Using Participatory Research Methods in Economic Research

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  • Participatory research is primarily a methodological approach which attempts to formalise the reciprocal interaction between an agency and target communities. Methods such as Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) have gained wide acceptance with rural development agencies as part of the planning process for development projects. According to Chambers (1994), the critical feature of the PRA approach is that the professionals relinquish control and let local people explain the needs and aspirations of the community. Accumulated experience and evidence suggests that participatory research can greatly increase the effectiveness of dollars spent on development initiatives (Kottak 1985, Carter 1996). The potential for gains in cost-effectiveness may explain the wide diffusion of participatory approaches, from capacity building within large public institutions (Thompson 1995), to public policy reform in developed countries in areas such as health care (McWilliam 1997) and education (Weatherly and Lipsky 1977) that can be observed. Given the widespread use of participatory methods, it is interesting to consider why these methods are not commonly employed in applied economic research. It may well be that the practice of classical statistical analysis of stating a hypothesis and testing this hypothesis lead the researcher to assume that the community cannot or should not be involved in the development of the research questions. In this paper, we call this assumption into question, examine how the community can influence the direction of a research project and how this leads to an improvement in the overall quality of the questions and the information that can be gathered. This line of inquiry then leads us to question the distinctions made between participatory approaches and other interactive appraisal approaches such as Rapid Rural Appraisal (RRA). The distinction appears largely artificial and based on an arbitrary line drawn between policy based research and implementation. A case study is used to examine the power of the Participatory Research Method (PRM) in developing research questions and formal hypotheses. The primary research interest revolves around the choice behaviour of the agricultural household. By examining the choices of the household, much is revealed concerning the economic value of household labour as well as the products from the environment. As this paper is intended for audience with an interest in the social sciences, it is necessary to begin with a description of the stylised agricultural household from economic theory. The next step is to examine the results of a series of exercises undertaken during a week of community meetings. Each exercise was useful for paring down the questions to only those relevant to both the researcher and the community. While participatory approaches are usually associated with the planning and implementation stages of development projects rather than theoretical modelling and formal hypothesis testing, there is a significant role for participatory research in selecting research questions and designing working hypotheses.

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    Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 3.0 International