Methods Vignettes: Participatory Rural Appraisal



PRA is described as a ‘family of approaches and methods’ by Chambers (1994) and an ‘eclectic situational style (the humble learning outsider)’ by IISD. It is a means through which local people can determine issues of importance to them and then share, develop, systematically order and analyse their knowledge of it, using this to plan, monitor and act on it. Ideally through this local knowledge is legitimised, and empowerment facilitated. This makes the researcher’s role one of a convenor, facilitator, partner and catalyst of change as well as someone who is trying to understand a situation (Chambers 1994).

To a degree, PRA was developed in response to methods viewed as ‘extractive’ or ‘elicitive’ such as surveys or structured interviews. Here a researcher’s world-view (the ‘etic’ view) is prioritised over the world views and knowledge of those being researched and actually experiencing the issue at hand (the ‘emic’ view). Additionally – highlighting PRAs initial development in rural settings – farmers were acknowledged as experimenters who should and could play a much more involved role in agricultural data collection and analysis.

Originally used to better understand issues in rural settings, PRA derives from five methodological approaches: activist participatory research; agroecosystem analysis; applied anthropology; field research on farming systems and rapid rural appraisal (Chambers 1994). However, it can be used in any setting where the method is appropriate to the needs of the local community and practitioner.

Because PRA is a collection of approaches with an underlying ethos rather than easily described methods, it has the potential to fall into the trap of seeming ‘all things to all people’, and in reality is often practiced on a spectrum of degrees of participation. This overview tries to draw some key distinctions around good practice in PRA, but does not promise comprehensiveness.

What’s involved?

Drawing from the ethnographic tradition, good practice in PRA acknowledges the value of residence in the field and participant-observation over time. Along with just getting to know an area, this also cultivates a relaxed and trusting rapport which is important. A key element of this methodological toolkit is that while the basic steps of each method may be understood, the researcher/facilitator (‘practitioner’ here) needs to work with local participants to think how best to apply or adapt them to local circumstances and needs. Furthermore, which methods to use and in what order will be specific to the situation at hand, and relies on sensitive observation and reflection. Practitioners need to be cognisant of diversity and differentiation in the localities in which they work and consider how best to ensure broad participation and in what sorts of groups.

PRA works by sequencing exercises from broad to focussed, or from identification through to appraisal, planning and action. This can be done by getting to know an area/issue (such as by transect walks and seasonal calendars), how to include different groups of people in the process (by for example using social mapping), what questions to ask and categories of importance (with the aid of participatory diagramming for example), and so on. Data also needs to be triangulated, so two or even three methods might be used to explore each stage. This sort of process reflects the idea of PRA as a ‘flexible art rather than rigid science’.

Methods involve working with groups or individuals and making and analysing shared often visual representations. By relying on the visual, characterisations of a situation can be iteratively developed and collectively questioned – it is one step towards inclusive practice (for example by involving people irrespective of their levels of literacy). It also moves away from reliance on the fleeting spoken word to be captured and immortalised in researcher files. Representations (visual and other) are made through: modelling on the ground or on paper; transect walks; creating matrices and then scoring and ranking with seeds stones or sticks; seasonal calendars; trend and change analysis; well-being and wealth ranking and grouping with cards; analytical diagramming by mapping, creating links and showing flows; ‘doing it yourself’ as a researcher – so becoming a worker or following a daily routine etc. This is by no means an exhaustive list and more comprehensive lists can be found in Chambers’ publications (1994, 1992) and in the resources listed below.

Finally, there is a need for ongoing and self-critical reflection in the process of PRA. The quality, validity and ethics of methods and results generated needs to be constantly questioned and the practitioner’s role within this reflected upon. Through this process it is hoped that good quality PRA is achieved.

Broadening Out and Opening Up?

Chambers points to the role of PRA in ‘offsetting biases’ (Chambers 1992), referring to the biases of ‘development tourism’, or in other words the tendency for development practice to have involved quick, superficial engagement with easily accessible groups (i.e. those who are geographically easily accessed and already in powerful positions). Instead, PRA involves seeking out the harder to reach – such as the very poor, women or members of marginalised groups. Viewpoints, experiences and perspectives from a range of participants should be sought thus broadening out who and what is involved in problem framing and characterisation. This reflects PRA’s emphasis on interest in diversity rather than averages (Chambers 1992).

The methods mean that local people’s understandings and categorisations of their situation are used. A shared scope of interest is developed between practitioners and participants and action plans deriving from the research developed. All of which represent an opening up of an issue, and the potential to move beyond traditional avenues for action.

Fits and Limits

PRA is useful when a practitioner is interested in understanding a broad issue and keen that this be defined in the ways that local people see it, or wish to approach it. It is therefore not suitable for someone who has a fixed and tightly defined research agenda. It is also a long-term undertaking, and so will not easily be replicated across multiple field sites.

When practiced well PRA has the potential to engender feelings of empowerment and expectation amongst those involved. Researchers need to implement PRA carefully, develop plans for the ‘what next’ and manage expectations accordingly. An extension of this is to be aware of the existing power structures or decision making mechanisms in any situation, and to appreciate how the PRA being conducted relates to these – there is the potential for PRA processes to come into tension with these.

Cooke and Kothari (Cooke and Kothari 2001) present an extensive critique of participatory approaches to development, including PRA within this. For example the suitability and efficacy of the methods used in any one situation, the potential for political co-option of participants, the costs of participating for local people, whether group dynamics just re-inforce the already powerful, whether participatory methods have excluded the use of other methods with different advantage sets and the actual degree to which decision making is decentralised. It makes for useful reading and should help in a practitioner’s reflections of their practice and context.

Resources and References:

Chambers, R. (1992). Rural Appraisal: Rapid, Relaxed and Participatory. IDS Discussion Paper 311. Brighton Institute of Development Studies.

Chambers, R. (1994). “The Origins and Practice of Participatory Rural Appraisal.” World Development 22(7): 953-969.

Cooke, B. and U. Kothari, Eds. (2001). Participation: The New Tyranny? London, Zed Books Ltd.

Cornwall, A., Pratt, G. (2010) The use and abuse of participatory rural appraisal: reflections from practice. Agriculture and Human Values 28(2): 263-272.

Nabasa, J., Rutwara, G., Walker, F., Were, C. (1995) Participatory Rural Appraisal: Practical Experiences. Chatham, NRI.

PRA Tool Box. FAO Corporate Document Repository

Waters-Bayer, A., Bayer, W. (1994) Planning with Pastoralists: PRA and More; a Review of Methods Focused on Africa. GTZ Division 422 Working Paper, Eschborn, GTZ.


Material for this vignette was contributed by Dr Becky White.