Whose ideas count? Participatory Methodologies and the Professionalisation of Development Knowledge

by Lata Narayanaswamy

This is the transcript of Lata’s spoken word contribution. You can listen to it, or read on.


Tackling the question of whose ideas count is central to efforts to decolonise knowledge. Participatory methodologies then are, at least in theory, one way to address concerns that some ideas and the people with whom they are associated, might matter more than others. So widening participation to include more diverse people and views makes intuitive sense. The hope is that this will lead, at least partially, to counting the knowledge and ideas of more people. Surely, this is a good thing. In my short piece here, I’d like to unpack a participatory research process to consider not just which ideas count, but who gets to express them and how they need to express those ideas in order for them to be counted.

What is the problem we are proposing to research? How do we decide what the problem is that requires researching in the first place?

Now, in most ways any approach to decoloniality kind of becomes unstuck at this first hurdle. Because our Higher Education systems and the associated methodologies that we tend to privilege, neither requires us, nor support us, to consider whether we are even the right people to be asking those questions in the first place, let alone whether we are the right people to then be undertaking the research should we manage to determine that a problem exists that needs solving or exploring further.

Now, by defining the problem before we’ve started, which, along with defining impacts, which sounds very counter-intuitive – because how can I know what is going to happen until I have actually done the work? – which we are required to do to even have the project funded in the first place, we are meant to talk both about the problem, and what we might anticipate are the possible solutions – even before we get the funding.  Then any participatory process is entering a problem definition that is already framed and therefore pigeon-holed in ways that are difficult to unsee and undo, no matter how much participation or learning or iterative reflection we have built into the study design itself. So here, I think we would be wise to remember the words of Linda Tuhiwai Smith in her book ‘Decolonising Methodologies. Research and indigenous peoples’, where she says, and I quote:

“Many researchers, academics and project workers may see the benefits of their particular research projects as serving a greater good ‘for mankind’, or serving a specific emancipatory goal for an oppressed community. But belief in the ideal that benefiting mankind is indeed a primary outcome of scientific research is as much a reflection of ideology as it is of academic training. It becomes so taken for granted that many researchers simply assume that they as individuals embody this ideal and are natural representatives of it when they work with other communities.”

This may indeed be our intent, and is no doubt what motivates most if not all of us engaging with this conference and its key themes. But we mustn’t presume that our engagement in a research project is entirely unproblematic or even welcome, even if we choose to take a participatory approach.

Maybe we can overcome this.

Which ideas count, and who gets to express them?

Let’s assume  that we do manage to curate a participatory process at the inception stage of a research process. This is not entirely and unheard of process – there are increasingly funds made available for pre-bid co-creation processes and overseas development assistance guidance that says that we need, as Northern-based researchers, to ensure that the research agendas are led by the needs and identified priorities of Global South partners. That sounds alright. But how does this look in practice? Let’s look first at the question of ideas.

What ideas are we talking about in these phases? What these sorts of investments in co-creation processes, as laudable as they are, cannot erase, is that European empire has shaped power relations that in turn create enduring perceptions of, for instance, progress or the primacy of the West, as ‘civilised’ or ‘advanced’ against a poor and ‘backward’ and ‘poor’ developing world. It is a world view that is deeply divisive along raced and gendered lines, and underpinned by a patriarchal white supremacy. And make no mistake, whilst there are a diversity of views around on how the world should look, the SDGs, driving so much of current development practice, are a good encapsulation of how we envision a life that does not question the basic assumptions of how we should live, ideas proliferated through the expansion of the colonial enterprise and also the fact that colonisers continue to shape and reshape this. What life looks now is obviously not what it looked like 100 years ago, but what a good life might be is still dominated by a very narrow set of overarching key ideas.

