rural development efforts such as the introduction of large capitalist farms. There are a number of other forms of participatory research-for-action in addition to such an inventory of existing social conditions which form the starting point of action projects. In many cases in addition to knowing the actual social structure of a community it is important to (re)discover the history of social relationships. Listening to the (oral) histories as told by aged men and women about themselves and their community in the past and discussing the findings in community or group meetings has proved to be a useful way to discover and enhance the aspirations living in a community.

Such research can include economic and political history of struggles and developments but also concern the religious and spiritual life, which in the past has often been more evident and important than to-day, though it still may be slumbering and thus influencing present decisionmaking in covert ways.

2. Participatory Research-through-action takes as a point of departure that most activities in the field of emancipatory social transformation can be seen as experiments proving (or disproving) that people can use certain group strategies to change their situation for the better and how to do this most effectively through group formation and common action on their own behalf. It implies therefore a careful recording, qualitative and quantitative, of the process of relevant activities undertaken.

This had to be done by the activist or promoter but in part also by the secretaries of the action-groups (e.g. minutes of meetings held). The promoter has to do the summarizing of all the collected records and to assess in dialogue with the participants cases of success and failure, problems or bottlenecks which occurred (e.g. regarding democratic or authoritarian style of group leadership and its effectiveness). The summarized experiences are presented for discussion in the groups concerned and in common meetings or workshops of representatives of various groups, so that feedback can take place and an overall and mutual learning-by-doing process emerges. Thus certain successful activities can be analysed and the factors leading to success be recognized and their occurrence enhanced in future activities. At the same time factors leading to failures can be detected and in the future possibly be avoided.

Participatory research-for-action and research-through-action generally complement each other as components of participatory action research. They can be implemented at various levels. These are mostly undertaken at the village or community level and have in such situations proved to be a useful approach to enhance the empowerment of disadvantaged people (peasants, women) through group formation and common action. The group members and -leaders as well as the activists or promoters learn a great deal from these exchanges. Promoters as well as participants can enhance their learning by keeping in addition to official records and logbooks about occurrences and activities a personal diary with reflections and observations particularly on difficult or controversial aspects of the processes involved. Personal development and group empowerment often go hand in hand and can be explicitly linked by conscious reflective effort. Thus objectivity in participatory action research can be enhanced by the distance, through self-reflection, which researchers can take from themselves and from their own personal and cultural biases and the political-economic context to which they structurally belong.

In the course of the last few years considerable experience has been accrued in some official or many non-governmental agency sponsored projects with various forms of participatory action research. One of the few official and UN sponsored programmes using this methodology is FAO's People's Participation Programme (PPP), working through pilot projects in about 10 different countries. In most of these projects some measure of systematic application of participatory action research has been an essential component.


1. Michael Edwards, "The irrelevant of development studies", Third World Quarterly, vol. 11, no. 1, 1989, p. 117.

2. Jos Kronenburg, "Empowerment of the Poor. A Comparative Analysis of two Development Endeavours in Kenya, Amsterdam, Nijmegen", kit-dwc, 1986.

3. Kurt Lewin, "Resolving Social Conflicts", New York, Harper, 1958.

4. See for a brief summary of Lewin's efforts J. Kronenburg, op. cit.,p. 233-241.

5. Gerrit Huizer, "Het woord moet actie worden", Sociologische Gids, 8, no. 3, 1961, p. 113-122 and Gerrit Huizer, "Evaluating community development at the grassroots: Some observations on methodology", America Indigena, XXV, 3 July 1965, p. 279-301.

6. Gerrit Huizer, "Research-through-action: some practical experiences with peasant organisations", in Gerrit Huizer and Bruce Mannheim, ed., "The Politics of Anthropology: From Colonialism and Sexism toward a view from below", The Hague-Paris, Mouton (World Anthropology Series), 1979.

7. See for a discussion of such types of research: "Simposio Mundial de Cartagena, Critica y Politica en Ciencias Sociales: El Debate sobre Teoria y Practica", Tomo I & II, Ed. Punta de Lanza, Bogota, 1978. Also the various seminars on aspects of "participatory research" organized by the Participatory Research Project of the International Council for Adult Education (29 Prince Arthur, Ont. Canada), and various contributions of its editor, Budd Hall. Further: F. Vio Grossi, V. Gianotten, T. de Wit (ed.), "Investigacion Participativa y Praxis Rural, Nuevos Conceptos en Education y Desarrollo Comunal", Mosca Azul Editores, Lima, Peru, 1981. Anton de Schutter, "Investigacion Participativa: una Opcion methodologica para la Education de Adultos", CREFAL, Patzcuaro, Mexico, 1981. Most of these experiences are summarized in the dissertation by Vera Gianotten and Ton de Wit, "Organizacion Campesina: El Objectivo Politico de la Educacion Popular y la Investigation Participativa", Amsterdam: CEDLA, 1985

8. For Asia see Wahidul Haque, Niranjan Metha, Anisur Rahman and Ponna Wignaraja, "Towards a Theory of Rural Development", in "Development Dialogue", Uppsala, 1977: 2, p. 1-137. Also Walter Fernandez and Rajesh Tandon, ed., "Participatory Research and Evaluation: Experiments in Research as a Process of Liberation", New Delhi, Indian Social Institute, 1981.

9. Goran Hyden, Beyond Ujamaa. "Underdevelopment and an Uncaptured Peasantry". London, Heinemann, 1980, p. 251 ff.

10. E.V. Mduna, "Grain Storage Project at Bwakiri Chini village in Tanzania", in Helen Callaway, ed, Participation in Research: Case Studies of Participatory Research, Studiecentrum NCVO, AmerSFoort (Netherlands), 1980. Kemal Mustafa, "The Role of Culture in Development: Jipemoyo Project, Tanzania", in Folke Dubell, Thord Erasmie and Jan de Vries, ed., "Research for the People, Research by the People", Linköping University, 1981.

11. See e.g. Gerrit Huizer, "Guiding Principles for People's Participation Projects", FAO, Rome, 1983; Bernard van Heck, "Draft Guidelines for Beneficiaries Participation in Agricultural and Rural Development", FAO, Rome, 1989.

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