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Thursday, 8 August 2013

Strengths and Limitations of Participatory Approaches to Development Communication

The goal of this report is to analyze the strengths and limitations of participatory approaches (PAR) to development communication. For our analysis, it is necessary to provide a brief introduction of PAR and development communication.
This essay starts with the introduction of PAR and development communication before going on to discuss  the diverse academic opinions on PAR. The essay also focuses on the PARs strengths and limitations to development communication. The strengths have been ideintified as follows:
l  Deep Understanding Based on Authentic Experiences
l  Positive Relationship Based on Equality in Research Roles
l  Empowering Participants
l  Practicable Approach to Promote Social Development
To elaborate on the limitations of PAR, the essay discusses the following aspects:
l  Outside Specialist
l  Lack of Academic Standardization
l  Great Dependence on Researchers
l  Paradox in Power Redistribution

Brief introduction to Development Communication and PAR
The term “Development Communication” was first created in 1972 by Nora C. Quebra. He defines it asThe art and science of human communication linked to a society's planned transformation from a state of poverty to one of dynamic socio-economic growth that makes for greater equity and the larger unfolding of individual potential (Quebral, 2001, "). It is also a process of eliciting positive change in a community through effective exchange of information. Development communication has great links with and relies on community and people participation. This is also a distinctive feature of PAR, which involves participation or collaboration between participants and the change agent.
The theory and practice of development communication continues to evolve today, with different approaches and perspectives unique to the varied development contexts the field has grown in (Manyozo, 2006). Participatory approach as a recognized research approach focuses on the effects of researchers’ actions or practice within a community. This approach aims at improving the performance quality of the community. The key ideas in PAR include participatory involvement, action, change, and dialectic dialogue. The case study is also widely  used as a research method as part of PAR. PAR differs from traditional approaches to research in that it involves direct participation while keeping the research process highly dynamic. As Prozesky and Mouto (2002, 537) observe, PAR takes a sharp break from what was previously considered as proper research in areas such as the research process and the data collection methods

Diverse Academic Opinions on PAR
PAR conflicts with what is generally considered normal social science because it places a strong emphasis on the political dimension. This political nature of PAR has in many cases been sharply criticized by scholars and analysts who tend to question its level of objectivity. Moreover, some researchers, especially the quantitative researchers criticize PAR for its lack of technical validity and lackluster approach to methodology. PAR mainly concentrates on bringing intervention to community and participants. In most cases, the participatory researchers have been parts of the subject communities whose realities are being changed and this gives immense credence to the assertions made by PAR’s critics. However, Prozesky and Mouto (2002) continue to defend PAR by stating that it provides the opportunity for new theories and more knowledge to be introduced into the society. It promotes practical problem solving unlike some of the traditional approaches to research.

Brown (1993) further agrees with these assertions by observing that both Southern and Northern traditions of PAR are concerned with knowledge in the form of answers to specific problems and knowledge as a transformation of consciousness. Some other analysts hold the belief  that conducting PAR promotes practical problem-solving and brings the improvement of actual situation of the community and spreads knowledge and understanding. This assertion forms the basis for view analysts take that it is worth to sacrifice some level of methodological and technical rigor to achieve a greater good. Besides, participatory action research has its own methodological and epistemological bases. Reason (1994) reminds us that PAR is a methodology for an alternative system of knowledge production. PAR constitutes an epistemological shift by emphasizing the importance of “experiential knowing” (Reason, 1994)

Strengths of Participatory approaches to Development Communication
PAR constitutes epistemological shift by emphasizing the fundamental importance of experiential knowing (Reason, 1994). Deep understanding based on authentic experiences in PAR helps to generate better suggestions and strategies for the advancement of society. And strategies are not only provided by researchers, but also the participants. In PAR, researchers are not only the witness, but also the change agents in researches. They participate in the research and get familiar with people and the environment in the community, to gain deep understanding and authentic experiences. During PAR, researchers gain unique knowledge about participants’ system and culture based on their own experiences.

PAR provides new ways of knowing. As Reason (1994) states, PAR articulates an “extended epistemology” that involves the reclaiming of three broad ways of knowing- thinking, feeling, and acting. In traditional researches, researchers cannot gain knowledge by the means of feeling and acting. The study “Participatory Poverty Reduction in China Transforming the interface between rural citizens and the state: Experiences with participatory poverty reduction in China” serves as an example to illustrate this point (insert reference). The study brings authentic experiences of practitioners working at grassroots and shows a more convictive conclusion about the poverty reduction in China. The experiences bring first-hand data, which serve as the direct proof of poverty reduction in China.

In traditional communication researches, researchers do research design, data gathering and data analysis without participating in the community. On one hand, researchers stand outside the community to have a whole perspective of the research problem. On the other hand, researchers stand by to record the real situation about the community and research subjects. Traditional paradigms keep researchers out of the local affairs. Researches bring objective attitude with the disregard of the researcher’s personal opinions.. Development communication utilizes existent communication tools and applicable theories to generate strategies for the advancement of society. PAR serves as a paradigm and approach to get involved in the community and spark off a change process. In 1994 the FAO project, Communication for Development in Southern Africa, was a pioneer in supporting and enhancing development projects and programs through the use of participatory communication approaches.

2)      Positive Relationship Based on Equality in Research Roles
In participatory action research, research subjects are seen as equal partners in the project. They can participate in the research and have an equal conversation and dialogue with researchers in the research process. PAR offers a new paradigm that can provide a balance of power between researchers and research subjects. PAR insists on developing a subject-subject relationship, which underlying commitment to social equity and redistributing power (Reason 1994).

Participants are involved in several stages in the research process: problem formulation, initial design of the project, implementing the project, reaching the final conclusion, and generating problem solutions. In these stages, participants are not passively being watched and analyzed. At some point, they are the designers and implementers of the project.

The equality of research roles mobilizes participants’ initiative and enthusiasm. Participants treat this research more like a problem solving process, which has close relationship with their own life quality and living environment. This positive attitude pushes research forward. Besides, as Rahman (1988) states, participates should be encouraged to form new organizations by means of self-mobilization. This is a democratization motive can be a supplement to traditional research. In the traditional communication research, researchers are outsiders to the community and cannot get  deeply involved with the research subjects. However, in PAR, all aspects of research work are less important than participation or collaboration between participants and the change agent (Prozesky and Mouton, 2002).. Participation implies that members of the subject of study are integrated in the research by participating fully and actively in the research process from its outset and throughout most or all of its phases.

In PAR, change agent supports participants to improve self-awareness, think critically and learn to make their own researches. And at the same time, researchers bring several aspects of knowledge to participants to help them know more about equality principle and situations about the outside world. With these efforts, PAR empowers the communities and emancipates participants to promote the social development. Some scholars such as Sarri and Sarri (1992); and Chesler (1991) define PAR as a methodological approach to development of consciousness. To obtain its object, PAR has the necessity to improve participants’ self-awareness. The improvement of participants’ self-awareness is also directly linked to the promotion of participants’ collective social inquiries.

Critical thinking is the process or method of thinking that questions assumptions. Critical thinking is necessary for participants to form self-awareness. In PAR, it is the change agent’s responsibility to emancipate participants’ minds for critical questioning, reflection and inquiry. In addition, PAR focuses on the development of “freedom and democracy” (Reason, 1994). With critical thinking ability, participants can decide better whether a claim is true, false, or sometimes true and sometimes false, or partly true and partly false. It is a necessary characteristic for participants to find the current problems and understand the problems better. PAR is also an approach to education (Sarri and Sarri, 1992). The learning process is an inseparable part of PAR. To help participants understand the social problems existing in the community, such as poverty and low quality of social service, change agents have the necessity to spread essential knowledge.

Besides, participants, as the subjects of research control and own many aspects of the research activity. Research techniques are also popularized in the process of PAR. Participants gain basic research knowledge in the contact with change agents. The basic research ability is useful for participants to social investigation and analysis. Different aspects of knowledge play important part in the critical thinking ability forming process and consciousness development.

4)      Practicable Approach to Promote Social Development
The ultimate objective of development communication is to promote social development. Based on participation, PAR provides a practicable approach to reach this goal. PAR compares itself not only with research as “science-making” instrument, but also as a “methodology for productive work (False-Borda, 1988). PAR promotes practical problem-solving during the research process.

