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The Bartlett Development Planning Unit


Collective reflections about development practice and cities


An honest account of participatory research

By Rosalina Babourkova-Horner, on 2 October 2012

Are you like me, forever enthralled by anything with the adjective “participatory” in front of it? If yes then read on. This is the story of how I felt undertaking my first so-called participatory mapping research project. It so happened that a few months ago I managed to receive small funding for a project entitled “Mapping perceptions of environmental risk and well-being in a Roma community”. The study I had conceived was not designed to effect any particular social action or change, which is, I am sure you know, the crux of participatory action research. Far more self-centered, my reasons were to forge contacts with local NGOs in the Roma community where I wanted to conduct fieldwork for my PhD.

Despite being exposed to countless theoretical discussions and practical exercises on participatory research methods, I never had any real hands-on experience of actually conducting participatory research. The study that I had so successfully sold to colleagues who kindly advised me, to the local NGO which enthusiastically agreed to be my partner in this undertaking, and, of course, to the funders, became just a testing ground for my participatory research skills.

To what extent do we as students (PhD, Masters, Undergraduate) have the capacity to run participatory action research, when at the end of the day the results of our study are often there to suit our own purposes? Is it worth experimenting with those methods when the research question has not been developed in collaboration with a community, which wants to effect a particular change? In absence of an organized community that one as a researcher can work with and support using participatory techniques, are we not just imposing “participation” on people who are taxed in so many ways?

Let me give an example. Already the fact that I was discussing a participant recruitment strategy with my partner NGO shows that real voluntary participation from within the community was not the point. My partners had their usual beneficiaries in mind as potential participants. Not knowing any better, I quickly agreed that having a group of young mothers (who anyways came to the social center every day to drop off their children, and a group of young men the NGO was working with on other social projects), would be the easiest and most effective way to get people involved.

On the morning of the first workshop I was overcome by  the anxiety of not knowing who may turn up and also of standing in the midst of a completely alien group of people whose trust I should have theoretically already developed, but whom I had not personally invited to the project.

About five women arrived to participate in something, what exactly in they had no clue. “We asked for 10-15 to come”, said the centre manager apologetically and proceeded to ask one of his female colleagues to step in to raise the participant number. As coercion crept in my project, I resolved myself to remain relaxed and upbeat. I ended up delivering a rushed introductory session to the goals of my project and a warm-up game of matching photos of famous landmarks to their location on a large-scale city map. Disposable cameras were distributed, along with hasty instructions on how to use the cameras and what to photograph. Although the women seemed like they were listening intently and did well in the mapping game, I felt in a way as if I was wasting their time.

The afternoon session  [with a group of young men] was similarly rushed after they all came late. They were a bit dazed from walking around in the 3pm blistering sun, but obviously summoned by their informal leader, were ready like soldiers to obey the commands of the “foreign general”. I was disappointed with my performance of Day 1 and bitter that I was making people I did not know participate in something when they may have other things to do.

Interestingly, the next day all 12 cameras were neatly stacked on the proud centre manager’s desk.I rushed around to find a photo studio that would develop them overnight, only realising that I had not factored in the cost of express service development into my project budget. The next morning, on the way to pick up the photos, I felt like I could not and did not want to do this any more. But as soon as I saw the photos I was suddenly elated again. The participants had really understood what I asked them to capture. I could not wait to show them their pictures.

Four out of six boys came for their second session that afternoon. They were eager to see what they had shot. This time I felt more at ease guiding them through a discussion of the kinds of environmental problems they had photographed. They actively participated in grouping the photos in themes and ranking the significance of risk, and I began to realise that we cannot talk about problems without talking about potential solutions as well. With each problem addressed, they asked “how can we improve this?” and “who is responsible?”. They decided to send the Mayor some of the photographs. We arranged to meet the following week to prepare picture postcards of the settlement and a petition list also to be sent to the Mayor.

The boys were not interested in the body health mapping exercise through which I had planned to elicit how the environmental risks portrayed in the PhotoVoice exercise would impact on participants’ and their relatives’ health. I left it for the group of mothers without having the time to prepare for it. I quickly improvised and drew some funny-looking outlines of human bodies on the back of used paper I had salvaged from the rubbish bin. Although the women joked that this is really not what they look like, the body maps produced a very lively discussion on health issues that affected the women and their relatives. Gradually the discussion turned into the informal impromptu gossip session that I thought I was preventing previously. One of the women exclaimed: “We could sit and talk like that all day!” and the others agreed that they’ll come again next week to finish off our project.

The night before my final session, the one where I had promised participants that we’ll alert the municipality about the problems they identified through an existing (but currently defunct!) online mapping platform, I had to think of another plan. Necessity being the mother of all inventions, I found myself creating Google accounts for all participants so they could collaborate in creating a Google map of the risks in the settlement. With only three of the mothers and two of the boys turning up for the final session and technology not working quite like I expected, we all clustered around one computer and transferred results from the paper map into the Google map.

Thinking back now about the whole process, it was a mixed experience. Although I grew more confident as a facilitator in the process, I must confess that managing a group process is not my forte. I would do it again, but definitely not on my own. Throughout the process I missed working in a team of researchers. I missed the ability to bounce ideas off each other, discuss pros and cons, having someone to advice and motivate me when things don’t quite go to plan. Ironically, in a process that is supposed to be participatory, I felt at times very lonely. Not to make this sound entirely like “doom and gloom.” I cherished that my participants started opening up to me after the second session. Although I did not get the results I expected, trialing the methodologies proved fruitful for my partner NGO who is now interested in using them further. The project led to some social action in the form of a petitions list and letter (complete with photos and digital map of problems) send to the mayor asking for some very urgent infrastructural improvements.

all photos by the author
Disclaimer: The views, opinions and positions expressed within this post are those of the author alone and do not represent those of the Development Planning Unit -UCL .  The copyright of this content belongs to the author and any liability with regards to infringement of intellectual property rights remains with them.

3 Responses to “An honest account of participatory research”

  • 1
    Etienne von Bertrab wrote on 9 October 2012:

    I want to congratulate the writer and researcher, Rosa, for carrying out her work in such reflexive way, and for sharing this beautifully honest account!

  • 2
    Catherine wrote on 15 October 2012:

    Thanks for writing this post- it’s really interesting to hear an account of the process of conducting participatory research.

  • 3
    Cassidy Johnson wrote on 23 October 2012:

    thank you for offering this honest account of your research experience; sounds like it was a valuable experience for you and also helpful for others to read. It sounds also like you helped to raise the awareness of environmental issues for the people who participated.

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