V. Participation

V. Participation

From ‘Do-No-Harm’ to ‘Do-Some-Good’?

Learning local needs, giving voice, acting, changing?…

Buzz Group:
• “How could you make your research useful for those you work among?
• How could your research give voice to groups of people who have not been heard before?” (PERCS 2018)
• Find examples from real life where research helped to give voice or solve problems, and transfer it to your own research (proposal);
• Are there also arguments for opting-out in situations where neither do-no-harm nor do-some-good is an option (‘ethnographic refusal’).

  • Briody and Meerwarth – two practitioner-anthropologists – suggested in 2015 that ethical ethnography, besides avoiding harm should also address a question applied social science almost always is confronted with:
  • How can we do some good for those affected by our research?
  • This applies in particular to research with vulnerable groups in conflict and crisis situations (for refugees, cf. Mac Kenzie et al. 2007).
  • Jacobson & Landau in this context speak of the dual imperative “to satisfy the demands of academic peers and to ensure that the knowledge and understanding work generates are used to protect refugees and influence institutions…” (2003: 186; see also Dittmer/Lorenz 2018).

Good reads:

Briody, Elizabeth K. / Meerwarth Pester, Tracy (2015): Do some Good and other Lessons from the Practice for a New AAA Code of Ethics. In: AAA Ethics Blog (02.02.2015) [a blog with a long discussion thread]
Garner, Andrew n.d. ASA-Blog [ethical dilemmas in the field of policy anthropology].
• De Waal Malefytand Robert J Morais(eds.). 2017. Ethics in the anthropology of business : explorations in theory, practice, and pedagogy. London: Routledge.
• Deserranno, Erika et al. 2020. Aid Crowd-Out: The Effect of NGOs on Government-Provided Public Services. NBER Working Paper No. 26928, April. (an economic paper showing where government workers provide basic health services, the entry of an NGO with similar services reduces the supply of government workers]
Mackenzie, Catriona, Christopher McDowell, Eileen Pittaway, Beyond’Do NoHarm’: The Challenge of Constructing Ethical Relationships in Refugee Research, Journal of Refugee Studies, 20, 2, June, 299–319. [highlights some of the central ethical challenges involved in undertaking social science research with refugees in conflict and crisis situations].
Zahara, Alex. 2016. Ethnographic refusal: A how to guide. Discard Studies Blog. [on options for refusing to disclose scientifically relevant findings – on the part of the researcher and the researched; with an excellent annotated bibliography on ethnographic refusal (up to 2016) ]
• McGranahan, C. 2016.ed.  Special Issue: Theorizing refusal. Cultural Anthropology 31, 319-325.


Timeline of major strands in collaborative research (Loewenson et al. 2014)

Different strands of participatory research. Source: Loewenson, René et al. 2014. Participatory Action Research in Health Systems: A Methods Reader. Equinet, p19.
Here you will also find further explanation and sources to the different strands.


Roughly speaking, there are three strands in participatory research:
  • the first, knowledge-or evidence-based, focuses on the participation of the research subjects mainly during the research or appraisal process within established power structures (participative inquiry; PRA, Rapid Ethnographic Appraisal);
  • the second focuses on the participation of participants already in the research design and the monitoring of research projects (community-based participatory, or collaborative research);
  • The third focuses on the (political, decolonizing) transformation of existing conditions for the benefit of, or on behalf of the groups involved (action / advocacy / decolonial /complicity research)

Good reads:

• Boyer, Dominic and George E Marcus. 2021. eds. Collaborative Anthropology Today. A Collection of Exceptions. Ithaca (New York): Cornell University Press. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/9781501753374. [differentiates between 7 modes of collaboration; with  examples of new kinds of ethnographic and theoretical partnerships, in the domains of art, media, and information, as well as a reflection on the history of anthropological collaborations. Contains only few references to ethics issues.]
Chevalier, Jacques M. und Daniel J. Buckles. 2019a+b. Handbook for Participatory Action,. Ottawa.
Forum Qualitative Research.2012. Participatory Qualitative Research. 13,1.
• Reason, Peter & Bradbury, Hilary (eds.) 2013. The Sage handbook of action research. Participative Inquiry and Practice (2nded.). London: Sage.
Schönhuth, M. + J.T. Jerrentrup. 2019. Partizipation und nachhaltige Entwicklung. Eine Einführung.


