Transformative Methodologies | Changing minds and policy through collaborative research?

Transformative Methodologies | Changing minds and policy through collaborative research?

Can collaborative research with marginalised communities be transformative, turning around unjust social relations, and supporting solidarity and rights in a practical sense? In this blog post, we (Jack Apostol, Helen ...

Integrated approach to research: Towards transformation of social (gender) injustices:  A case of understanding gender-land injustice

Integrated approach to research: Towards transformation of social (gender) injustices: A case of understanding gender-land injustice

This article is a contribution to the transformative methodologies blog series. It argues that employing an integrated approach to research, by equally highlighting status order (such as gender relations, by ...

Transformative Methodologies | How ‘interactive research’ can foster mutual learning as a first step in transformative research

Transformative research is an evolving concept rooted in the conscious action of embedded scholar-activism. Opening up possibilities for mutual learning can be an important first step for interested scholars in making their research transformative. In this blog, Holly A. Ritchie proposes that subtle social change may be triggered through the research process itself by what she terms ‘interactive research’.

From participatory to interactive research

Qualitative research aims to explore the “meaning of people’s lives, under real-world conditions”[1] (Yin 2011: 8) by examining the views and perspectives of actors in specific contexts. Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA)[2] is an innovative approach to qualitative data collection that seeks to engage local people in sharing, analyzing, and reflecting upon their lives. These ethnographic techniques can incorporate visuals and exercises that include ranking, mapping, and Venn diagrams. Yet whilst PRA may be considered somewhat transformative in actively involving participants in the research process, there remains a lack of thoughtful reflection with participants that inhibits potential processes of learning in local communities.

In taking participative research a step further, I have coined the term ‘Interactive Research’ to describe a deliberate two-way research process in which both researchers and local communities interact and learn from each other. On the one hand, through the PRA exercises, the researcher can better understand the community by actively engaging with local actors. On the other hand, facilitated discussions and reflections on emerging findings can help foster new community perspectives and dialogues. The approach thus benefits both the researcher and target communities by illuminating nuanced understandings of local lives (for the researcher) and by triggering new local knowledge and awareness (for the community).

Interactive research may be particularly significant in more fragile research contexts including conflict environments, refugee situations, as well as slum areas where respondents may be less educated and marginalised. In these contexts, a new consciousness can spark critical processes of social change from within, particularly amongst vulnerable groups such as women that may suffer illiteracy, oppression and violence. For example, conversations and reflections around women’s social norms in my research in Afghanistan and East Africa have encouraged women to take stock of their efforts and to look critically at pathways of change for women and girls.

A critical realist approach to exploration and learning

My evolving research approach has been shaped and inspired by critical realism, a philosophical standpoint that takes a holistic approach to understanding ‘reality’. With an emphasis on the ‘social’, Tony Lawson (1997) maintains that the phenomena of the world can be better explained through reference to powers, mechanisms, and related tendencies. In fragile contexts, I have highlighted that a critical realist approach benefits from a “creative researcher” with a strong self-reflective capacity to explore subtle themes and dynamics,[3] drawing attention to the value of participatory techniques. A critical realist investigation has also been shown to require researcher sensitivity and trust. This exploratory and grounded research approach with intimate community engagement has prompted a new awareness for me around the potential for deep reflection and learning of vulnerable groups that may be enabled through the research process.

In adopting a conscious critical realist approach, the PRA exercises I have conducted have stimulated both fruitful exchange as well as nuanced reflection on social change, especially in fragile environments. I found that “[p]articipatory-oriented sessions permitted both relaxed, and strikingly open discussions, in an informal style that was arguably more suitable for less-educated women in low-trust contexts who were unaccustomed to interview style questions and/or afraid to speak out…these techniques were especially useful in delving into sensitive topics around culture, religion, and power”.[4]

Interactive research in practice: creating space for reflection

In my various research studies, visual tools have sought to be imaginative and have included self-designed group exercises and networking diagrams often using a mix of cards, string, and beans (or stones). As a researcher, I guided the activities, but local actors took the lead in making sense of the tasks and formulating responses. The central focus of the tools has been on engaging participants, particularly women, in exploring and unpacking their thoughts, ideas, and perspectives. This allows for the confident relaying of local phenomena and experiences and creates a space for storytelling. It also offers the opportunity for facilitated reflection.

I drew on such methods initially in my doctoral research in which I investigated institutional change in women’s enterprise development in grassroots communities in Afghanistan (2009-2013). In some of the PRA exercises that I conducted, female participants used various coloured cards to represent different actor ‘strategies’ in faciliating or holding back social change for women at the community level, particularly related to women’s public mobility and work. Handfuls of beans were then to used indicate relative involvement of different community actors in discussions around women’s changing roles. In these explorative sessions, elaborate discussions were held on the women’s individual and collective ‘journeys’ of changing norms and what this has meant for their social and economic lives.

