HUMIDTROPICS / Innovation Systems / Participation / Research

How participatory agricultural research changes us – researchers share personal journeys

This post was drafted by Terry Clayton based on conversations and interactions with people participating in the Participatory Agricultural Research: Approaches, Design and Evaluation (PARADE) workshop held in Oxford from 9-13 December 2013.

We tend to be so preoccupied with how our research does or doesn’t, should or shouldn’t, can or could influence other people, that we forget how research changes us. Charles Darwin attended Cambridge with the intention of becoming a clergyman. Then he went on a little sailing trip on HMS Beagle and the world has never been the same since. Research changed Darwin’s world view; his paradigm shifted. Many of the great breakthroughs in science are stories of paradigm shifts, small and large.

Participants at the recent PARADE workshop wrote about their personal paradigm shifts, and while they may seem like small shifts, they are also eloquent testaments to the potential that PAR approaches and tools have for transformative change, not just within the communities where we work, but within our own lives.

Who shifts paradigms?
The historical record suggests that, like Darwin, one or a few researchers begin to question those facts that don’t fit the prevailing theory and start examining phenomena ‘outside’ the bounds or acceptability by the mainstream. Sometimes gradually, sometimes quite suddenly, the paradigm shifts.

For a time, paradigms will overlap and compete for the loyalty of adherents. Competing paradigms are frequently incommensurable; alternate accounts of reality that cannot be coherently reconciled (think climate change and climate change deniers). What this means is that our comprehension of science can never rely on full ‘objectivity’ and we must account for subjective perspectives as well; all ‘objective’ conclusions, being ultimately founded on subjective conditioning and a particular worldview (think on- and off-farm trials).

Participants at the PARADE workshop identified a somewhat similar problem between ‘mainstream’ agricultural research and ‘participatory’ agricultural research or PAR. The problem is not that PAR is incommensurable with mainstream research, but is perceived to be. PAR researchers are arguing that the subjective’ experiences and local knowledge of people in rural farming communities adds significant value to the contributions of conventional animal, plant and soil science. There hasn’t been a system wide paradigm shift yet, but these stories indicate a growing tide of support for PAR.

Who’s knowledge counts?
The debate is really over “who’s knowledge counts”. If a particular body of knowledge is privileged, researchers toiling away within that branch of knowledge tend to get the lion’s share of funding, resources, support and publishing opportunities. Hence, there is more at stake than coffee room arguments about fine points of methodological rigor. PAR offers the potential to greatly magnify the impacts of conventional research, but conventional researchers need to be convinced—in terms they understand.

In her post Katherine Snyder suggests that the current reform process within the CGIAR offers new avenues to advance the cause of PAR, making it more central, and Beth Cullen explores PAR Challenges and Opportunities that will move us further down that road. One of the major outputs of the PARADE workshop is that teams of authors are now drafting frameworks, strategies and action plans to address the issues raised.

How we change
In their own words, researchers using participatory approaches and tools say that:

Using PAR makes me realize again and again that research is about people. It is not about me, or my publications. It is about them and finding creative ways to support them in ways that suit them. It made me more humble in my work and more careful in my interventions. Birgit Boogard, Innovation systems researcher

How powerful participatory research is, that it makes you work with the people rather than on them. Valentine Ghandi, Social Scientist

More from the personal journey stories.

A focus on people and their local realities is prominent in the personal journey stories written by the PARADE participants. Researchers come to PAR from a surprising range of backgrounds, everything from IT and physics engineering to medieval history. That people from such varied origins find so much value in PAR approaches and tools speaks to their wide versatility and adaptability.

The personal accounts by researchers using PAR approaches indicate that a paradigm may well be underway, a paradigm in which the ‘hard’ plant, animal and soil sciences and participatory approaches stand on equal footing.

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), and funded by the CGIAR Research Program on Humid Tropics and Africa RISING.

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