Methods Vignettes: Rivers of Life

Rivers of life



The Rivers of Life method was devised originally as an ‘ice breaker’ exercise, for use in workshops where participants coming from diverse backgrounds need to quickly introduce themselves to one another and start to build a rapport with the group.  For instance, this method has been used annually at the start of the STEPS Centre’s Summer School on Pathways to Sustainability at the University of Sussex.  Workshop participants are invited to sketch the story of their own lives and careers in the form of a river, and use this image to present themselves briefly to the other group-members.

The metaphor of a river as a way of depicting a personal journey or history is widely understood across cultures.  In relation to the specific context and aims of a workshop, the method allows an individual not only to portray the present juncture of his or her life, but also the historical twists and turns, and discontinuities of the path he or she has followed to reach this point.  (The rivers of life may also be extended beyond the present, in order to illustrate the participants’ expectations and aspirations for the future.)

STEPS researchers adapted the Rivers of Life exercise for use as a participatory data-generating method in a group setting.  Members of a rural community were brought together in a workshop in order to explore their individual and collective experiences of social, environmental and technical change in agriculture, which had affected themselves, their families or households, and their communities.  The method revealed individual pathways as well as collective experiences of socio-eco-technical change.  It also exposed diverse perspectives on and different experiences of those events that had affected the whole community, or sub-groups of it, such as women, men, youths, etc.  The individual rivers of life stories, as well as the ensuing discussions, allowed us to build a picture of the social, environmental and ecological histories of the communities in which we were interested, and the places they inhabit.

We adopted this method as an alternative and complement to the Life Histories method, which is an established technique for exploring individual life experiences, but does so typically through one or more in-depth unstructured or semi-structured interviews with individual research subjects or key informants representing wider groups.  Such interviews not only place a heavy burden on both participants’ time, they also challenge the analyst’s ability to investigate and interpret the meaning of personal stories, whose significance and implications may be obscure at first sight.

What’s involved?

Workshop participants are asked to draw their personal river of life on a large sheet of paper.  (Other materials may be used as well, such as coloured card, sticky labels, etc.)  They are asked to use the course of the river to illustrate key events and experiences in their lives and careers.  Bends in the river’s course might be used to represent turning points in life, while changes in the width or narrowness of the river may be used to illustrate changes in the breadth or concentration of focus or activities at different times, and so on.  Participants may be invited to include two specific types of features, namely tributaries, which can illustrate the formative influences entering their lives from outside (such as training, ideas, key relationships), and features such as shoals, rapids, or slow-flowing eddies and whirlpools, which may be used to depict times of difficulty or challenges the person has faced.

The participants are then invited one-by-one to tell their stories and present their drawings to the group.  Comments, questions and discussion are encouraged.  Note takers are present to capture these interactions, which may also be recorded on video or audio formats.  The facilitator and note takers pay particular attention to key events, turning points, shocks and stresses that affected each individual and his/her household, but also common events that feature in the life histories of other community members as well.  The researchers aim to capture not only the events themselves but also their impacts or consequences, as experienced by the narrators, such as the opening up or closing down of opportunities, and positive or negative impacts on income, wealth, health or wellbeing.

It is important that the workshop should include a cross section of people from the community concerned, representing the breadth of different perspectives, interests and sub-groups – such as different genders, age cohorts or wealth brackets – that are believed likely to be relevant to understanding the topic of interest.  (This implies that the researchers need to know something about the issue and the community beforehand, and the Rivers of Life workshop should only be convened after some exploratory investigations have been done.)

Broadening out and opening up

The Rivers of Life method allows researchers to learn simultaneously about the experiences of individuals, small groups and their communities through a guided conversation with a carefully selected group of workshop participants.  The exercise should reveal and document, respectively, events that have affected the whole community (e.g. a drought, a natural disaster), events that affected particular sub-groups (e.g a flood or landslide that affected only part of a village), and events that were unique to individual families or households (e.g. a death in the family).  In the case of events that had broad impacts, the method enables researchers to explore differential experiences of and perspectives on common events.  This helps to expose topics where the community has issues in common and areas where its interests or concerns differ, or diverge.

The method is not purely extractive.  It encourages and creates a space for community members to consider and discuss one another’s experiences.  The experience of sharing and hearing personal life histories to a group of people who belong to the same community can be eye-opening for the participants.  It may be instructive for community-members to realise that their own experiences of an event, such as a natural disaster, are similar to or different from those of their neighbours and peers.  Also, it may be useful for people belonging to more powerful or advantaged sections of the community to learn about the less positive experiences of weaker members.  Of course, this exposure may be sensitive for all participants.  The tellers of rivers-of-life histories should understand that they are not obliged to reveal every secret; researchers should realise that the participants are unlikely to do so unless they are confident that doing so will, at a minimum, not undermine their interests.  On the other hand, some practitioners of the Rivers of Life method suggest that it is harder for powerful members of a community to dismiss or ignore the experiences of weaker participants when they are spoken forth in such an open forum, especially when they are delivered in the form of a personal life history.

Roles, fits and limits

The Rivers of Life method is useful primarily at the scoping stage of enquiry, where the goal is to appreciate the breadth of experiences and diversity of pathways and perspectives within a community.  At this stage, broad, descriptive accounts of experience are useful, through which one can explore areas of difference and commonality within a group.  The research method is interactive and participatory and can be used to engage the relevant actors and explore alternative framings of the issues at hand.  In our research, we used the method to explore the participants’ own perceptions of having possessed or lacked agency during the processes of socio-eco-technical change which they recounted during their rivers of life stories.

As well as the Life Histories method, mentioned above, the Rivers of Life method may be used alongside other approaches to learning about a particular situation, problem or context.  We used transect walks, a method from the portfolio of Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA), as a prelude to the Rivers of Life workshops.  The transect walk gives the research team a first impression of the local community including its livelihoods, physical assets, and key features of the biophysical landscape.  This initial information provides valuable context to the subsequent workshop, for example it may equip the research team to pose questions about the history of pieces of infrastructure (such as irrigation canals), changes in cropping patterns, patterns of land use, and so on.

References and further resources

  • Moussa, Z. 2009. Tips for Trainers. Rivers of Life, PLA [formerly PLA Notes] 60 (Community based adaptation to climate change). IIED, London.
  • Musson, G. 2004. ‘Life Histories.’ In C. Cassell and G. Symon, eds, Essential Guide to Qualitative Methods in Organizational Research, London, UK: Sage, pp. 34-45


Material for this vignette was contributed by Dominic Glover and Saurabh Arora, with thanks to Patta Scott-Villiers, Research Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies.