Participatory methods: Copenhagen to Calcutta


In the 1980s Robert Chambers introduced a participatory approach to development: an approach that gets the development practitioner involved and engaged with the community and the individuals that are being ‘developed’. This approach also acknowledges that within the local community there is knowledge that can be valuable but that knowledge can be difficult to express. Therefore it is important that this knowledge becomes accessible in some way, such as from participatory methods.


Anthropological Participation

The participatory approach is also thought to be a way to allow projects to be owned by the locals. But how do these participatory methods actually work? How do you actually make people participate in a way that will encourage them to share the tacit knowledge they possess?

As part of my bachelor thesis, I worked with a Danish NGO taking part in a project about street food vendors (SFVs) in Calcutta, India. The final product of the project was a trainer manual for SFV workshops, which would teach SFVs about hygiene, sanitation, savings and their rights.


The Truth but the Whole Truth?

The most important aspect of this project was that the trainers felt that the manual was made by them and fitted their needs. As part of this, several interviews, workshops and focus groups were held. We used different ethnographic methods but experienced a great challenge with it. The idea for an anthropologist is to ‘blend in’ and study the natural and unaffected behavior of people. The problem we experienced was that people seemed to act differently when we came, we did not blend in very well and our appearance impacted the social environment.


We chose semi-structured interviews as part of our research. SFVs were willing to participate but many of the interviews were done while they worked, or by our interpreter, all of the interviews were done on the street in action. Some of the interviews took part while a boss was in the background. All these factors had to be carefully considered when using the material, as much of it could be biased. We found that simple questions where most giving, while also asking question that were easy to relate to and would make the SFVs answer in a narrative form. An example could be ‘Can you tell us about a situation where xx happened?’, ‘How did it make you feel?’.


Design games

Besides these two classic ethnographic methods, we used creative and participatory methods. In our workshops we used several design games to encourage the trainers participation.


The main idea of a design game is to get the participants to talk, it is not important if they do things right or wrong. It is just an intermediary to make participants think, talk, be critical and try to be explicit about the tacit knowledge that is part of their community and problems. In terms of culture, design games are very revealing: we discovered that the way ‘we’ think symbols and icons obviously mean something, is completely different to what it may can mean in another culture. Design games often have a very different outcome than what was planned. For example, what we found valuable was when the participants did something ‘wrong’ or unexpected, this helped us understand some of the values and preconceived ideas we brought into the field. So this was also a way to reflect on the work we were doing.

The key to design games, especially when used in development areas, is to make them simple. Avoid too much text, too many rules and too many steps. It is usually a good idea to leave space for new ideas, e.g. by having ‘blank’ papers that encourage participants to contribute with their own ideas. Furthermore we experienced that it is valuable to ask many questions such as ‘Why do you think xx is a good idea?’, ‘What do you need in xx situation?’, ‘Why do you think xx is important?’


I am an advocate for participatory methods, but there are many challenges with them in practice. It can be very difficult to make some kind of design game that will make participants talk about a chosen subject, without forcing the answers that one has preconceived they might have. Language and culture is also a challenge. What I learned from this experience is that it is important to facilitate and explain but not take control and force actions. Furthermore I find that asking questions is one of the most rewarding methods to get an understanding of a person’s situation. And lastly, learn from and reflect upon unexpected situations – differences is a key to understanding culture.