Participatory Appraisal: A Brief Introduction

Linda Tock (2001)

Participatory Appraisal is a family of approaches and methods which enable communities to share, develop and analyse their own knowledge of life and conditions (Chambers 1996).  By empowering local people to conduct their own modes of investigation, communities can plan and act (Chambers 1992) on their own outcomes, developing more community based solutions (Sellers 1996).  To achieve this community aim requires researchers to recognise the wealth and value of local knowledge and information.  There is a wealth of knowledge and skills within a community that essentially goes unused during research.

Yet unlike outsiders (researchers) local people can access community residents to elicit their ideas and solutions in a relatively short time frame.  Local people are best placed to research their own needs and develop more relevant community-based solutions.  In order to empower local people to conduct their own modes of investigation requires a changing role for the researcher.  This generally becomes a role of facilitation, whereby they act as catalysts within the community.  The, through the use of participatory methods and visual tools, local people present, analyse and plan their own action and development.  Participatory appraisal involves the researcher ‘handing over the stick’ to enable local people to control their own level of input and take ownership of the outcomes.

The process involves starting from where people are, with a regard for them by outsiders (researchers) as main subjects and not objects for research (Inglis 1996).  Principally, an interactive rather than extractive approach should be adopted by the researcher.  There should be a respect for local perceptions and choices of both outcomes and involvement in the process.  Individuals participating in the appraisal can give as much information as they feel comfortable with.  More importantly, no one has to take part in the process it is a question of choice and participants are actively involved in a voluntary basis.  The process, whilst not rushed, should include verification stages and opportunities for feedback.  The involvement of local people should be continued throughout all stages of the participatory appraisal.  Therefore checking out and triangulating information elicited throughout the process is imperative.

Participatory Tools

Participatory tools are flexible and innovative.  They are modes of investigation which are often highly visual that can be used with both individuals and groups.  Tools include mapping, diagramming, ranking and sequencing.  Although participatory visual diagrams are continually changing, evolving and adapting to reflect different circumstances (Jones, 1996) they can be used to share, analyse and evaluate a myriad of community, health or economic issues.


Participatory appraisal has evolved through a process of change in search of practical approaches and methods for local participation, diversity and equity;  an evolution that over the period of more than a decade has encapsulated learning, discovery, application and development.  Origins of participatory appraisal can be traced to the late 1970s with the development of Rapid Rural Appraisal: a family of approaches which Chambers (1994) suggests were among the paralleled moved in different parts of the world to learn about rural life and conditions.  A search which emerged from disillusionment with traditional methodologies of surveys and questionnaires coupled with the biases (Chambers, 1994) especially the anti-poverty biases of rural development tourism.  In addition to this more cost effective methods of learning were solicited.

Rapid Rural Appraisal was primarily developed throughout the 1980s with its major innovators based in universities.  The main users of RRA were aid agencies, researchers and universities.  This methodological approach continues to be used by researchers encouraging community participation in issues ranging from land degradation to primary health care.

Known as RRA or RA, rapid appraisal through the principle of focused groups the researcher encourages stakeholders and service providers to discuss and prioritise issues of importance (Alaszewski et al 1995).  Recognised is the depth of local people’s knowledge elicited through the process of focus groups.  However, in the later 1980s with the spread of RRA other methods became evident, developing into a family of approaches and methods which were later to be described as participatory rural appraisal;  essentially developed in the late 1980s in Kenya and India and spreading globally over a decade into the north and the United Kingdom.  Known as participatory action learning and participatory appraisal, its wide application has been used for topics ranging from economic education to reproductive and sexual health.  Fundamental to its wide spread is its flexibility, learning from mistakes, correction and re-application based on past experiences.

Participatory Tools and their Application

Local participation in activities is voluntary, no individual is compelled to actively take part.  Equally, local people control the level of their own participation and extent to which they share information.  Participation usually takes place in familiar surroundings in the street, public places or through community-based activities.

Participatory appraisal methods and tools can be used across all age groups and cultures and do not rely on literacy skills. Participation can be on an individual level or on a group basis.  Methods are highly visual and comprise a myriad of activities to elicit and triangulate the same information.  Supporters of community research describe the methods as forming the basis for discussion in communities providing a framework to which professional and local people can share and analyse local knowledge and information.

Tools used in participatory interviews or group meetings include brainstorming, mapping, ranking and diagramming.  Whilst tools can be used on a one-to-one basis, semi-structured interviewing can be adopted.  A series of tools may be used to correlate the same information, for example, maps and timelines may reveal both a geographical and historical perspective of any given topic.

