About participatory research with Jo Sharp

Interview with Professor Jo Sharp on the challenges of participatory research. Questions from Vít Beneš, IIR Researcher and editor-in-chief Mezinárodní vztahy quarterly.

Interviewer: We will have an interview with Professor Jo Sharp from the School of Geographical and Earth sciences, University of Glasgow, who was so kind to accept our invitation and come to the Institute of International Relations for a workshop on the challenges of participatory research. Hello.

Prof. Sharp: Hello.

Interviewer: And we will take a look at issues that deal with participatory research and then with specific participatory research conducted by Professor Sharp. So, let me start with a general question: how would you describe participatory research? How would you differentiate participatory research against mainstream ethnographical or anthropological research or field research? How would you describe participatory research for an interested student for example?

Prof. Sharp: It’s a very interesting question and I think participatory research covers really quite a broad range of activities so it’s difficult to come down to just one definition, but I think what sets it apart from more mainstream research as you put it, is a desire first and foremost to make sure that the research is based around questions and issues that are of relevance and interest and significance to those people in the communities that are involved in the research. So it’s not simply a research question that’s coming from the literature or coming from a theoretical perspective of the researcher, but that it is grounded in the every day lives of the people involved. So that means that really the researcher needs to meet with the community members, those people who are involved from the very beginning in terms of deciding the research questions and designing the research design and then thinking about how the data is collected, how it’s analysed and then thinking about what the outputs would be. So if we are thinking about truly participatory research, it would involve the researcher and the community as equal partners in deciding the direction the research would take. Obviously this is a very challenging thing to do, but I think that’s the impetus behind that kind of approach.

Full version of the video (IIR)

Interviewer: Of course one of the issues that somehow differentiate the mainstream research from the participatory research is somehow not just the blurring between the researcher and the community itself, because the community is involved in the research directly, but also some kind of blurring between the role of being a researcher and being an activist.

Prof. Sharp: Well that’s certainly one version of participatory research.

Interviewer: That’s a bit more radical version.

Prof. Sharp: Yes. I think as we discussed earlier, there’s different politics behind this and the way that participatory research is being used by many involved in development, to think about how to make more appropriate forms of development, but still being driven by development agenda. Where as if we think of a more radical tradition, then it’s much more about challenging the way things have been done, not to start with the assumptions of the top with the policy makers or the academics, but to start from the ground, from the lived realities if you like of the communities themselves. And so that is in many cases going to challenge the status quo, the way things are and so I think that leads people into a kind of activism, because it’s about not just understanding a process through research but actually then wanting to change it. So that links to a lot of radical political traditions. And so the boundaries between being a researcher who’s just looking at what’s going on and trying to understand it and then wanting to be an agent who helps to change things –which would be an activist- those things become very much intertwined I think.

Interviewer: Participatory research of course is faced with some challenges, so what would be the challenges of doing participatory research or better said what would be the dilemmas that you as a researcher involved in participatory research face? What kind of probably difficult questions you need to ask and solve for yourself before you enter the field and when you are in the field and when you interpret the data?

Prof. Sharp: That’s a very big question! Just a few highlights because I could talk for hours on this. I think for me the biggest challenge which has to be thought about before going to the field, in terms of initially meeting with people, but also has to be borne in mind throughout the process, is who actually is the community. And I think one of the real problems there has been in the development tradition of talking about participatory research is that there’s a very unproblematic notion of the community, that somehow all people who live in an area have a shared interest. And you know we can go to a village meeting or a town meeting and that we can get the community view. I think what’s become very clear is the diversity of interests within a community: the power relations that run through gender relations, relationships between people of different ages, between perhaps people of different ethnic backgrounds, certainly different class backgrounds. So the idea that you are somehow going to get a view from the people on the ground that you can then work with is deeply problematic. It’s something that I think has been used very uncritically by a lot of development agencies and the World Bank being the example that I always use, that has this idea of there being a community voice that can be seemlessly woven in with the developers intentions, as if the whole process was unconflictual and unproblematic. But what I’ve discovered in my work is that what is the interest of the men in the community might be very different from the interest of women, the elders might have very different views than the younger generations and that those people who are relatively speaking more wealthy will have different interests to those who are the poor members of the community. So when designing the research method we have to think carefully as to who is going to be speaking up. We have a focus group, it tends to be in many cases the men who are more vocal, the people who are more confident, who have had perhaps more accesss to education or the wealthier members of the community. If we are not careful this participatory approach could actually end up reinforcing some of the distinctions that are already there in the community by hearing only the voices that are the loudest and the most confident. So that would certainly be one issue. As said, there’s many many more, maybe we are touching one other just now, which is the issue of time, because if there is this move towards a lot of research being participatory, we are actually asking a lot of the community members that we’re working with. We want them to spend time doing these methods which are very important in terms of hearing their voices and their perspectives, but can be very time-consuming. Coming to a focus group and attending a focus group, keeping a diary, having regular meetings, being involved in theatre productions or whatever the range of very creative responses that people have come up with to try and make the process of knowledge-making more inclusive of people who are not academics, to try and make it a more friendly and welcoming process. Nevertheless it does take up a lot of time and so we have to make sure...I think we have a responsibility to the people we are working with to ensure that we are using their time well and wisely, that we make sure that we do try to feed into processes that can enact the change that the people are looking for and most importantly we communicate that back to the communities so we don’t just disappear at the end of the process as if that would be the end of it but we maintain a relationship with the people that have been kind enough to take the time to work with us.