Generating solutions to problems and applying research outcomes are necessary stages in the PAR process. During these stages, the roles of researchers are only to spark of a process that participants then take their own course. Participants of local community are encouraged to change the current situation of the community. PAR ends up with a social action which is implemented by participants themselves based on their own perceptions on reality (Rahnema, 1990). Change agents serve as an assistant role, supporting these people to undertake the action by means of self-mobilization.

PAR is considered to be “inquiry as empowerment” (Reason 1994), through which key component of community transformations and social justice can be achieved. Community Participation is a voluntary involvement, with the community being equipped with basic knowledge and training. Several methodologies are used to promote people’s participation and they can include peer education, community mapping and participatory rural appraisal. The participating people bring influences on other people in the community, thus enlarge the communication effects and promote the social development.

Limitations of Participatory approaches to Development Communication
Although PAR has several strengths to development communication that can promote social development, it still has its limitations.
PAR is committed to work for grassroots groups, communities and social classes, such as those are poor, underprivileged or socially and economically exploited. Those persons who are vulnerable to subjugation by the dominant culture  are also appropriate for a PAR project (Reason, 1994). Although the PAR approach seems like it is exclusive of elites, it is most frequently taken by persons coming from the well-educated class. A professional researcher serves as a specialist coming from the outside of the community. The distinction in identity is an obstructive factor for a participatory research. According to Huizer (1984), PAR should be carried out by scholars from those areas or countries where there are socio-economic or political issues to be addressed.

Different environment and educational backgrounds have different external manifestations on people’s languages, body languages and other manners. It is difficult for a specialist to get well involved in a local community or area, especially if it’s a specialist who comes from a different country or socio-cultural background. In some cases, the change agent is not accepted by the local people due to the perceived differences. This point can best be illustrated by drawing from the experiences in the Henan province in China. A researcher had come from Belgium to do a participatory research in Henan “AIDS Village”; an area well known for its high rates of infection with HIV. The local people had refused to participate in the research and even turned hostile towards the researcher (insert reference)..

To ensure the effectiveness of research, PAR should be carried out by scholars from local areas or countries. Besides, the change agent should also be independent of macro-social organizations. This is due to the fact that dependent change agents cause biases on the understanding of the various issues hence leading to a subjective conclusion. It’s therefore necessary to ensure that the identity of the change agent is considered carefully before conducting a PAR research. This is crucial in eliminating any undue influences on the research process and on the conclusions drawn.   

2)      Lack of Academic Standardization
PAR is rated as the third paradigm in the methodology of social sciences beside quantitative and qualitative approaches. It is significantly different from  the traditionally accepted methods and philosophies of conducting research. The research practice remains largely disjointed despite efforts by scholars to standardize it. PAR has been criticized for lacking methodological rigor and technical validity. These two crucial aspects are considered to be the pillars of academic research. Some scholars assert that there are ways to create academic standards for PAR using the adoption of qualitative research design. McNiff and Whitehead (2009) proposed the “Seven I's” methods be used to evaluate PAR work in an attempt to introduce some level of standardization of the practice.

One of the criticisms that have been leveled against PAR is that it still uses the traditional research techniques such as participant observation and unstructured interviewing (Prozesky and Mouton, 2002).

3)      Great Dependence on Researchers
PAR has great dependence on researchers’ thoughts and perceptions on the phenomena under investigation and this introduces the undesirable quality of subjectivity of the findings and conclusions (insert reference). Participation is a necessary part and a distinctive feature of PAR. But the level and method of participation is difficult to measure. This implies that the researcher has the free hand in determining the participation levels based on their own judgments. Researcher’s action and its influences may cause over intervention to a local community or area thus brings the community or areas negative effects, such as damage on the local culture and social order.

PAR is also an approach for promoting research education and it contributes significantly to the process of knowledge diffusion. However, there is no standard on the content, degree and pattern of knowledge diffusion or education. Some of the crucial considerations in regard to the education of the participants include the mode of educating participants; and the kind of knowledge that participants need in order to participate in the research to make the process meaningful. These are mainly variable considerations whose specifics depend on the nature of the research and the amount of knowledge already at the disposal of the participants.  Different researchers hold different ideas on how to spread knowledge and which aspects of knowledge to spread depending on the specific circumstances. So the PAR depends greatly on the researcher’s own understanding of the research, and of the subject under study.  

