HUMIDTROPICS / Innovation Systems / Participation / Research

Theory key to gain wider acceptance of participatory agricultural research methods

This post was drafted by Terry Clayton based on contributions by Paul Sillitoe (Durham University) at the Participatory Agricultural Research: Approaches, Design and Evaluation (PARADE) workshop held in Oxford from 9-13 December 2013.

What must we do to gain wider acceptance of participatory agricultural research methods within the mainstream of  the CGIAR system and beyond? This was one of the topics of discussion at the PARADE workshop.

Professor Paul Sillitoe (Department of Anthropology, Durham University) believes the answer to the question will in no small part depend on addressing some of the deep-seated contradictions within development discourse. In his opening keynote, Professor Sillitoe outlined the deeply entrenched incongruities that PAR practitioners must resolve, or at least acknowledge. The list is long (17 points in all), which underscores how deeply conflicted our discourse is.

Why it matters

Theory without practice is sterile; practice without theory is blind – Marx, Karl. Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law, Jan. 1844, MECW, Vol. 3, p. 182.

Researchers who understand the value of the contributions that PAR approaches and tools have to offer will recognize in Professor Sillitoe’s list the source of much of the resistance and pushback they experience in their battles for legitimacy, funding and space to publish results. Why, for example, have participatory approaches not enjoyed the success anticipated by its many supporters? Professor Sillitoe suggests that, among other things, “We have to combat the portrayal of local knowledge opposed to scientific knowledge more effectively. We need to focus on the interface where knowledge negotiation occurs; on processes where local practices confront and influence and are influenced by science. The implication is not that we seek to translate local knowledge of farming into that of agricultural science. Rather, interaction should produce hybrid knowledge drawing on scientific and local perspectives.”

Talking to people in the workshop, it is clear that already we have numerous examples of such ‘hybrid’ knowledge from the use of such tools as participatory variety assessment, 3D mapping, and innovation platforms. What we haven’t done is compile, package and present the cumulative evidence that such hybrid knowledge leads to more and better outcomes and impacts.

The skeletal summary below hardly does justice to Professor Sillitoe’s presentation, but it will give readers a sense of his insights. You can read the full text of the keynote and view his PowerPoint presentation.

Technology is not culturally neutral: Any change will have social implications, often difficult to foresee.

Socio- cultural variation precludes generic solutions:  The socio-cultural acceptability of any planned intervention, which the top-down techno-economic approach tends to overlook, is a central issue and highlights a major challenge.

Unsustainable projects:  In many cases, local populations go along with project interventions so far as obliged by political coercion or by the economic ‘goodies’ they receive for co-operating with the outsiders’ plans. When they leave, the development initiative goes with them.

Sustainability: Sustainability implies a steady state, whereas development implies change. Development seeks to stimulate economic growth to reduce poverty while promoting sustainability, which is difficult to square.

Participation: Participatory approaches have not enjoyed the success anticipated by supporters, in part because it is naive to assume that communities will adopt foreign technology and adjust to associated economic arrangements, particularly where these conflicted with their way of life and values.

Local versus global science: We have to combat the portrayal of local knowledge opposed to scientific knowledge more effectively. We need to focus on the interface where knowledge negotiation occurs; on processes where local practices confront and influence and are influenced by science.

Soundness of local science: The scientific view is only one way of explaining experience of the world, albeit technically powerful. While local knowledge is more circumscribed than scientific knowledge, it often matches and sometimes betters scientific understandings of, for instance, land use.

Local know-how and sustainability: We need to look more closely at what people are already doing, or did in the past, to secure their livelihoods, for in all probability they will reveal sustainable ways if humans have occupied a region for any length of time.

Interdisciplinarity and local knowledge: A contributory factor to the perceived failure of participatory approaches to address development issues is the inability to focus on identified researchable constraints. The holistic perspective of local knowledge, interdisciplinary by definition and embedded within the wider context, suggests a novel way forward, an antidote to reductionist science with its narrow specialisms, albeit one that experts may see it as a threat and therefore try to thwart it.

Tacit knowledge: The local focus reflects not only an absence of Western aspirations but also the pragmatic rootedness of much local knowledge, which is contingent on acquiring particular skills. How are we to give such knowledge a place in development when by definition it is unspoken, even unspeakable, as opposed to doable?

Knowledge variation and political issues: While local knowledge is more widely shared than specialised scientific knowledge, its distribution is uneven with some clustering of certain knowledge within populations. ‘Participants’ in any project intervention will always have different understandings of issues and agendas which they seek to manipulate, the more powerful imposing their views on others.

Local political issues: In hierarchical societies, where patron/client relationships occur in villages or specialists/non-specialists in capitalist market contexts, people expect those above them to make decisions and perhaps solve problems on their behalf. The usually short time frames in which it is thought research can be conducted to achieve necessary understanding of such complex socio-cultural issues is a major flaw in program and project design.

Knowing what’s at stake – education: To participate meaningfully in the planning and implementation of any proposed development assumes that people know what is at stake and about alternatives. This is not always so, and hence education ‘to inform people’ becomes a development priority.

International political issues: Political power in development contexts comes down to control of resources. How realistic is it to expect nations in control to relinquish this control when they believe that they have the answer to the problems of developing nations?

Manipulation of participation: Participatory approaches are subject to manipulation by donor and project staff, according to their agendas.

Misuse of knowledge: Development agencies may misuse knowledge made available in intervening in people’s lives. There is a danger of promoting the commercialisation of others’ knowledge, given development’s focus on promoting economic efficiency through various market interventions.

This post is based on Professor Paul Sillitoe’s keynote at the workshop

More information

The PARADE expert meeting and writeshop aimed to identify more systematic ways of using methods and tools for Participatory Agricultural Research (PAR) to ensure that future research is more effectively targeted on development outcomes. The meeting was led by Katherine Snyder (CIAT) and Beth Cullen (ILRI) with support from Alan Duncan (ILRI), Peter Thorne (ILRI) and Peter Ballantyne (ILRI). It was funded by the CGIAR Research Program on Humid Tropics and Africa RISING.

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