There are plenty of critiques of the dominance of certain types of development thinking, the hegemony and subsequent invisibilisation of diverse people who simply became ‘under-developed’, alongside the erasure of over 400 years of violent colonial expropriation, extraction, slavery and domination. The result is that we live with dominant ‘ways of knowing’ enabled by processes of professionalisation embodied in notions of ‘expertise’. Professionalisation means only those ‘suitably qualified’ may participate, creating variable forms of discursive inclusion and exclusion. Now one response to this hegemony is tied inextricably to participatory methodologies, insofar as we operate in a way that tries, as much as possible, to incorporate the views and voices of ‘the Global South’, including through co-creation processes undertaken by so many of us in good faith to try to shift those power relations, to make space for pluriversal approaches to problem solving.

But when we do this, what do we presume is happening with respect to our shared goals of decolonising knowledge? One reason to put in place participatory methodologies is to privilege something we call indigenous knowledge, this idea both that there are untapped knowledges, and that these knowledges in many instances emanate from indigenous groups displaced by historical settler colonialisms. At a theoretical level, drawing on the work of scholars including Olwig, Laurie and Escobar, that in reality, development ‘rationalities’ are so entrenched (Olwig, 2013) that some critics have argued that for many individuals, communities and groups it would be ‘almost impossible . . . to envisage futures that are not bound up in some form of development imaginary’ (Laurie et al., 2005: 470, citing Escobar, 1995). So in short, there is no untouched, untapped knowledge out there waiting to be discovered, since knowledge is continuously changing, evolving, new knowledges are created as new information is absorbed. Indigenous knowledge is itself a catch-all term that subsumes a diversity of people and knowledges, but almost all of which exists in opposition to, and has thus interactions with, colonial knowledges.

And this is key – despite our best efforts, it is important not to underestimate the universalisation of Western frameworks, despite our best efforts, especially in the purpose, function and constitution of HE globally – I don’t think its impossible to work outside these frameworks, but I think it’s a bigger challenge than we’re willing to admit.

So that’s ideas.

Let’s move on to consider people – who gets to participate?

I have found in my research the tendency for dominant frameworks to be proliferated and ultimately reproduced by transnational elites in a range of contexts. This raises questions about whether its enough if a research idea ‘comes’ from the Global South, which is presumably at least partly what more inclusive participation is meant to facilitate. Privileging views of, and engagement, with Global South colleagues is undoubtedly important given the global imbalance of power in knowledge systems, but talking about ‘diversity’ is not good enough. The fact is, the ‘Global South’ is not one homogenous entity – it has ‘experts’ too! It too is a profoundly unequal place, and in many instances manifesting inequalities (gender, race, sexuality, class) that are directly and indirectly themselves related to colonial legacies, and this is no less true when we are in field sites amongst the so-called grassroots. From the point of view of participatory methodologies, we need to ensure that we are moving beyond thinking its enough to simply change the race, gender or class status of the messenger, and instead ensure we are also raising more fundamental questions about the message

The other aspect of this ‘tick-box’ approach to diversity is the Homogenising tendencies of development labels or categories. So Global South stakeholders become monolithic, undifferentiated categories, including ‘the field’ and ‘the grassroots’, and others we use in this space include feminist, activist, practitioner, academic, the ‘local’. This tendency to essentialise/homogenise has been a key concern for many development feminists, and in my own work I have suggested that in fact the term ‘Global South’ has become a signifier of an imagined geography of exclusion that does not account for inequalities or elite practices in Global South contexts, and can in fact invisibilise regional inequality almost entirely.

So how do ideas need to be expressed in order for them to be counted?

In my experience, we are very good at talking about the exclusion brought about by ideas and the people who have those ideas. What we don’t talk about nearly enough is how we know the ideas that dominate our practice – can participatory methodologies address that?