Since PAR is largely dependent on the researcher’s views on the participants and the issues at hand, it tends to portray a subjective view hence rendering their conclusions less reliable. Lapses in judgment based on the researchers’ experiences may significantly distort the research process and defeat the very purpose of the study

4)      Paradox in Power Redistribution
Power redistribution is another form of power politics. A researcher, as an outsider with high educational quality and more information strengths play important roles in influencing local people’s thinking and action. The researcher, as a stronger person, changes the mind and action of the weaker participants; especially in cases that the researcher does not make them fully aware of the local situation and subject of study. Development Communication aims to promote positive changes in a community through effective exchange information. In PAR, research subjects are often from the grassroots groups in the Third World. To help them make the positive changes, researchers make efforts from many aspects. These aspects include the spreading of knowledge, improving participants’ self-awareness and motivating  participants to make changes by themselves. In the process, grassroots groups are empowered with “people’s power” (Rahnema, 1990).

The political empowerment brought by participation affects local power dynamics. Community participation may be recognized for an externally motivated political act. Robert Chambers points out the intrinsically political nature of PAR by pointing out the relationship between the participants and the change agents where the agents are viewed as stronger individuals with the intention to change things for the weaker participants (Chambers, 1983).

At some point, PAR plays the role of encouraging power redistribution. The rationale for the redistribution of the local power and the mode of doing so are mainly based on theoretical analysis. This may be counterproductive in the sense that theory is often significantly different from observed realities. Beside, the researcher, as an outsider with high educational quality and with superior information, play important roles in influencing local people’s thinking and actions. This is another form of power politics and it acknowledges the ability of the stronger person to effect a change in the mindsets of the weaker one.  

This essay has tried to discuss PARs strengths and limitations to development communication. It has been argued that PAR as a new paradigm that has developed during the past three decades, has received diverse academic opinions. Some scholars criticize it while others support it based on the strengths and limitations cited in the paper.

This essay combines the recent participatory researches and the academic opinions and elaborates that PAR has strengths to development communication in several aspects. First and foremost, it brings a deep understanding based on the researcher’s authentic experiences. Secondly, in PAR, a positive relationship based on equality in research roles is easily formed. Thirdly, grassroots marginalized members of the community can get the opportunity to be gain empowerment. PAR is also a practicable approach used to promote social development. The approach is a productive way to make communication effects and promote the social development.
Although PAR has several strengths to development communication, it still has its limitations. The essay elaborates the limitations of PAR in the following aspects. Firstly, PAR approach seems like exclusive for elites where it is most frequently taken by persons coming from the well-educated class. Secondly, PAR lacks of academic standardization, and it has been criticized for lacking methodological rigor and technical validity. Thirdly, PAR has great dependence on researchers’ thoughts and action, thus it has higher levels of subjectivity and low reliability of results. Finally, there is a paradox in power redistribution. Power redistribution is another form of power politics and PAR plays a major role in bringing it about.

For more theory and case studies on:

Manyozo, L., 2006. Manifesto for Development Communication. Asian Journal of Communication(Please include volume, issue and page numbers in the following format, Vol (Issue), pp. xx-xxx)
Prozesky, H., Mouto, J., 2002. Development: Theory, Policy and Practice. Oxford: Oxford UP
Wilkins, K.G., 2002. Redeveloping Communication for Social Change: Theory, Practice, and Power, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
McHale, J., 2003. Communicating for change. Strategies for social and political advocates,  Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield.
Morris, N., 2000. Bridging the gap: An examination of diffusion and participatory approach in development communication (inadequate details. Please include publisher and town of publishing).
McMillin, D., 2007. The Politics of International Media Research’, International Media Studies Malden. Oxford, Victoria: Blackwell Publishing.
Wilkins, K.G. Mody, B., 2001. Reshaping development communication: Developing communication and communication development. Communication Theory (inadequate reference details)
Jacobson, T.L., 2004. Measuring communicative action for political and development participation. paper submitted to IAMCR, Porto Alegre, Brazil.
Chambers, R., 2004. Ideas for development: reflecting forwards, Institute of development studies, U. of Sussex.


  1. Hello there,
    Great essay! Congrats
    Is it possible to share your in text references?

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