IV. Participatory Action Research Methods: Table 6

CPB Self-Study Module
STEP 4. Collect audience information relevant to the environmental practice and specific behaviors


D. How can a natural resource professional select a social assessment tool and which tools have the most potential for use?


Participatory Action Research


Table 6 describes a few examples of participatory action research methods, providing a general list of steps for how to conduct each type, along with pros and cons of that method. Check references and other links in Step 4 for additional ideas and strategies.

Transect walks and diagrams

Participatory mapping

Ranking exercises

Rapid appraisal


Table 6: Participatory action research methods

Transect walks and diagrams

One of the tools for gaining hands-on experience in a community is to take an observational walk, i.e., a walk during which attention is specifically paid to people, activities, resources, environmental features, etc. Observational walks may be taken in a meandering way, following a particular feature of the landscape or the interests of the observer(s). The walks can also be structured as a transect, i.e., a straight line cutting across the terrain in a specific way, such as a compass direction. Walks of these kinds help to verify the information provided on maps, both through direct observation and in discussions with people met along the way. Ideally the walk is organized for a small group, so as to maximize the opportunities for interactions.

Purposes: There are several types of transects, among which two broad categories are social and land-use transects. The former concentrate on housing types, infrastructure and amenities, religious and cultural features and behaviors, economic activities, skills and occupations. The land-use category focuses on environmental and agricultural features (such as cultivated land, forests, ranges, barren land and erosion phenomena, streams, bodies of water, types of soil and crops). A typical transect takes in a combination of social and land-use information.

“Participatory transect walks involve systematic(ally) walking with local people across a cross-section of a locality and discussing different aspects of land-use and ecological areas observed during such walks. A transect walk is a useful method for (learning about) local ecological conditions and (their related) social dimensions).” (Mukherjee, 2001:142)

Steps in using the technique

  • Decide what issues to focus on and the information that needs to be gathered.
  • Agree with the relevant interest group who will take part in the transect walk and discuss with them the purpose of the exercise.
  • During the walk, take notes on relevant features observed; seek clarifications from local people; discuss problems and opportunities.
  • After the walk, meet with participants to discuss notes; involve participants in drafting a transect diagram to be used for further discussion and feedback to the community at large.

Strengths: Transect walks are a highly participatory and relaxed technique. They enhance local knowledge and can also be used in low-literacy communities. They may be extremely useful in validating findings of participatory mapping exercises.

Weaknesses: Transects may be time-consuming. Good transect diagrams require some graphic skills.

Participatory mapping

Participatory mapping starts with collective discussions among groups of community members and then proceeds to drawing maps of their perceptions about the geographical distribution of environmental, demographic, social and economic features in their territory. The participants are usually requested to draw their own map, e.g., on a flipchart or on the ground, plotting features with symbols that are understood and accepted by all members of the group, regardless of literacy. In certain cases, purchased maps, aerial photographs or basic drawings on paper or on the ground can be used as a basis for the participatory exercise.

Purposes: Participatory mapping is useful for providing an overview (or ‘snapshot’) of the local situation. It can also serve as a good starting point for environmental and social assessment. Periodically repeated participatory mapping may help in monitoring and evaluating changes in the distribution of social resources (e.g., infrastructures like schools and health units) and in the use of natural resources. ‘Historical’ and ‘anticipated future’ mapping (i.e., drawing a series of maps referring to different moments in time) are versions of participatory mapping that are helpful in describing and analyzing trends over time (see section B.3).

“Participatory mapping is an important method for PRA/PLA-type exercises and can help in highlighting different aspects of community life such as social aspects, resources, livelihoods, health, wealth, literacy, census data, livestock etc… In participatory mapping and model-building, local communities prepare the map/model of their locality…” (Mukherjee, 2001:153):

Steps in using the technique

  • Explain the purpose of the exercise to the interest group.
  • Agree on the subject of the mapping exercise and on the graphic symbols to be used; participants choose their own symbols.
    Ask a participant to be responsible for drawing or plotting symbols according to the suggestions of the group.
  • Promote participation of all interest group members by posing questions to several individuals; allow the group to discuss different opinions and perceptions.
  • Once the map is finalized, ask participants to interpret the overall picture; if appropriate, suggest that they identify the main problems revealed by the map and ask them about possible solutions within the locally available resources (which are already drawn, or could now be drawn, on the map).
  • Remember that the map is community property; leave the original in the community and make copies of it if other uses are foreseen.