I would argue that HOW we know, so how we document and then disseminate our ideas, is as important as the ideas contained within As I have argued in my work

‘… Legitimacy is achieved not just by alignment with dominant and/or depoliticised, technocratic discourses, but concretised through particularised ‘ways of knowing’ embodied in the written formats in which dominant knowledges are recorded, validated and proliferated’ (Narayanaswamy, 2019: 243)

So one key concern here is the LANGUAGE of our practice. This is meant in the literal sense, insofar as we function primarily in ENGLISH. With what has been termed the ‘postcolonial’ turn in translation studies, there are attempts to ensure that we take more nuanced approaches to meaning creation in translation, but regardless of these types of efforts, the language of formulation is most often a professionalised/academic/jargonised English. So the knowledge itself doesn’t count as academic expertise or knowledge unless its written up in English, using development jargon, and put in a written format that can be turned into a PDF and put on a website, preferably for profit-making publishers behind a paywall. This English-language write-up is then disseminated orally in an elite space such as a conference, webinar or workshop, much like the one we’re in and in which we are discussing these ideas and no the irony is not lost on me!

The result of this, I have found in my work, is the creation of two separate language worlds – ‘participation’ happens in local languages at the grassroots as part of what we call in our practice ‘the field study’, where participatory methodologies are increasingly not only an accepted but desirable norm. But for ideas to be ‘validated’ in elite spaces in ways that may influence policy or practice, they need to be translated, pigeon-holed or theorised with respect to dominant frameworks that fit the expectations of our discipline, and then disseminated both in print and in fora such as the one in which this recording is entering.

So where does that leave us?

We need a continuous reflection about the range of voices, views and ideas we seek out, as well as how we gather and then choose to codify and then represent them.

We need to consider the implications of our methodological choices, the assumptions that underpin these choices, and the power relations that legitimise them, manifesting as ‘academic’ or ‘professional’ approaches to research – we need to actively problematise the RULES.

But the idea that there is some pure, alternative, authentic worldview untouched by notions of development or modernity, or intersectional concerns such as gender, race, class or sexuality, is not a reflection of reality. So when, for instance, we seek out ‘local’ voices, these are not more ‘authentic’; these do not exist separately from the ‘mainstream’ or represent separate lifeworlds. Rather, how and through what mechanisms or codes we ‘know’ the world is shaped by interconnected lifeworlds, outwardly interacting, creating continuities and discontinuities and new forms of knowledge.

A key concern is that we don’t talk enough about power – what kind of life do people want? Whose ideas about ‘sustainable development’ count? Who gets to decide what ‘progress’ or ‘empowerment’ looks like?

We have come up with global goals such as the Sustainable Development Goals, and whilst they provide a laudable blueprint for global social development and justice, we need to be able to acknowledge that there is likely to be a diversity of views of what constitutes a ‘good life’ and how we might go about tackling extreme poverty, climate change or women’s rights. But with some voices more powerful than others, this is a dialogue that is very difficult to have. But power is not simply about the North having it all and the South having none, or men having all the power and women having none – we need to reflect more carefully on whose ideas count and how these ideas become validated and taken up in global-level discourses such as the SDGs.

What is clear is that we’re doing lots of talking, but not much listening – people, wherever they are and whatever the circumstances of their lives, are not empty vessels or blank pages, waiting to be filled up or written upon – we have to start listening and working out what people actually want or need to know rather than just assuming that we know best!

So the question is, how can we work in progressive ways WITHIN this model? Or is the only way forward to fundamentally challenge the model?

Lata Narayanaswamy is Associate Professor in the Politics of Global Development at the University of Leeds. In her work, she problematises how knowledge is actualised as a driver of development in both discourse and practice. Beyond that, Lata is co-leader of the working group on ‘Decolonising Development Practice’ in the COST network Decolonising Development, as well as part of the Convivial Thinking Collective. She can also be found on Twitter.

The original version of this contribution was first made to the panel “Decolonising knowledge and participatory methodologies: framing the debate” at the conference “Epistemologies of the South. Knowledge Democracy and Participatory Research” (29/30 April 2021). The transcript is reproduced here with kind permission.