The Specifics of Participatory Rural Appraisal

Though all major social research is a collaborative endeavor, drawing on the experiences, theories, and expertise of generations of researchers, PRA, like Freire’s pedagogy of the oppressed (1970), is strongly associated with the rep­resentations of it made by a single practitioner: Robert Chambers. Though by no means the only practitioner, Chambers has developed the most succinct and fully articulated statements of PRA in a series of papers (Chambers, 1994a, 1994b, 1994c), in many training workshops, in colloquia around the world, in an excellent book that summarizes the state of the art, Whose Reality Counts? Putting the First Last ( 1997), and in a number of follow-up studies on these subjects which have substantially expanded the methodological base of the work (Chambers 2002, 2005).

In Chamber’s account, PRA has its origin in multiple, separate strands of activity. It draws on participatory research (what we have called Southern PAR; see Chapter 10). It also draws in elements from the diverse practices of applied or action anthropology, activities beginning in the 1950s and that have continued but rarely have a strong participatory intent. PRA also rests on a variety of schools of what is looselycalled “farming systems research” and includes close observation of local farming practices from a systems perspective and also some notions of on-farm research as a proper modality for the creation of development strategies.


One of the key strategic problems that created the point of entry for PRA is a particularly bizarre and frustrating dynamic of development programs over the years: the complete lack of baseline data for the development of pro­gram strategies and the evaluation of outcomes. A whole generation of devel­opment projects was based on presumptions about what was wrong, guesses about how to fix what was wrong, and post hoc justifications of the failed strategies. Faced with a chorus of criticisms about this, the development estab­lishment resisted baseline research as too expensive, as unnecessary, or as impossible. Greenwood himself developed an early (and judiciously ignored) position paper on this subject (1980), arguing that rapid, efficient, and mean­ingful baseline data could and should be collected.

Over time, the notion that quick baseline studies were necessary and possible developed and, with it, a set of strategies called rapid rural appraisal (RRA) (Belshaw, 1981; Chambers, 1981). RRA was taught at the International Institute for Environment and Development in London, and periodicals such as RRA Notes kept track of the developments.

Soon, RRA began to encounter a variety of other developments that were popularizing notions of participation in development work, as well as indus­trial and service organization restructuring. Before long, a link was forged between RRA and PRA in which RRA was modified to emphasize local knowl­edge and participation more fully and completely. While RRA was more expert centered and academically based, PRA gained more momentum through the activities of NGOs worldwide. It stressed local knowledge and training, power sharing, and the development of sustainable initiatives for local self-manage­ment. In the statement of its aims, PRA sounds very much like many varieties of AR discussed throughout this book.

Unlike many other forms of AR, PRA has a relatively specific set of tech­niques and methods associated with it. Chambers details these in his papers and books. The best way to get a flavor for these is to consult those works to get an idea of the impressive multiplicity and flexibility of the methods used. We mention a few here to give the reader a sense of the concreteness and attrac­tiveness of these approaches.

PRA involves a number of interviewing and sampling methods and some specific group and team dynamics approaches. jAmong the approaches used are participatory mapping and modeling of local communities and problem areas, picking key informants as local experts, attempts to identify the different sig­nificant local groups and to make contacts with some members of each, having participants help analyze things written about them, the development of timeline and trend analyses with local information, the development of seasonal calendars including crop cycles and labor requirements, and the development of teams and team contracts. Flexibility, attentiveness to the way local people think and react, and a powerful belief in the knowledge systems of local people are key to PRA.

A couple of examples of the results of the use of these methods can be seen in Figures 13.1 and 13.2, taken from Thomson and Schoonmaker Freudenberger (1997).

Each PRA project involves a slightly different mobilization of the tech­niques depending on the expertise of the outsiders coming in, the capacities available locally, and the problems being examined. Having become massively popular, PRA is now applied in a multitude of situations, including participa­tory rural appraisal, the development of participatory evaluations of projects, particular topical studies, and as the source of training programs for both community members and outsiders.

PRA sounds many themes familiar from AR. Local knowledge is given pride of place. The behavior of outside experts ideally is controlled to provide space for insiders to make their own choices. The methods are not applied scat­tershot, and there is a kind of reasonable sequencing in the activity that moves from one kind of knowledge and team dynamics to more complex ones over time. PRA also deals with issues of validity and reliability of data, and it claims to give local people a greater right to define their own situation and act on it.

Issues of power and knowledge are joined directly, at least in Chambers’s own practice. The subtitle of his 1997 book, Putting the First Last, gives the fla­vor. The assumption is that the ideas and practices of the rich and powerful will dominate in all situations unless they are intentionally subverted by “handing over the stick” to the local people, by insisting on hearing their views, and by respecting their knowledge. Development professionals are the ones who must change, learn to listen, and then take what they learn to become advocates for local people.

Source: Greenwood Davydd J., Levin Morten (2006), Introduction to Action Research: Social Research for Social Change, SAGE Publications, Inc; 2nd edition.

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