Webinar: How to integrate participatory research methods


This Horticulture Innovation Lab webinar provides an overview of participatory research methods and outlines tips and strategies for qualitative data collection. This was the third webinar in the Horticulture for Development Professional Series, held live on August 8, 2019.

Robb Davis, director of Intercultural Program at UC Davis, was the speaker for this webinar. He provided an overview of semi-structured interviewing as a core component of qualitative research. Within semi-structured interviewing, Davis provided numerous strategies on how to ask better questions when collecting data to ensure that key informants are leading the conversation while interviewers are facilitating. This approach allows community members to go deeper into topics and issues they feel are important without having the interviewer drive the discussion in certain directions that can often dictate how questions are answered.

Several examples of tools within participatory learning approaches were shared that help gather diverse perspectives and establish interactive discussion.

This summary includes the recorded webinar video presentation, the presenter's slides, and additional resources referenced in the presentation.

Semi-structured vs. structured interviewing

Under the umbrella of qualitative data collection, both structured and semi-structured interviewing exist to provide insights into topics of inquiry. While structured interviewing follows more rigid guidelines and direct questioning, semi-structured interviewing focuses on ensuring key informants can provide their own perspectives and thoughts on topics without being directed towards specific answers. Davis summarizes this as "getting an informant on a topic of interest, and getting out the way." 

The goal of semi-structured interviewing is for an interviewer to server as a facilitator, allowing informants to take the conversation in whatever direction they choose. By allowing informants to discuss what is important to them, you get at the heart of issues and challenges for more robust research that is representative of the population you are collecting data from.

Defining a topic while allowing the informants to fill in the rest ultimately builds trust and enables them to tell their own stories. On the contrary, structured interviewing can often narrowly lead informants to answer questions a certain way or speak on a topic that may not be what they find important.

Types of participatory research questions

The types of questions and the way questions are asked ultimately determines the course of qualitative data collection. Two common types of questions are closed questions and open questions.

Davis shared that closed questions often have answer choices that are given to or understood by the respondent. These questions limit the breadth of information that can be offered. Examples include:

  • What are three ways to prevent a cold? (Implies a limited number of correct answers)
  • Do you talk to people about your experiences as a student at UC Davis? (Implied choice: yes or no)
  • Do people here want more or less government intervention? (Implies limited number of choices)

Open questions, however, allow the respondent to answer without limitations or being provided with potential answers. Closed questions can simply be adjusted into open questions by including words such as "What," "Where," "How," or "Tell me about ..."

Leading questions should also be avoided as they suggest a particular answer or set of answers. Allowing respondents to answer in their own terms provides greater depth of information.

Strategies to improve facilitation

A key strategy for asking participatory questions and letting the informants lead is to utilize probing. Probing is a skill that interviewers can develop that seeks to stimulate discussion and allows respondents to go deeper into a topic.

Davis shares that the trick with probing is to not interject yourself too much in the conversation, but utilize several techniques to produce more information. Several types of probes include:

  • Echo: Repeat the last thing the respondent said with a slight rise in the voice. "I think x is good..." "You think x is good...?"
  • Re-question: "What else do you think about x...?"
  • Silence: Wait, just remain quiet and wait for the respondent to continue.
  • Re-cap: "Could you repeat what you said about x?" The repeat will likely yield new information.
  • Encouragement: Verbal probe with noises such as uh-huh, I see, etc.
  • Non-verbal: Such things as smile, click, head shake, etc.

Types of participatory learning tools

Qualitative data collection often focuses on asking direct questions and following a guide narrowly, but solely asking questions does not have to to be the only method to foster discussion.

Davis provided a set of participatory learning tools that go beyond just asking questions and engaging respondents in more interactive ways. The following list of tools allows interviewers to incorporate resources such as maps, charts, timelines and other varied learning tools to gather diverse group perspectives:

  • Spatial: maps, walkabouts
  • Social relationships: venn diagrams, social mapping
  • Temporal: seasonal calendars, timelines, histories
  • Preferential: ranking
  • Comparative: various matrices
  • Classification: sorting
  • Cause and effect: problem trees, solution trees

Davis also shared links to two resources for more information. The first is a manual for Catholic Relief Services workers and partners, called "Rapid Rural Appraisal (RRA) and Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA)." The other is a World Development journal article by Robert Chambers of the Institute of Development Studies, "The Origins and Practice of Participatory Rural Appraisal."