Exploring Participation and Power in Community Development

This post was contributed by Garland Mason.

10298900_3595714851891_4890555101404663160_nThis summer I took leave from my post as a graduate research assistant with the Appalachian Foodshed Project (AFP) to collect data for my thesis research in Chiapas, Mexico. My research focuses on participatory approaches to community development, similar to those used within the work of the AFP. I set off for Mexico to partner with a small, local non-governmental organization (NGO) that uses participation to pursue goals of advancing food sovereignty, a solidarity economy and holistic health practices in rural agrarian communities.


My research intends to look at aspects of power embedded in the participatory approach. A review of development literature shows both the popularity of the participatory approach, and the myriad problems stemming from this popularity. Participation as an approach to development began as an inherently political and radical approach, aimed at disrupting the conventional power dynamic in development. Participation, in its radical form, opposed the conventional notion that development be designed by more powerful outsiders and applied to marginalized locals without regard to their knowledge or expertise. Participation was intended to disrupt this dynamic by putting the leadership back into the hands of the ‘subjects’ of development.


With these traditions in mind, my research aims to address the questions of

  • Whether and how the participatory approach, as used by a small, local NGO, serves the interests of the rural agrarians it is designed to serve; and,
  • How do participants perceive the connections between specific components of the participatory approach and either the promotion of, or the inhibition of, participants’ intrinsic empowerment? What do people perceive to be the linkages?

During my three months in Chiapas I was able to ground the key themes that emerged from the literature review in practice by exploring these questions with both the staff and the program participants of the NGO.


I used ethnography to guide my data collection. Ethnography is a research method that is traditionally housed within anthropology and sociology. I used this approach to data collection because ethnography is designed to provide rich detail of lived experience. In my study, ethnography provided me with the opportunity to take part in the day-to-day operations of the NGO, form close friendships with the staff, and spend time staying in program participants’ homes, sharing meals and making tortillas alongside them. These activities provided me with insights into the context in which my participants live, and allowed ample time for me to engage in in-depth conversations to learn from them and discuss themes relevant to my research questions. One objective in this type of research is that there is some reciprocity, in this case, it is my intention that my research also directly benefit the NGO and their participants by serving as a commentary on their programs and giving them an outsider’s perspective on the context in which they are working.


Over the course of three months I had thirty formal, recorded conversations with participants and staff, and innumerable casual conversations around the dinner table or in passing. Through these conversations I gained a deep appreciation for the complexity of the questions my research asks, and gained a more realistic idea of how my research might address them. Now that I’m back in Blacksburg, I am sifting through the hundreds of pages of transcriptions, analyzing for themes and pulling everything back together to dance around my central questions, hopefully shedding some light on the dynamics of power within participation. As my analysis unfolds, I’ll be sure to post a second installment.


Garland Mason is a graduate research assistant with the Appalachian Foodshed Project. She is a master’s degree student in the Department of Agricultural, Leadership and Community Education at Virginia Tech.