Participatory Research Methods

When I attended the American Evaluation Association conference in October 2012, I learned about a number of participatory methods for engaging with people that goes beyond the traditional questionnaire. Although the focus was obviously on evaluation, these approaches can be useful for any type of community-based research. As with other resources on this site, I intend this section to be a living document – if you have any suggestions for additional content, please contact me!

World Café

One of the sessions I attended at AEA focused specifically on this approach, teaching it through having us participate in a World Café. Participants sit around small tables (ideally four to a group) and each table is provided with large sheets of paper and markers. The Café consists of three or four discussion rounds of 15-20 minutes based on a set of questions, usually starting with a broad question to begin with and focusing on more specific elements in the latter rounds. Participants are invited to record their thoughts and ideas on the sheets of paper however they want, including drawing or doodling – there is no set structure or right way of doing things! At the end of each round, one person is elected to stay behind as table host while the other members scatter to different tables. After the facilitator introduces the questions for the new round, the table hosts provide a brief summary of what was discussed in the previous round before conversation starts on the new questions. The procedure repeats for the remaining rounds. At the end, the pieces of paper are posted for everyone to look at: participants are also invited to share individual insights such as through large post-it notes in a process called the harvest.

Ideal Use Scenario: 12 – 60 people who are interested in the general topic and willing to communicate with each other on it.

Resources Required: Sufficient space and tables to seat four people each, large paper sheets (e.g. flipchart or butcher block paper) and markers for each table, 1-2 people to host/facilitate the process.

Additional Information

Adhesive Formats for Data Collection

At another AEA session, presenter Lyn Paleo made a simple but key point. For most people, their history with survey-like instruments consisting of multiple choice, fill-in-the-blank, and short-answer questions can be broken down into school testing and filling out government forms, neither of which have positive connotations particularly for individuals who have been marginalized or mistreated by “the system”. Even for those of us who don’t mind surveys or questionnaires, all too often we just go through and give most options the same value just to get it over with – I found myself doing this on an evaluation form for a different session, giving the presenter mostly high marks without much thought! As an alternative, Paleo suggests the use of stickers and labels in various forms. For example, participants at a session can be given stickers to place on a large drawing of a thermometer: if you enjoyed the session, place your sticker towards the “hot” end, if you didn’t, put it somewhere nearer to “cold”. Ranking preferences, values, supports, fears, beliefs, and so on is also simplified using this approach, with one label for each concept: as an example, at-risk mothers of newborns were given stickers in the shapes of balloons, with each sticker representing a type of support (partner, own parents, school, specific service agencies) that they placed closer or further away from a drawing of a mom with a baby to indicate the extent they relied on each support.

Ideal Use Scenario: Anyone! They can be particularly useful for people who have negative experiences with tests and forms, as well as those with language or literacy barriers. Paleo gave examples of use with both individuals and groups, though caution is advised with the latter to avoid peer influence (some populations may be more susceptible than others – for example teenagers versus seniors).

Resources Required: Stickers or labels. Most word processors include templates for common label sheets (usually based on Avery template numbers) so you can print large numbers.

Additional Information:

Pairwise Ranking

A one-day workshop at AEA by Mary Crave and Kerry Zaleski (University of Wisconsin-Extension) and private consultant Tererai Trent provided a number of great methods, focused primarily on international development contexts but applicable to situations with pretty much any audience. One tactic that I found interesting is Pairwise Ranking, which helps groups determine the relative importance of issues or challenges that they face. Although there has been a movement recently to focus more on strengths and assets instead of deficits and needs, sometimes we have talk about the problems: this approach can help prevent participants from feeling overwhelmed by directing attention towards one or two top priorities. After 5-10 distinct issues have been generated by the group, a grid is formed with each issue getting a spot on both the horizontal and vertical axis:

2010 Training in One Health / Participatory Epidemiology for Pilot Study in Western Kenya
Image from ILRI and licenced under Creative Commons

Starting with the first row, the group examines each intersection (ignoring squares where an issue intersects itself or duplicates) and decides which of the two is more important (e.g. Malaria vs Pneumonia). The decision is marked in the box and the group continues to the next box, until they’ve gone through each combination. At the end you can tally up the number of votes each issue has to determine a ranking, but the main focus is generating discussion amongst the participants about priorities and future action.

Ideal Use Scenario: Similar to a focus group, pairwise ranking should be used with groups that are small enough to allow everyone to contribute to the discussion (6-10 max). Since people can have different priorities depending on their age, gender, or neighbourhood, the presenters advised running this exercise multiple times with different groups based on these demographic characteristics (e.g. men, women, children/youth).

Resources Required: Something to create the grid and mark the choices: Whiteboard or flipchart paper and markers, masking tape (to create a grid on the floor) and tokens, or even a grid drawn in dirt or sand with rocks and leaves as markers.

Additional Information:

Electronic Data Collection on the Go

A post on the American Evaluation Association’s Tip-A-Day blog about the evaluation of their 2012 conference introduced me to a free iPad survey app, Quicktap Survey. I haven’t had the chance to use it myself yet, but based on the team’s experiences it looks to be a useful tool!

Ideal Use Scenario: Like the Adhesive Formats approach above, this method can be useful for a wide range of participants – who wouldn’t want to play with an iPad, especially in comparison to the overused standard paper survey? As mentioned in the blog post, the number of questions should be limited to keep things simple. I would also hesitate to include questions that require text entry, as that would take away from the “just tap your answer” approach.

Resources Required: At least one iPad loaded with a program like Quicktap Survey and someone to approach potential participants with said iPad.