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A Framework for Clarifying “Participation” in Participatory Research to Prevent its Rejection for the Wrong Reasons

Olivier Barreteau, Cemagref UMR G-EAU
Pieter W. G. Bots, Delft University of Technology
Katherine A Daniell, Australian National University


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Participatory research relies on stakeholder inputs to obtain its acclaimed benefits of improved social relevance, validity, and actionability of research outcomes. We focus here on participatory research in the context of natural resource management. Participants’ acceptance of participatory research processes is key to their implementation. Our first assumption is that this positive view and acceptance of participation in research processes is a public good for the whole participatory research community. We also assume that the diversity of participatory forms of research is rarely considered by potential participants when they make their decisions about whether or not to participate in a proposed process. We specifically address how to avoid stakeholders’ reluctance to be involved in participatory research projects based on disillusion with past experiences. We argue that the disappointment experienced by stakeholders and other participants (i.e., researchers and policy makers) can be avoided by being upfront and precise about how “participation” will be implemented, and what kind of involvement is expected from participants. Such a collective effort from the research community can also clarify the variety of possible implementations for potential participants. Building on earlier efforts to characterize and categorize the diversity of participatory research approaches, we develop a conceptual analytic procedural framework to make participants’ roles explicit in the implementation of different participatory research processes. This framework consists of three facets: (1) the flows of information among participants and the control over these flows for each step in a process, i.e., who will be expected to produce information, who will use this information, and who will receive the results; (2) the timing of the involvement of participants in the different steps of the research process, and the framing power that is associated with each process step; and (3) the organization of communication among participants for each information flow, i.e., in what configuration (bilaterally or as a group, mediated or face to face) the interactions among researchers, stakeholders, and policy makers will take place. This framework can accommodate a wide variety of research methods, and highlights exactly how participants are involved in research processes. We are prescriptive in dealing with the need to be procedurally explicit when engaging in participatory research. We anticipate that using this framework will lead to more thoughtful acceptances or refusals to participate in proposed research processes. Our framework is based on various experiences with participatory research. It is intended to be used from the very beginning of a participatory research process as a conceptual guide for researchers. We suggest a protocol to transform it into more practical guidelines for communicating about upcoming participatory research processes. The leader of such processes should propose at each key stage an explicit, yet adaptive, plan for the following stages. This plan should also specify in what ways participants will be involved, and how the plan itself can be questioned and revised.

Key words

framing; information flow; participatory research; water management

Copyright © 2010 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article is under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. You may share and adapt the work for noncommercial purposes provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087