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Process, Perception and Power: Notes from "Participatory" Research in a Zimbabwean Resettlement Area Open Access


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Goebel, Allison
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rural communities
participatory research
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\"Participatory\" methods in research, development projects, and rural extension in developing countries have been gaining popularity. Rapid Rural Appraisal (RRA), Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA), and Participatory Action Research (PAR), for example, have developed alongside interest and respect for indigenous knowledge, and challenges to top-down approaches to development projects and extension. Meanwhile, in the social sciences and humanities, theoreticians have destabilized the construction of the academic as \"collector\" and \"scientific\" analyser of knowledge, of \"facts.\" Instead, the researcher is pictured more as a facilitator of knowledge creation, a self-conscious interpreter of complex and often competing \"stories.\" For radical research, this shift demands the use of methodologies emphasizing the interaction between researcher and \"research subjects,\" and interrogating the categories and biases imposed by the researcher. Parallel to these largely progressive changes, is the desire, particularly in the world of donor-initiated development projects and rural extension bodies, to get quick social-cultural information to satisfy the requirements of a project document or a departmental decree. Conscious that many project failures in the past have been related to lack of attention to social and cultural factors, large development institutions such as the World Bank and FAO have adopted RRA and PRA in hopes of improving on this disappointing history. The \"rapid\" aspect of the methods appeals especially to project efforts that are predominantly technical, and the project developers are largely foresters, soil scientists, agriculturalists, or biologists. In these efforts, there appears to be a desire to limit social investigation due to its \"messiness,\" and the way it detracts focus from more interesting and important technical issues. Thus, while expert literature on R/PRA sees the approach as a package of investigative techniques that would take repeated visits to complete, much technically driven donor efforts that would take repeated visits to complete, much technically driven donor efforts seem to break off a discrete part of R/PRA from the package and make it stand for the \"social dimension\" in the project process. Similarly, the concept of \"participation\" appears to be truncated. It comes to mean \"a way to get people to do what we want,\" rather than a means fundamentally to change the project idea or construction, or a means to involve and respect local knowledge on equal footing with foreign, particularly scientific, expertise. In academe, some of these \"shortcuts\" are also gaining some currency. For example, in natural resources research at the University of Zimbabwe, a \"portfolio\" of PRA techniques consistently appears at methodology workshops and training exercises. While the Centre for Applied Social Sciences (CASS) has a long history of in-depth, longitudinal applied social research, some of its researchers are also becoming \"PRA Experts.\" There is a danger that as PRA techniques are absorbed into academe, social researchers, particularly in developing countries, could be called upon by donor institutions to \"do PRA\" to satisfy the social requirements of a project cycle. Thus PRA could become a tool through which academic energy is made to serve an effort to simplify and minimize what is, essentially, complex and contested social worlds. This could compromise academic integrity, as well as aid in the disempowerment of the \"subjects\" of the donor project through the containment of their input to a set PRA package. The growing popularity of participatory methods is thus associated with two essentially contradictory approaches. The one seeks to reveal and validate local knowledges, destabilize the notion of outside expert as the only true \"knower,\" and include communities on equal footing in planning and implementation of rural improvement. The second approach adopts the language and some of the methods of RRA and PRA, without adequately acknowledging the complexity of social realities, or properly absorbing or practising the intended notions of \"participation.\" This paper argues, that even in cases where the intent of research lies with the first approach, and the research is academic rather than \"project driven,\" the use of RRA and PRA can obscure rather than reveal social complexity, and validate dominant views which become portrayed as the common view, a monolithic \"local knowledge.\" This is especially the case when R/PRA is used in an abbreviated form, such as one or two day sessions, focused on group work. Further, while the methodologies may indeed make it easier for people to express things to the researcher, there is little in the methodology that helps to interpret why people express what they do. The puzzle of meaning remains. I use my own research using PRA in Zimbabwean Resettlement Area, to examine how knowledge is created through this particular type of research act. I explore how the methodology interacted with power relations among participants, with villagers' expectations and notions about the researcher, and with politics and conflicts surrounding the subject of the research. The use of PRA data as \"quantitative data\" is also discussed. Finally, I assess the gendered perspectives produced in the PRA work.
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