Grounds for change: Assessing the efficacy of participatory research and development of agricultural innovations

Open Access
Jones, Kristal
Graduate Program:
Rural Sociology
Master of Science
Document Type:
Master Thesis
Date of Defense:
September 28, 2011
Committee Members:
  • Leland Luther Glenna, Thesis Advisor
  • agricultural development
  • participatory research
  • West Africa
Recent spikes in food prices and subsequent shortages in many developing countries has increased the attention placed on international agricultural research for development. Agricultural programs have followed the general trends in development practice over the past several decades, beginning with a market-based, top-down approach to technology creation and diffusion. However, alternative approaches to development, which focus on participation as both means to social change and an end goal for social organization, have long been championed by both theorists and practitioners as more just and durable than conventional development practice. Perceptions of participation by all actors in a given project or social space often vary, however, raising questions of how to understand different types of action and engagement within the same participatory spaces, as well as their effects on the community. This paper explores the experiences of farmers and researchers involved with participatory plant breeding projects in Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso, West Africa. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with both farmer and researchers participants in the projects, asking questions of what each individual learned and taught during the projects, as well as how their access to and sharing of information has changed as a result of the collaboration. Based on themes that emerged during the interviews, the paper argues for a typology of participation that is two-fold and dynamic. Participation can be functional or empowering, meeting practical or strategic goals. Farmers’ experience with the participatory plant breeding projects suggest that functional participation occurs in situations of knowledge sharing between researchers and farmers, where information moves vertically and meets immediate, material needs. In contrast, exchanges among farmers themselves, facilitated by the project, result in increased weak ties and the ability to make future choices, a more empowering aspect of the participatory process. Researchers, in contrast, emphasized the two-way communication and sharing of ideas between themselves and farmers, seeing their interactions as moving toward a strategic goal of community-based change. Critics of participation as a means to social change have suggested that this mismatch is precisely the problem with participation – it never occurs on a level playing field, and there will always be certain actors with more institutional power or social status whose knowledge will dominate the collaboration. Nonetheless, this paper suggests that participation is an important first step in moving beyond the top-down research for development paradigm, and explores alternative diffusion models, beyond a classic market-based system, that can build upon and validate the social ties and knowledge created through participatory plant breeding.