Exercises undertaken can reveal a wealth of information and local knowledge in a relatively short time scale.  With the promotion of discussion through the use of PA tools, information elicited is both relevant and often timely.  Mapping exercises, for example, can locate specific groups of people, resources, areas of self interest or identify areas of or for community change.  The exercise involves participants drawing their locality as they see it.  Maps may differ according to the individual or group which essentially may reveal diversity of opinion.  Differing age groups reveal areas of self interest as in young people identifying facilities appropriate to their needs.  To either verify the information or in the search for community based solutions or consensus, further tools can be applied.

Timelines and trend analysis when used can reveal changes over years, indicating historical or important events specific to the topic.  Change may include local economy, resources, population or issues of health and education.  When analysed, trends can be revealed indicating the causes or impact of change.  Methods of tanking, matrix scoring and paired ranking can indicate priorities for the development of health, economy or social need.  Ranking as in matrix ranking involves listing the issues to be discussed on one axis and the criteria on which they are judged on another.  This enables participants to reach a consensus or illustrate issues in order of priority.  In contrast, diagramming comprising flowcharts, links and connections are valuable to illustrate social contacts within a community or organisation.  The impact of change or trends may be revealed over the period of time giving a base from which to work towards solutions.  Similarly as with other tools, Venn or institutional diagrams when applied can verify trends of information revealed through the participatory appraisal process. Whilst this constitutes a brief selection of tools which may be applied, there are variations on their extensive use.  There are no limitations to their application.  They seek creativity and essential participation of some of the most marginalised groups in society,

Relevance of Participatory Appraisal

Essentially, participatory appraisal is employed for its adaptability and some of the non-traditional ways in which needs assessment is undertaken.  That is, the role reversal of the researcher identifying community priorities to one of empowerment of people conducting their own research.  Equally, the ownership of outcomes was seen as essential to developing sustainable community-based solutions.


Through participatory appraisal identify and establish:

  • The populations within given geographical boundaries, children, young people, adults and workers in order to establish a succinct community profile.  Thus identifying the existence of relevant research, communication processes, social and economic activity, local service provision and community organisations within the locale
  • Identify local knowledge, areas of change, community based interventions to local issues and relevant sustainable solutions


Using participatory tools and techniques to:

  • Share local information and knowledge
  • Empower and enable the community to conduct its own participatory appraisal and to continue the process beyond the life of the project

Collective Action

  • To promote and encourage ways to
  • Establish a framework for discussion and the development of community collective action
  • Explore opportunities for dialogue with individuals, groups, services and organisations to identify ways in which to work in partnership
  • Develop mechanisms for supporting and sustaining collective action enabling community ideas to come to fruition.
  • Disseminate the findings of participatory appraisal exercises to local people


Whilst participatory appraisal in terms of resources has relatively low cost, exercises are time consuming.  Ideally, to conduct an exercise, helpers are required.  However, if community residents are trained effectively, this would not pose a problem.  Training of helpers is essential; participatory appraisal does not rely on th tools but the approach and behaviour of practitioners.  Unfortunately, as (chambers, 1996) (Inglis 1996) point out there is a mass of bad practice from people who abuse the methodology by ‘rigid, routinised applications’ and ‘cosmetic’ labelling without substance’.  Accessing all the community can be a dilemma if the population size if greater than the number of helpers of time given.  The process is lengthy and when done well will continue with numerous exercises over months before collective action may be achieved.  Practitioners whilst seeking diversity and participation can raise expectations of the community, a dilemma that has to be balanced when consultation is undertaken.


Alaszewski, A and Crones, M (1996) Health Needs and Deprivation on Bransholme Final Report of a Rapid Appraisal Study of Primary Health Care.  Hull: The University of Hull: Institute of Health Studies

Chambers, R. (1992) Rural Appraisal: Rapid, Relaxed and Participatory.  Discussion Paper 311: Brighton: Institute of Development Studies

Chambers, R. (1994) The Origins and Practice of Participatory Rural Appraisal. World Development Vol. 22, pp953-969

Chambers R. (1996) Relaxed and Participatory Appraisal. Notes of Practical Approaches and Methods: Brighton: Institute of Development Studies

Inglis, A. (1996) Participatory Appraisal Participatory Appraisal Workshop: EIRM, University of Edinburgh

Jones, C (1996) An introduction to PA2. Behaviour and Attitudes. Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh

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