Evolution of Participation Theory

Participation is not a new concept (Buchy, Ross et al. 2000)[1] . It represents a move from the global, aspatial, top-down strategies that dominated early development initiatives to more locally sensitive methodologies (Storey 1999)[2] . There are differing opinions as to the origins of participation theory. Midgley et al (1986)[3] suggested that the historical antecedents of community participation include: the legacy of western ideology, the influence of community development and the contribution of social work and community radicalism. Buchy, Ross et al (2000) suggested that literature on participation and participatory processes stems broadly from two major areas: political sciences and development theory. Lane (1995)[4] added to this view, suggesting that participation is heavily influenced by theories of development and is therefore highly varied and complex due to different theoretical positions. The dominance of the top-down approaches to development was largely a result of modernization theory which was dominant in the 1960s (Lane 1995).

Modernization theory surmises that for developing countries to develop they need economic growth along the path already travelled by western countries (Hulme and Turner 1990[5] ; Peet and Hartwick 1999[6] ; So 1990[7] ). This has been heavily criticized and other development theories have highlighted disparities. From the modernization point of view participation meant involvement of the community in the implementation of a project with the purpose of increasing the acceptance and efficiency of use (Lane 1995). This represents a low level of participation that is reactionary and ignores the site-specific complexities of management needs (Kolavalli and Kerr 2002)[8] .

According to Holcombe (1995)[9] , acknowledgement of the importance of participation grew out of the recognition that the worlds’ poor have actually suffered as a result of development, and that everyone needs to be involved in development decisions, implementation and benefits. As participatory approaches advanced, they highlighted the weaknesses inherent in traditional, top-down approaches that focused on single disciplines and reductionist paradigms (Johnson and Walker 2000)[10] . Agrawal and Gibson (1999)[11] identified the limitation of the state in top-down resource conservation practices and emphasis popular participation as the remedy of these shortcomings. Mompati and Prinsen (2000)[12] made a similar observation of the uniqueness of an individual as an entity who is capable of making unique contributions to decision-making. This move represents a move towards people centered development at a normative level (Chambers 1993[13] ; Kelly 2001[14] ). Midgley et al (1986)[14] posited that the community development movement of the 1950s and 1960s was another source of inspiration for contemporary community participation theory and that community development and participation theory are very similar. Moser (1987) identified that community development is now considered in some countries to have colonialist overtones and has become discredited. Kelly (2001)[14] provided a good account of the evolutionary trends in participation from the 1960s however does not identify the influence of community development (refer to table 1).

Table 1 Development of participatory processes (adapted from Kelly 2001)

Era Trends in participatory processes
1950’s & 60s Rapid industrialization and growing influence of technological expertise; supremacy of scientific knowledge. Chambers (1992) said that this era was characterized by the diffusion model of adoption I agriculture. Extension agents were involved primarily in teaching farmers, and in the transfer of technology.
Need for alternatives
Concern expressed about ‘giving a voice to the voiceless’ specifically the poor in developing countries (Friere 1972). Increasing focus on learning, adult learning principles and group extension.

Early experimentation of participatory approaches in development. Frustration over the ineffectiveness of externally imposed & ‘expert’ orientated forms (Chambers 1992). Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) grew out of Rapid Rural Appraisal (RRA).

The participation boom
Change from top-down to bottom-up; acknowledgement of the value of local indigenous knowledge
The 1980s witnessed flourishing of activity, particularly amongst non- government organizations (NGOs) in seeking alternatives to top-down outsider driven development. The emphasis was on participatory appraisal and analysis in rural communities.Proliferation of participatory methodologies, including PAR (participatory action research) and tools such as rich pictures and venn diagrams.
The participation imperative
The fervor about participation continued in the early 1990s. Participation became synonymous with ‘good’ or ‘sustainable’ in the development field (Guijt and Shah 1998:4). As Green (1998:71) emphasized, the popularization of participation is dangerous, as the problems are often glossed over.

Funding bodies began demanding participatory processes as a condition for funding. The push for participation stimulated a proliferation of guidebooks and courses on ‘how to’. A growing interest in natural resource monitoring and evaluation has led to community involvement in these activities.


  1. Buchy M, Ross H, Proctor W (2000) ‘Enhancing the information base on participatory approaches in Australian natural resource management: Commissioned research under the Land & Water Australia’s Social and Institutional Research Program.’ Land & Water Australia, Canberra. ^
  2. Storey D (1999) Issues of Integration, Participation and Empowerment in Rural Development: The Case of LEADER in the Republic of Ireland. Journal of Rural Studies 15, 307-315. ^
  3. Midgley J, Hall A, Hardiman M, Narine D (Eds) (1986) ‘Community participation, social development and the state.’ (Methuen: London ; New York) ^
  4. Lane J (1995) Non-governmental organisations and participatory development: the concept in theory versus the concept in practice. In ‘Power and Participatory Development’. (Ed. S Wright). (Intermediate Technology Publications: London) ^
  5. Hulme D, Turner M (1990) ‘Sociology and Development: Theories, policies and practices.’ (Harvester Wheatsheaf: New York) ^
  6. Peet R, Hartwick E (1999) ‘Theories of Development.’ (The Guildford Press: London) ^
  7. So AY (1990) ‘Social change and development. Modernisation, dependency and world- system theories.’ (Sage Publications: London) ^
  8. Kolavalli S, Kerr J (2002) Scaling up participatory watershed development in India. Development & Change 33, 213-235. ^
  9. Holcombe S (1995) ‘Managing to Empower: The Grameen Bank’s Experience of Poverty Alleviation.’ (Zed Books Ltd: New Jersey) ^
  10. Johnson A, Walker D (2000) Science, communication and stakeholder participation for integrated natural resource management. Australian Journal of Environmental Management 7, 82-90. ^
  11. Agrawal A, Gibson CC (1999) Enchantment and Disenchantment: The Role of Community in Natural Resource Conservation. World Development 27, 629-649. ^
  12. Mompati T, Prinsen G (2000) Ethnicity and participatory development methods in Botswana: some participants are to be seen and not heard. Development in Practice 10, 625-638. ^
  13. Chambers R (1993) ‘Challenging the Professions: Frontiers for rural development.’ (Intermediate Technology Publications: London) ^
  14. Kelly D (2001) ‘Community participation in rangeland management : a report for the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation.’ (RIRDC: Barton ACT) ^
2 comments on “Evolution of Participation Theory
  1. Jai says:

    My PhD subject matter is participation. I am looking into the theory involved and my concern is on the variables involved in participation and how to measure them. It will be awesome if you could assist me.


  2. Aliyu Kawu says:

    Nice work.
    I am doing a PhD on the subject matter of community participation.
    I’ll be very glad to have suggestions on how to measure outcomes of participation either by a community or groups.

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