Figure 1: Strategy mapping of local actors in Afghan women’s changing roles

In subsequent NGO research, I looked more broadly at gender norms, and trends of change in pastoralist communities across the Horn of Africa – Ethiopia, Kenya, Somaliland, South Sudan and Darfur (2014-2018). In PRA exercises, I examined the scope of different social norms and their prevalence for women and girls, including harmful traditional practices such as female genital mutilation (FGM), early and forced marriage, as well as norms around domestic chores, community participation, and attending school. In these cases, various norms were explored by making use of picture cards. Once again, with encouragement, some women reflected on their own experiences of change and persisting barriers that were still holding them back both individually and as a community.

Figure 2: Exploring the prevalence and scope of different norms for women and girls with the Afar people in northern Ethiopia using the prompt of picture cards.

From new dialogue and ideas to enjoyment and trust

The dynamic but sensitive reflections with community groups in interactive research can nurture conversations, perspectives, and ideas in fragile research environments. This can generate new insights into often opaque beliefs, values, and habits, and what might be changing and why, particularly for vulnerable groups. Such an approach may be gently transformative for participants in the new potential clarity gained on their own experiences and realities. On a human level, interactive research approach has also permitted an important sense of enjoyment with many sessions and learning moments generating humour and laughter, influencing local wellbeing in meaningful exchange. In longer-term studies, interactive research may foster a sense of trust and rapport between the researcher and respondents.

Towards the development of conscious research for activist scholars, interactive research may offer a ‘light touch’ approach to pursuing transformative methodologies through integrating mutual learning and fostering subtle community-led social change. In further developing this approach, research projects can explore the co-development of tools and reflective exercises with local actors that may allow the identification of unexpected themes and analysis. This could stimulate a deeper level of social dialogue and exchange, presenting a greater potential for learning and local transformation, both cognitively and socially.

[1] Yin, R. (2011). Qualitative Research From Start to Finish. London: Guilford Press.

[2] The Participatory Rural Appraisal method originally stems from rural development work and entails various approaches and methods that “enable local people to share, enhance and analyse their knowledge of life and conditions, to plan and to act” (Chambers 1994: 953).

[3] Ritchie, H. A. (2019). ‘Investigating Gender and Enterprise in “Fragile” Refugee Settings: The Use of Critical Realism to Explore Institutional Dynamics and Change’. In Sage Research Methods Cases Part 2. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications.

[4] Ritchie (2019). ‘Investigating Gender and Enterprise in “Fragile” Refugee Settings: The Use of Critical Realism to Explore Institutional Dynamics and Change’. In Sage Research Methods Cases Part 2. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications.

Additional references

Chambers, R. (1994) ‘The Origins and Practice of Participatory Rural Appraisal’, World Development 22(7): 953-969.

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the author:

Holly Ritchie is a (post-doctorate) research fellow at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS), part of Erasmus University Rotterdam (EUR).

Are you looking for more content about Global Development and Social Justice? Subscribe to Bliss, the official blog of the International Institute of Social Studies, and stay updated about interesting topics our researchers are working on.

Transformative Methodologies | How emancipatory research can help prevent the misrepresentation of marginalised groups in conflict-prone settings

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The misrepresentation of minority groups through research taking place during the colonial period has had lasting effects, impacting not only the way in which such groups are represented and represent ...

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Transformative Methodologies | Thinking Transformative Methodologies Collectively

For research to be called socially transformative, the production of scientific knowledge with the aim of addressing a societal problem is not enough. Research processes themselves must also be socially just, which calls for critical self-examination by researchers of how they do research. A project led by ISS researchers seeks to conceptualise a transformative research methodology that underlines a radically different and morally responsible way of conducting research by identifying and challenging assumptions that perpetuate social injustices in research processes. This post introduces the project and its core premises.


The veneration in the academe of a singular ‘expert’ knowledge produced by persons and groups based in academic institutions in the Global North, preferably with white bodies, and the failure to create knowledge with communities who are supposed to benefit from it are perhaps the two central obstacles preventing development research from realising its transformative potential. Knowledge produced without the involvement of those it is supposed to serve is not making the impact that it could – and should.

In response to this significant challenge, critical scholars have called for the development of transformative research methodologies based on the collectively identified aim of enacting social justice through research processes themselves. In our understanding, some of the key questions that arise in this context include:

  • What is the purpose of scientific research?
  • Who benefits from such research?
  • How can transformative social change be achieved?
  • Who enacts such change?
  • What are the intersectional implications of such change?

Asking such critical questions makes it clear that power relations that continue to play a central part in the production of knowledge need to be changed so that research itself can be truly transformative. In particular, the gap between ‘the researcher’ and ‘the researched’ sustained through current research methodologies must be addressed by recognising those we work with to produce scientific knowledge as primary actors in the research process.

Many researchers at the ISS and beyond are already adhering to the core principles of such methodologies through their work, which led us to seek to synthesise the different approaches and methods at the ISS in a bid to create a framework for transformative research. And so, in late 2020, a group of researchers from the Civic Innovation (CI) Research Group put their heads together to explore the possibility of taking initial discussions on transformative methodologies further. Such discussions had taken place frequently over the past few years within the CI group in recognition of the need to increase the societal impact of research through the inclusion of those we work with and serve through our research in the research process.