Dilemmas combining participatory research with academic research design

Agendas – time frames – ownership

Buzz Group:
• Have you come across such dilemmas of reconciling different interests between researcher and local communities, when active field participation played a role?
• Can you think of solutions or ethically sound strategies to overcome one or the other dilemma?

  • How to reconcile the interests of researcher and local community (even if community and researcher agree on a common interest, their agendas will differ, the first aiming for local action and development, the second for a PhD or other academic outcome).
  • How to reconcile the need for anonymization, due to do-no-harm-principle versus empowerment, reward and benefits for the group.
  • How to match time frames (the community members having a life time perspective, the researchers’ time restrictions due to funding or reporting duties)
  • Who should own and who should be allowed to communicate co-produced research results (field research results are mostly credited by academia, if they are validated, interpreted and controlled by a single author in academic form).

Good read:

• Unger, H.v. + P. Narimani. 2012. Ethical Reflexivity in the Research Process: Challenges in Participatory Research. DiscussionPaper SP I 2012–304; WZB. Berlin. (German) -[For the dilemmas of anonymisationvs. empowerment; trust vs. dependencies; and minimizing harm, and how these were handled in a participatory health research project]


Finding the ‘right’ representatives

Buzz Group:
• Marginalized reserach participants and biased field access are classic ethnographic research problems (see Stocking 1983)
• in participatory research the question of who biases the information and to whose end is even more prevalent because of the active part local counterparts play in the research dialogue.
• What strategies could researchers use to counteract this local power bias?

Finding the ‘right’ representatives who are legitimate counterparts within the community and not creating a biased relationship right from the start can be a problem.

  • In 1993 in a participatory one-week field workshop on village development we facilitated in an East German village after German reunification, the first contacts were made through the mayor to a village development committee around the local pastor.
  • Informal talks and results of some of the participatory instruments revealed that this group was marginalized in village life to a great extent just because of their change orientation,the symbol of which being the modern wind turbine in the pastor’s garden that could be seen from every point in the village.
  • What seemed to be a good start (having interested and change-oriented counterparts) came to be one of the main problems for a trustful research partnership with the rest of the village.

Good reads:

• Botes, L. and van Rensburg, D. 2000 Community participation in development: Nine plagues and twelve commandments. Community Development Journal 35 (1), 41-58.)
Shah, Ashish. 2017. Democracy of the Ground? Encountering Elite Domination during Fieldwork. In: G. Crawford, et al. (eds.) Understanding Global Development Research, 47–52. [All chapters in this book are relevant for this topic!]


Dilemmas combining participatory research with administrative governance

‘World ordering knowledge’, local knowledge, and project implementation

Buzz Group:
In a ‘participatory’ German Development Agency Project (GIZ) in Tanzania we invited decision makers to exposure days in the field. Some found that a strange experience, others were impressed by the capacities and knowledge elicited by community members through the participatory process.
• Those decision makers who understood the local potential in these processes were the best brokers when it came to channeling local people’s knowledge into planning schemes of the administration.
• Does exposing heads of administration with local reality give voice to people? Would that be an acceptable compromise to close the planning-implementation gap in your political setting?
• Discuss the pros and cons!

  • A review of experiences during the implementation of a participatory approach in German village planning in the 1990s (Boos-Krueger 1998) showed that the most critical point in the process was reached with implementation: when the ideas and plans of local people are executed by planning authorities or implementing agencies.
  • For local people who have given days and weeks of their leisure time in so-called “participatory village planning”, it is demoralizing when they learn that for technical, legal, or administrative reasons their proposals have been dismissed by the authorities.