Interviewer: That’s very interesting because in the mainstream science we usually calculate just our own time and since the participatory research wants to get the community being involved we shoud also take care of the time of the others. Professor Jo Sharp did her own research during many field researches across the globe and one of her researches involved Bedouin in Egypt, so I’m curious to ask you questions regarding this research. Probably what led you to study Bedouin in Egypt? How did you cope wih the challenges you have just mentioned? What was the most interesting and maybe the most surprising experience? I’m not just asking about the conclusions of the research but also about your own personal experience that maybe made you reconsider the way how you do the research.

Prof. Sharp: You don’t ask short questions do you? I got involved in what’s called the Wadi Allaqi project in 2000 because the project had been running collaboratively between the University of Glasgow and the Unit of Environmental Studies and Development at South Valley University in Aswan really since the end of the 1980’s, so the project had a long history. What the project was involving was to understand the enviroment of Wadi Allaqi, this dry valley and the southern parts of Egypt. My colleague John Briggs had led a team to work with Bedouin, to understand the way that they perceive the environment, the resources that are around them, how they manage them and to take seriously the knowledges that the Bedouin had of the environment. But the team were entirely male, so when they arrived to the desert, the women, because it is an Islamic society, would disappear. It would be inappropriate for the women to meet strange men. So I was asked to be involved to lead a team of women, to speak with the women in the community and I was fortunate enough to work with a number of researchers from Aswan. We met with the women, we would arrive as a group, the men would meet in one area and we would be taken into the sort of domestic space, the women’s space of the settlement. Initially we were just interested in women’s roles in raising animals. There was always a view that raising sheep and livestock was something that men did, that men had a responsibility for the animals. In fact these days the women had become much more sedentary, water is available now with the damming of the Nile, there’s the High Dam lake, so the women, older people and the children tend to stay in Wadi Allaqi, with a few of the animals, generally the sick and the old animals, when the men go off with the majority of the herds. We were interested in understanding a bit more about their livelyhood as an initial perspective and so we heard that they were very restricted by the environmental resources around them because they didn’t have the spatial mobility of the men. One of the things that was a great restriction on them was availability of foodstuffs. Part of the team we were working with were botanists so by throwing our research expertise together with the knowledge of the women, we suggested they create small farms. So that was something of a very practical output of working with them.

I’m going to answer the second two parts of your questions together, because the most surprising and interesting thing in terms of an output and the challenges are kind of woven together. When we would come to meet with the women, the children would always come around as well. They would come and see this group of visitors who were always interested to see what was going on and it made it very difficult to continue our discussions with women. So one of team decided it would be a good idea to bring some paper and pens so that the children could be entertained drawing so we would have a chance to speak to their mothers without them running around. What happened from that was that the children started asking to see how they could write their names because it was an illiterate society and they got more and more enthusiastic as we visited more and more often in writing more. What then emerged was that the women asked if they could start to learn to write as well. Initially the men were very nervous about this, they were very uncomfortable about their wives being able to read and write and felt that it might lead to divorce because they could read the documents of the divorce papers. The tensions between men and women became quite apparent, the men would have been comfortable with them being able to write but were uncomfortable with what the changes might mean for the women. We were a bit anxious that we might have sort of provoked a change within the community that we weren’t anticipating, but given that it was the women who had asked us for that service rather than us kind of waltzing in and saying we’re bringing literacy to your community, I think that made it a much more powerful process. And in fact the men have subsequently followed suit and are now also learning to read and write. So there’s been a number of longer term implications with the project that we didn’t anticipate. The farms were initially linked with a number of rural women who didn’t have other resources. Once they demonstrated the success of the farms, other women followed. But it was much more of a kind of family activity, it wasn’t just seen as women’s activity, so we were a little disappointed initially that it meant perhaps that the gender dimension of things hadn’t worked. But the fact that the women had been the drivers of this process seemed to have given them a bit more of a standing, a bit more empowerment if you like, a bit more confidence within the household, which was added to by them asking us if they could get involved with the literacy programme. Subsequent to my departure from the programme, there was also a development of handicrafts, so the women were able to make a small salary, a small amount of money by selling some handicrafts. This was continued by Hoda, one of the two women we worked with initially, who is now the regional director for the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency. What had started as quite a straight forward research project, because there had been the opportunity for the women to tell us what they thought was important and there was the opportunity because it was based on monthly discussions -we would visit each month-, what was initially quite a stilted and quite a formal set of discussions around the research questions we had, became a much more relaxed set of discussions. Hoda became seen as a friend on her many visits allowing women to have the confidence to start to ask for the kind of things that they would like as an output. So initially it did raise some tensions with the men, but I think because of the demonstration of the effectiveness of it over time, because we didn’t rush things, it just seemed to work out well in the end.

Interviewer: Thank you very much for an interesting description. I hope that your presentation will be an inspiration for researchers here in the Czech Republic, probably to get involved in participatory research. At the same time it seems from your presentation to me that it’s difficult not to be involved when you are on a field research so why not embrace participatory research openly and practice it during a field research. So thank you very much!

Prof. Sharp: Thank you!

Interview with...

Joanne Scharp came to the University of Glasgow in January 1995 after finishing her PhD "Condensing the Cold War: Reader's Digest and American Identity" at Syracuse University at the end of 1994. Her research interests are in feminist, postcolonial, cultural and political geographies. Much of her research has been undertaken in Africa, most recently in Tanzania. Ms. Sharp is an active member of the Glasgow Centre for International Development, and co-ordinate the Environmental Management and Infrastructure research theme. She is currently the Political Geography section editor of Geography Compass and sit on the boards of Scottish Geographical Journal, Urban Studies and Space and Polity.

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