We agreed that the research methodology researchers employ to guide the research process matters. The research process itself shapes the extent to which the knowledge that is produced makes a lasting and transformative impact. Thus, we developed a project that would explore different transformative elements of our research and bring them together to form the basis of a transformative research methodology. Our point of departure is to critically engage with possibilities for communities that are commonly depicted as benefactors of produced knowledge to become part of the process as experts and co-producers of knowledge.

Our main activity was to organise a workshop in which we could explore transformative methodologies researchers at the ISS have employed. This synthesis of experiences and techniques, we hoped, could inspire other researchers to do the same. But the workshop was also meant to be a space to discuss issues related to transformative methodologies, including things such as our own biases and assumptions, financial and legal constraints, and hazardous fieldwork sites.

Here are some of the things that emerged from the inspiring discussions we had during the workshop:

  1. Coloniality plays a role in perpetuating untransformative research methodologies; to address this, knowledge production processes need to be decolonised. Delphin Ntanyoma, a PhD researcher, proposed that in the light of dominant colonial writings and research and for responsible knowledge production to occur, “researchers need to look backwards and forwards a hundred years”, by which he meant that they need to consider both the historical politics of knowledge production and its long-term consequences for social justice. He gave an example of his own community, the Banyamulenge in DRC: the violent conflicts that affect the Banyamulenge in eastern DRC to date are rooted in constructions of a ‘local’ versus ‘immigrant’ identity that dates back to colonial writings.
  2. A focus on individual achievement in the academe, related in part to the well-known ‘publish or perish’ adage, has come to overshadow the notion of collective responsibility that is a crucial premise of a truly transformative methodology. These structures in academia focusing on performance and prestige rather than impact catalyse ‘(extr)activist’ development research that instrumentalises marginalised communities for the benefit of furthering academic careers. Knowledge is extracted from research communities, never to be seen again.
  3. Things might have been different if researchers were to be considered responsible for the impact of their research, including how it is used, and indeed for the effect of the research methodology itself on the research communities they engage with. One workshop participant highlighted how researchers from the Global North have made careers out of writing about the contradictions within indigenous communities in India – a process that has exacerbated prejudices against these already heavily marginalised communities.
  4. For researchers who see themselves as scholar activists and whose deep connection with a specific group of people directs their research, responsibility and commitments in research would also be something to learn from and develop together with the community. During the workshop, Silke Heumann and Karin Astrid Siegmann for instance explained how their collaboration with sex worker groups taught them that the framing of sex work matters: ‘whore stigma’ has been used to justify sex workers’ exclusion from relevant policy discourses, such as those on human trafficking and labour rights. Such and similar relationships to marginalised communities constantly remind researchers to rethink the meaning of what counts as valid knowledge and who is regarded and respected as a knower. This reflective process has been understood as getting closer to ‘strong objectivity’ by feminist theorists like Harding.
  1. Engaged scholarship carries risks that may threaten the ability of methodologies to be transformative. For instance, allying with the LGBTI+ movement has led to serious threats to both researchers and research participants. Workshop participants, including Cathy Wilcock and Natalia Lozano Arevalo, shared how they have used art-based research methods and humour to try to provide a safe space for those actors they work with to share their experiences without the fear of being prosecuted or stigmatised. These forms of data collection can also be seen as more engaging alternatives to conventional forms of doing and communicating research.
  2. An important, yet, difficult step to move forward in the conversation on transformative research is to critically interrogate the role of our research institutions in shaping how we do academic research. Besides assumptions about who can be identified and respected as a knower, coloniality shapes how authorship and budgets are distributed between development researchers in Northern universities and their collaborators in the Global South. In this context, it is extremely important to implement and guarantee a clear ethical, respectful, and responsible no-harm policy.

Keeping these humbling experiences in mind, researchers’ moves out of the individualistic academic ivory tower towards a collective of researchers and activists that shape research and its outcomes together may still be a crucial first step towards transformative research. To be able to engage with transformative methodologies in research and discuss challenges such as those mentioned above, it is important to attempt to create a collective space where instead of individualism and competitive careerism, a meaningful relationship between collective research and activism is promoted. While giving space to issues of intersectionality, identity, and diversity within academia, it is equally relevant to prioritise larger structural issues that threaten the existence of collective communities.

There is still a long way to go to in the dialogue towards evolving scientific research methodologies that would help us maximise their transformative potential. This project on transformative methodologies is one picture that we hope can form part of what will hopefully become a collage of meaningful engagement informing research practice and making it truly transformative.

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the authors:

Sreerekha Sathi is assistant professor at the International Institute of Social Studies.

Karin Astrid Siegmann is Associate Professor in Labour and Gender Economics at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS).

Cynthia Embido Bejeno is a PhD candidate in Development Studies at the International Institute of Social Studies.

Lize Swartz

Lize Swartz is a PhD researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies.

Richard Toppo is external PhD candidate at International Institute of Social Studies.

Are you looking for more content about Global Development and Social Justice? Subscribe to Bliss, the official blog of the International Institute of Social Studies, and stay updated about interesting topics our researchers are working on.