Good reads:

Burns, D.; Lopez-Franco, E.; Shahrokh, T. und Ikita, P. 2015. Citizenparticipation and accountability for sustainable development, Brighton: IDS.
Participate. 2015. Policy briefing: Achieving meaningful accountability for people living in poverty…
• Hobart, Mark, (Hg.). 1993. An Anthropological Critique of Development: The Growth of Ignorance. London: Routledge. [The term ‘world ordering knowledge’ was coined by Hobart]


Critical points and roles working as a scientific consultant

“Stumble and Fall”: The transect of the village women, which was supposed to be presented by a young woman, is “captured” by a village official and explained by him, although he was not involved in the transect (photo: © Schoenhuth 1996

  • Gatekeepers: who are the interfaces with the community; who opens the door, at what (partly invisible) price and personal benefits?
  • External experts: how to change their roles from expert to facilitator (process of de-professionalization – more so, if they are expected by local stakeholders to play that role).
  • Local officials/power holders: how to give them their credits where due (give to Caesar what is Caesar’s), and at the same time keep them off the scene, when their presence prevents open and free communication.
  • Local brokers: how to get them on board at the community level: they are critical for the whole process, but might lose their role if they engage too much with non-locals.
  • Protected spaces/open spaces: how to transfer the concerns of vulnerable people/groups raised in protected spaces to public spaces without discrediting/endangering them [photo on the left]
  • The usual suspects: how to solve the ‘who-was-not-there-and-why’ problem (how to not only empower those already empowered).
  • Change agents (often newcomers) vs. preservers of the status quo (established villagers)
  • Participatory process as ritualized performance: both sides follow the rules of the game, as there is something to gain (at least for those in power and for ‘smart’/well connected stakeholders
  • How anthropological field workers experience the arrival of participatory processes in their research villages, the time of staging and the return to business as usual after the departure of the external agents can be seen in Hess, C. et al.1998. Mit den Augendes Ethnographen. Entwicklungsethnologie7,2,11-48 [German]

Collaboration and partnership anchored in guidelines

The right to be involved (GERAIS, Australia)

Point to ponder:
• Is there a difference in involving ‘local communities’ or ‘indigenous communities’ in your research? (see, if needed, article 31 of the DRIPS, below)
• What would you do if the legitimacy of local leadership is unclear or questioned by other local factions?

Guidelines for Ethical Research in Australian Indigenous Studies
Principle 10: “[…] Indigenous communities and individuals have a right to be involved in any research project focused upon them and their culture. Apply the relevant provisions in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (DRIPS)” *

  • “At the beginning of a project identify the appropriate people -Traditional Owners, custodians, Elders, and others with rights and interests -who are responsible for the Indigenous knowledge […], and facilitate direct involvement as appropriate.
  • […] Encourage and support community members, Traditional Owners and others as appropriate to be involved in the research as collaborators, advisers or assistants.
  • Continue Indigenous involvement, where possible, beyond the period in which the research is conducted (to later stages such as compiling the research and presenting it).” (AIATSIS 2012: 14)

Good reads:

AIATSIS 2012: Guidelines for Ethical Research in Australian Indigenous Studies (GERAIS).
UN 2007: DRIPS

* Article 31 of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (DRIPS):”Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain, control, protect and develop their cultural heritage, traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expressions, as well as the manifestations of their sciences, technologies and cultures, including human and genetic resources, seeds, medicines, knowledge of the properties of fauna and flora, oral traditions, literatures, designs, sports and traditional games and visual and performing arts.” (UN 2007)


Benefits, outcomes and giving back to communities (GERAIS, Australia)

Guidelines for Ethical Research in Australian Indigenous Studies
Principle 11: Indigenous people involved in research, or who may be affected by research, should benefit from, and not be disadvantaged by, the research project.

  • …Discuss openly and negotiatewith the community any potential benefits. Benefits may include financial payments such as royalties, as well as other benefits such as training, employment and community development.
  • Provide all relevant information to Indigenous participants and communities to weigh potential benefits against possible risks or disadvantages. [..]
  • Consider benefits to Indigenous communities such as support for the archiving of materials relating to intangible cultural heritage, including (but not limited to) field notes and recordings that document language, cultural practices and ethnobotanical knowledge.
  • Ensure that, if such benefits are provided, appropriate measures are in place to protect secrecy and confidentiality of materials….(AIATSIS 2012: 15; see also chapter 1.7. on defining “benefits” of the guide to the new AIATSIS Code of Ethics: AIATSIS 2020b).

