Reflecting on participatory approaches to social-science research in the development field

Miss Helena Shojaei1

1University Of The South Pacific, Kingdom of Tonga


This paper provides anecdotal evidence on the influence of the researcher in the collection of information using participatory action research methods. Participatory methods in social science research are commonly adopted as a measure to facilitate a more authentic means of data collection and to enrich participant-researcher interactions. They are viewed as an alternative to traditional “top-down” development projects, that enables improved “knowledge-sharing”, the negotiation of power relations and builds the capacity of often marginalized voices to analyse their reality. Some critics, however highlight that by simply adopting a “participatory” approach does not instantaneously dissipate the existing power structures and can in fact mask them. More broadly, consideration should be made regarding the impact of conducting research based on theoretical/conceptual frameworks designed and developed outside of the context in which they are applied. By reflecting on experiences in conducting participatory research in Tonga from 2018-2019, where themes such as, “Gods Will”, “Fonua” (sense of place in Tongan), cultural obligations and gender roles commonly arose, this paper will highlight that the researcher can serve as an enabler or disabler of the real participation of all stakeholders. This paper concludes by sharing a few of the “lessons learned” in conducting international participatory research.


Helena Shojaei a BoA in Human Geography and Planning and a MSc in Urban and Regional Planning. Helena has lived in the pacific region for several years both as a volunteer and a research consultant, namely in Palau and Tonga. Helena is interested in the influence of the “global North” in shaping the development of countries in the “global South”. She has experience in conducting participatory action research about the impact of climate stressors on the livelihoods of locals living on the island of Tongatapu in the Kingdom of Tonga. email:

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