Methods Vignettes: Intervention histories



Intervention histories/ futures essentially involves conducting an oral history or narrative interview. However, the particular focus is on how an external intervention – or series of interventions – such as a development project, or a distinct policy change, or the introduction of a new technology or organisational innovation – has been perceived and experienced. And extending from the past and present into the future, it explores how participants imagine the intervention unfolding into the future, with what implications.

It is a method developed and used within several case studies of the STEPS Centre’s Political Ecologies of Carbon in Africa project; however it could be adapted to a range of other issues and settings.  The method enables the tracking of ‘intervention pathways’ – how the particular combinations of social, technological, environmental and institutional arrangements associated with interventions co-evolve over time – and how such interventions interact with, and perhaps alter the directions of, ongoing pathways of change around particular issues and settings. Carried out with diverse actors, it enables the tracking of a diversity of meanings, interpretations, experiences and imaginations associated with such intervention pathways and the broader pathways that they interact with.

What’s Involved?

This method can take the form of an individual interview, or be used to guide a focus group discussion. In either case, questions of sampling, informant identity and representation are critical. The aim, in any given setting, is to capture a diversity of intervention histories/futures, picking up on relevant social and authority differences (such as around gender, age, occupation, position in a given organisation, status with respect to contextually-relevant axes of power). When applied in a group format, this will mean attention not just to holding a diversity of separate group discussions (eg. With older women, younger women, older men, etc etc…) but also to the dynamics within the group. Who is speaking and who is remaining silent? – make attempts to draw everyone in. Where is there consensus and where does there appear to be difference or disagreement? – attend to the latter, and probe its reasons, and whether they reflect the views of a significant sub-group that might have initially been overlooked. The place and setting of the discussion also require attention – holding this in a place where all feel comfortable, and that avoids obvious trappings of power (such as the offices of those proposing the intervention, or of a contextual leader) is generally important if people, especially the marginalised, are to feel free to express their views. Be aware too of how the identity, and perceived interests, of the interviewer or group discussion convenor might affect the ways people express themselves. Such issues of researcher positionality cannot of course be entirely avoided, but acknowledging them helps account for them when it comes to interpreting the accounts.

Introduce a broad topic and problem area or system, depending on the research focus (e.g. forest use; energy access; a particular health issue; dryland agriculture; urban waste management, etc etc). Start a conversation that begins with a recognisable historical baseline; this might for instance be when the people in the group first settled in an area, or a relevant aspect of lifestyle, livelihood or organisation began. If people cannot recall exact dates, triangulation with a locally-relevant timeline of events can help. Ask about people’s activities and experiences at that time, and about ongoing changes they experienced. What was good? What was challenging? Then ask about the intervention of interest. How did it come about? Who introduced it? What were their motivations? How was it introduced, through what institutional channels and arrangements? Who was involved? What was supposed to change? What actually changed? What was good and what was bad? Who gained or lost, in what ways?  From there, questioning might move on to ask the same things of a subsequent phase of the same intervention or project. Or perhaps that intervention faded away, but left a legacy. Were there any subsequent interventions or projects? The same questions can be asked – focusing again on meanings, practices, and what changed as a result. Feedbacks can also be identified – how did the legacy of the last intervention affect what was possible in the new one? What adaptations were made as a result? Were there any unexpected outcomes? Continue up to the present – what is the situation now? And then, in this light, conversation can turn to the future. Perhaps a new intervention, project or phase is promised but hasn’t yet materialised. What do people imagine it will do, and what do they imagine might change? Who might gain or lose? Or perhaps there is no intervention in sight – in which case conversation might turn to people’s perceptions of future challenges, and how they, or other as-yet-to-be-thought-of interventions, might address these. Which actors, institutions and types of intervention would be desirable? possible? likely? Throughout, encourage people to reflect on the power relations that have shaped past interventions, and that they think might shape future possibilities.

Through such a relatively straightforward, structured conversation, the aim is to enable people to relate their own stories of projects and interventions, their actors, interests and effects; and to describe how successive interventions (e.g. successive attempts to restructure water supply and access, or successive forest conservation schemes) have layered over time, building on the legacies of previous interventions and of ongoing dynamics in the system in question.

Broadening Out and Opening Up?

By encouraging people to express freely their own understandings of interventions and projects – their meanings, the motivations and interests of those promoting them, and their effects – this method offers a way of broadening out how projects are conceptualised, beyond the discourses of project promoters, publicity materials and official documentation. It helps appreciate that interventions promoted as having particular goals and activities, may be interpreted and experienced quite differently by their intended beneficiaries, participants or clients. It also helps contextualise what might initially seem to be people’s misinterpretations of interventions, as logical in the context of their cultural settings and historical experiences – including the legacies of their experiences with past intervenors. Furthermore, if applied with a variety of social groups or their representatives, this provides a way of broadening-out beyond the assumption of a consensual, homogeneous view, to reveal diversity and lines of contestation and difference in people’s experiences and interpretations.

Once revealed and documented, such diverse intervention histories-futures can also be used as part of an opening-up of inputs to policy and practice – whether in evaluating past interventions, or appraising and designing new ones. It can help expose likely future clashes of interpretation, or distributional implications that may have gone unrecognised, thus enabling future intervention designs to take account of and mitigate these. And it can open up the ways that future intervention designs are conceived, to address a wider range, or a reconfigured set, of challenges, goals and desires. By encouraging project/intervention designers to undertake such intervention histories-futures for themselves, a more reflexive and inclusive process of intervention design might be enabled, better attuned to the diverse imaginaries and complex and changing systems and contexts in which interventions are inevitably situated, and with which they interact to produce pathways of change.

Possible Limits?

This method works most effectively where discrete, often external, interventions can be relatively easily identified – such as situations of colonial and then donor or NGO project involvement in a particular landscape or place, or around a particular development challenge; or successive, distinct policy changes in a particular sector. Interventions thus provide the focal anchor or ‘red thread’ for the histories/futures, with broader ongoing changes – shaped by a possibly very wide mix of social, technological, ecological and institutional processes – discussed in relation to these. It is less straightforward to apply to understanding historical and future pathways shaped just by an ongoing complex of processes and networks; other methods, such as participatory mapping or systems-diagramming at particular time-points might be more suited to these. However, in situations where clear intervention or project pathways can be identified, it is important not to fetishise these, assuming them to be the prime driver of change when in fact other contextual processes may be more significant.