• -> Rights of Indigenous peoples to self-determination & intangible heritage must be recognized (UN 2007). http://www.un.org/development/desa/indigenouspeoples/wp-content/uploads/sites/19/2018/11/UNDRIP_E_web.pdf


Collaboration and partnership put to the test

Example: multi-stakeholder consultations in a transnational research project (2018)

Leaflet TRAFIG (Connectivity and Mobility as Solutions to Protracted Refugee Situations (reprinted with kind permission of TRAFIG

  • TRAFIG, Transnational Figurations of Displacement, an EU-funded Horizon 2020 research and innovation project. Twelve partner organisationsinvestigate long-lasting displacement situations at multiple sites in Asia, Africa and Europe
  • In addition to classical survey methods and qualitative survey instruments (expert interviews, semi-structured and biographical interviews, focus groups), different PLA methods (Timeline, Transect, Needs Ranking, Force Field Analysis, Venn Diagram) are used.
  • The field phase, which lasts up to eleven months, is concluded by “multi-stakeholder community consultations”, in which participating actors (refugees, aid organisations, other key actors) discuss their assessments of the empirical research results and agree on joint measures.
  • They are modelled on the so-called Barza(inter-) communautaires, cross-community meetings that are traditionally used in the DR Congo to settle inter-group conflicts.
  • For more information: (TRAFIG Transnational Figurations of Displacement) at: https://trafig.eu; Etzold et al. 2019).

Example: Returns of local environmental knowledge in three indigenous societies” (LEK Project, UAB Barcelona)

http://icta.uab.cat/Etnoecologia/lek/index.php?Color=verde
Reprint with kind permission of Victoria Reyes García ©

Buzz group:
• Discuss the returns of the scientific project
• Think of things like: “feedback”; “voice”; “sharing”, “action”; “policy level”; “public”.
• Do you know other forms of scientific feedback-culture?
• Did they work, and if they did, how?

“In exchange for the kind and generous hospitality we received from each of the communities,[…], we wanted to somehow ‘give back’ to them…:

  • Workshops: At the end of the 18 months of fieldwork, our team organiseda workshop, where we presented preliminary results and asked participants for their interpretation of, and feedback on, our findings.
  • Photostory: We compiled …a large collection of photos from each field site (daily activities; …environments, …livelihoods). …This activity served to enlighten them with stories and pictures of other forest peoples very similar to themselves, both in culture and setting. It was a huge success…
  • Empowerment: By being asked [sic!] about their traditional knowledge, and by sharing our interest in them and their culture, we believe the project has contributed to cultural self-worth. …by giving talks …to academic, policy, and lay people …, we believe we have helped spread awareness and voice the plight of these people whose rights call to be recognized more widely, not only at the regional, but also national and international levels.”

Research on eye-level in transcultural research tandems

Example: students research cooperation between Freiburg (Germany) and Yogyakarta (Indonesia)

Buzz Group:
• Elaborate more about possible advantages, pitfalls but also structural inequalities that might remain in such transcultural research tandems.
• Think of: material resources, roles, culturally encoded expectations; the point in time, when the research framework ends ….

Framework for the transcultural research tandems
  • shared between the anthropological institutes in Yogyakarta (Indonesia) and Freiburg i. Br. within the framework of the university program;
  • two students from each university conduct research on a common research topic; four to six weeks in Indonesia and then just as long in Germany.
  • The transition of the “outsider-insider” roles of being the “local expert” and the”foreign learner”, linked with a common research interest of both research partners, shall provide for conditions which, during the research can leverage the hegemonic power of the interpretation of western research traditions. (see Schlehe and Hidayah 2013; Heybrock 2018)

Good read:

Schlehe, Judith and S. Hidayah. 2013. Transcultural Ethnography in Tandems: Collaboration and Reciprocity Combined and Extended. Freiburger Ethnologische Arbeitspapiere 23.


Toxic Collaborations

Working with armed forces

Buzz Group:
• Would you consider working in an advising position for the military in your country (at least if the government is democratically legitimized)?
• If not, what would be historical , ethical , disciplinary or epistemological reasons not to do so?
• If yes , where are your limits : teaching cultural sensitizing personell), providing cultural knowledge for strategic planning; accompanying peace keeping missions; or even war missions (see next chart)


  • When compelled to adopt a position many anthropologists ultimately see themselves as advocates for the indigenous groups they study, whose resistance to encroachment by state or economic actors they support ideally or – more rarely – materially as politically committed (Scheper-Hughes 1995), or action anthropologists. (Rubinstein 2018)
  • It becomes more difficult when these groups become actors of violence in armed conflicts
  • Today certain social or political scientists, but also anthropologists work as lecturers or intercultural mission advisors for military authorities or military training institutions for their government.