Strengths: Mapping and the associated discussions quickly provide a broad overview of the situation. They encourage two-way communication. They help people in seeing links, patterns and inter-relationships in their territory. Individuals who are illiterate can also participate.

Weaknesses: Subjectivity and superficiality: mapping exercises must be complemented by information generated by other participatory assessment tools. Some cultures may have difficulties in understanding graphic representations.

Ranking exercises

Ranking exercises, which may be done with groups or individuals, are a way to enable people to express their preferences and priorities about a given issue. When followed by a discussion of the ‘reasons’ for the ranking, the technique may generate insights about the criteria through which different individuals, groups or social actors make decisions on the kinds of issues of interest.

Purpose: Ranking exercises have been used for a variety of purposes, such as:

  • Identification of priorities and preferences;
  • Quantification of opinion and preferences elicited through interviewing or brainstorming;
  • Comparison of preferences and opinions as expressed by different social actors.

Steps in using the tool

  • Make a list of items to be prioritized or obtain a list of items generated by other exercises and recruit the participants to be involved in the exercise.
  • Define a simple ranking mechanism. This may be based on a pair-wise comparison of items in the list (‘Is A better than B?’), on sorting cards representing items in order of preference, or on assigning a score to the different items.
  • Prepare a matrix on which preferences identified by participants could be jotted down (e.g., on the ground, with a flipchart, on a chalkboard).
  • Explain the ranking mechanism to each participant and ask them to carry out the exercise (e.g., give them three stones to place on any categories they want in response to a specific guiding question – which crop is the most difficult to raise, which problem to solve first, etc.).
  • Ask participants to explain the criteria on which their choice has been made (‘Why is A preferable to B?’).
  • Synthesize the ranking results (e.g., count how many times an item has been preferred with respect to others) and list the criteria of choice.

Strengths: Ranking is a flexible technique which can be used in a variety of situations and settings. Whenever categorical judgments are needed, ranking is a suitable alternative to closed-ended interviewing. Ranking exercises are generally found to be amusing and interesting by participants and are helpful in increasing their commitment to action-research. Information is provided on both the choices and reasons for the choices.

Weaknesses: Pre-testing is needed for the ranking mechanism and the tools to be used to facilitate it. Choices may be affected by highly subjective factors. In order to generalize results to the whole community, a proper sampling strategy is needed.

Rapid appraisal

Rapid appraisals entail a timely and intensive approach towards learning about the characteristics of a particular community. They general involve both outside experts and insider community members as direct collaborators in the research process and emphasize the collection of qualitative as opposed to quantitative data.

The SONDEO approach (Butler), a particular type of rapid appraisal, allows for researchers to learn about local people’s situations, experiences, problems, and perspectives in a direct and participatory manner. The SONDEO usually involves a short period of time conducting research in a community and involves the use of a number of social assessment tools in tandem: background and census data research, surveys, informal interviews with key-informants, observations, and focus groups.

Steps in using the tool: Download the SONDEO publication PDF for a detailed outline (Butler).

Strengths: Collaborative, research-based approach to determining audience interest and needs. Leads to a comprehensive understanding.

Weaknesses: Complex process that requires lots of time and training of participants.


Direct references from:

Barton, T., G. Borrini-Feyerabend, A. de Sherbinin and P. Warren. 1997. Our People, Our Resources. Supporting rural communities in participatory action research on population dynamics and the local environment. IUCN, Gland (Switzerland).

With some additional citations from: Mukherjee, Neela (2001). Participatory Learning and Action: With 100 Field Methods. New Dehli: Concept Publishing Company.

Also see:

Butler, Lorna M. The SONDEO, a Rapid Reconnaissance Approach for Situational Assessment. WREP127, Partnership in Education and Research.