Good reads:

Utas, Mats. 2009. Debating mercenary anthropology: Maintaining scholarly ignorance or new engagement with the global warscape . Posted in African Politics, Culture, Global Africa.
DGV/DGSKA. 2009. Texte zu Ethnologen in Krisen und Kriegsgebieten: Ethische Aspekte eines neuen Berufsfeldes. Various texts on anthropologists in conflict areas: The German debate).
Anthropologi.info (Blog). 2005 2010. Anthropology and Military Various Links).


Human Terrain System and “embedded anthropologists”

“Dr. Richard R. Boone of Wimberley, Texas, interviews local residents of the Baraki Barak District in Afghanistan’s Logar
province, to find out about their attitudes and daily lives.” April 17.
Author: The U.S. Army U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Donald L. Reeves; 3
Aug. 2009., Commons Wikimedia

  • The human terrain system (HTS) launched for the U.S. Army between 2005 and 2014 was designed “..to address cultural awareness shortcomings at the operational and tactical levels by giving brigade commanders an organic capability to help understand and deal with ‘human terrain’ the social, ethnographic, cultural, economic, and political elements of the people among whom a force is operating.(Kipp et al. 2006: 9)
  • [..]The nature of my mission, and the overall mission of the HTS we have an ethical responsibility to bring quality socio cultural information and nonlethal possibilities to the commander’s attention.(Adam Silverman 2009 ; social science advisor to the U.S. Army as an “embedded anthropologist”)
  • HTS is “….manipulating local culture, […], transforming anthropologists into spies, and putting people you work with [in the locale] at risk.” (Chicago anthropologist Marshall Sahlins, during a conference 2010)
  • In November 2006 the executive board of the American Anthropological Association formally discouraged its members from taking part in the HTS program.

Good reads:

AAA (American Anthropological Association) 2009. CEAUSSIC Releases Final Report on Army HTS Program (October 14).
• Derian , Der et al. 2010. Human Terrain: War Becomes Academic. Film. Bullfrog Films, Oley, PA . Trailer : https://vimeo.com/ondemand/humanterrainmovie/371873917?autoplay=1
González, Roberto J . 2015. The Rise and Fall of the Human Terrain System. Counter Punch . June 29, 2015.
• Price, David. 2013. Anthropology and Militarism. DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567 0094. Oxford Bibliographies (With ample links to literature, video and radio resources up to 2010)
• Price, David. 2016. Cold War Anthropology: The CIA, the Pentagon, and the Growth of Dual Use Anthropology. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.


2 thoughts on “V. Participation

  1. Dark anthropology and ‘anthropology of the good’: In a programmatic article for HAU – Journal of Ethnographic Theory (6,1, 47-73), Sherry Ortner 2016 contrasts an anthropology concerned with questions of power, domination, inequality and oppression (what she calls “dark anthropology”), with an anthropology of the good, which focuses on values, well-being, empathy, care and change (“the anthropology of well being”, Fischer 2014). Instead of remaining in mutual fundamental critique, she is advocating a dialogue where cultural critique (“the critical study of existintg order”) and studies that “..think about alternative political and economic futures” both have a place. (Ortner 2016:66)

  2. Power issues in refugee research: an empirically as well as theoretically convincing and sound article on the complex relations of power, participation, and ‘peer researchers’ in refugee camps written by Kate Pincock (Oxford) and William Bakunzi (Stanford) in the Journal of Refugee studies 2020. Particularly striking:
    – rare employment opportunities for refugees working as ‘peer’-researchers in internationally funded research projects fostering the silencing of justified claims about working conditions, pay, or evoloving ethical dilemmas through participation;
    – preconceived research structures through funding governance, leaving little impact for changes proposed by peer-researchers in the field;
    – power flows through interactions rather than possessed by individuals, triggering new ‘circulations of power’ (positive and problematic), constantly negotiated within refugees’ own network relationships;
    – dissemination of findings already during research to local participants through appropriate communication channels;
    – poor research follow up and how this could be avoided by factoring it into funding budgets from the very beginning;
    – Consequences for local peer-researchers, but also to principal researchers with a precarious assignment, when research funding stops;
    – steps of a paper co-published by the refugee peer-researcher and the British anthropologist….

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