Tag Archives transformative research

Transformative Methodologies | Professional indigenous women acting to transform urban spaces in Mexico: methodological reflections

Research practices often still do not adequately recognize the multiple points of views, experiences, and knowledges of those we work with. In the process, the meanings that people give to their own lives and to reality are often overlooked, which silences subjective interpretations. In this blog, we share some reflections on the methodological process developed while carrying out a project about the right to the city with indigenous women in Guadalajara, Mexico. Thinking of research as a living system comprising numerous collaborative gears turned and interlocked by different types of support can help us do research more mindfully and responsibly.

Photo taken by the authors

In 2022, we started a research project focused on understanding the main barriers professional indigenous women face in accessing goods and services in cities, especially relating to higher education, work, and mobility. Our point of departure was the systemic gender-based exclusion that exists in Latin American metropolises, and more in particular the gender-based discrimination experienced in Guadalajara in the state of Jalisco, Mexico. The project was financed by ISS-EUR.

We interacted with five professional indigenous women: E.B. (Rarámuri) from the state of Chihuahua, A.G. and S.G. (Ñoo da´vi) and N.O. (Zapoteca) from Oaxaca, and D.E. (Totonaca) from Veracruz. They either moved to or were born in Guadalajara. All of them have been involved in specific projects to build diverse and gender-equal urban spaces. In both individual and collective encounters, we jointly problematized the concept of the ‘Right to the City’.[1] We did this from a feminist intersectional perspective to understand and question the constraints women face while living and moving around in cities, particularly in relation to gender, social class, and race power structures. Together, we looked for new ways of understanding and  transforming such realities. One of our common agreements was the relevance of highlighting the contributions that professional indigenous women as active participants make to modifying urban spaces, instead of exclusively looking at the barriers faced.

This triggered us to reflect on our methodological process more broadly, and we came across the concept of ‘collaborative gears’ as an analogy for a mechanism that sets in motion innovative ways of doing research while acting towards addressing social problems. In our project, this premise was materialized by working with women who engaged in critically thinking about how to create culturally diverse and equitable urban spaces. Our different contexts, professions, positions, and understandings about the Right to the City were the points of departure and strengths from which we built our common arguments and proposals.

This approach is what we consider a transformative methodology – one that can also be used to reveal the role of those who are less recognized, both in collaborative networks and in research processes. For us, recognition, care, and respect were essential factors to mobilize a living system of knowledge production.


Transformative Gears

The initial gear we identified was our connection as two Mexicans doing PhD research at ISS-EUR in The Netherlands to each other. As colleagues and friends, we were able to share and discuss our academic projects on multiple occasions. We have both worked using feminist methodologies – Marina’s research is based on collaboration, respect, and care and Azucena’s on the value of the embodied experiences of women to transform urban spaces and mobilities. Our common interests led us to develop ‘The Right to the City and Indigenous Women: Mapping Racism’.

Then, the gears kept moving with the support of Prof. Karin Arts (ISS-EUR) who joined and helped us to materialize the initiative. The experience of Prof. Arts as a researcher and her punctual advice guided our general reflections and helped us to consolidate the conceptual framework of the project. Her assistance in navigating institutional (administrative) processes was important, too.

At the same time, the trajectories, knowledges, and perspectives of every one of the five professional indigenous women with whom we interacted constituted invaluable bases for shaping and shifting the research. E.B. is a bachelor student in Urban Design and is part of NUCU (Our Cultures), a collective of college students from indigenous and Afro-Mexican communities. A.G. obtained a BA degree in Educational Sciences and S.G. has a BA  in Business Administration. Both A.G. and S.G. are part of the collectives JIU (Indigenous Urban Youth) and ÑOI, Cultura en tus Manos (Culture in your Hands), a collective of indigenous women. N.O. has a BA in History and an MA in Gender and Development. She works as a librarian at the state university. And D.E. has a BA in Pedagogy and an MA in Educational Research. She works in a public entity that coordinates and promotes public policies for the sustainable development of indigenous peoples in Jalisco.

The motion of the gears has been sustained by the joint inputs and efforts of every collaborator in this project.


‘Transformative’ also means action

Four concrete actions and outputs resulted from the methodological process:

  1. a collective article for the blog Resistencias y Mujeres Profesionistas Indígenas (Resistances and Professional Indigenous Women) with concrete proposals to build inclusive and diverse cities.
  2. the creation and publication of the maps of urban mobility and experiences of each participant in Cartofem.
  3. this text which all revised and agreed with, and
  4. a co-written academic article.


To think further… things to consider

We identified several complexities in the process of carrying out collaborative and contextual research. Academia in general does not provide sufficient time, material, and financial resources for developing practices grounded in the experiences of marginalized communities such as indigenous women. For instance, the weaving of networks, initiation and maintenance of dialogues, reflection, rethinking nuances derived from listening to and collaborating with research participants, writing, validating drafts with every participant, translating between different languages, and considering time zones all require a lot of time and economic resources that do not correspond to academic deadlines and budgets.

Yet, while being a challenge, collaboration from and through diversity is also a learning process and a contribution to feminist and transformative methodologies. Transformative methodologies should entail a respectful and caring way of producing knowledge that ensures that contexts and realities are represented from multiple perspectives. That is why we organized our project in such a way that all the participants and collaborators were recognized and had a say in what the research was about, how it was carried out, and why it took place. For us, this is just the first of many (sets of) gears necessary for a very much-needed alternative way of conducting research and transforming current academic practices.

[1] We understand the Right to the City as the entitlement to access, inhabit, transit, and to participate in urban settlements.

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

About the authors:

Azucena Gollaz Morán is a PhD researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam and an Associate Professor at ITESO University. Her research interests focus on gendered embodied experiences, gendered mobilities and sustainable cities. She has specialized in mobile feminist mapping methods to understand gendered and intersectional geographies of exclusion. Azucena is currently conducting research about Gendered and Intersectional Embodied Daily Urban Mobilities Experiences in Guadalajara, Mexico. More information about the project can be found at: https://cartofem.com/en_us/.


Marina Cadaval Narezo is a Mexican PhD candidate in Development Studies at the International Institute of Social Studies -Erasmus University Rotterdam (ISS-EUR) in The Netherlands where she also completed a master’s degree in Social Policies for Development. Her action-research passion around the tensions of gender, race and class in education policies derive from her involvement in the first graduate scholarship programs in Mexico aimed at indigenous people. She is interested in producing knowledge from a collaborative and feminist perspective considering diversity and care as main values (https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-030-82654-3_7).  She has also participated in several selection committees in higher education and advised educational policies.

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.

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 utilising a gender lens), challenges the focus only on class or political-economic dimensions of research concerns. Hence, an integrated approach to research brings forth the integration of economic (distribution), cultural (recognition), and political (representation) dimensions in knowledge production, thereby challenging the conventional methodological approaches, and elucidating the neglect and invisibility of an equally important research dimension, such as gender relations. 

What is integrated approach and what makes it transformative?

The theory on integrated approach is taken from Fraser’s theory of integrative approach to justice. In this article, the integrated approach is taken and discussed as a methodological approach in knowledge production. This means, taking cognisant consideration of the economic (mal)distribution, cultural (mis)recognition, and political (mis)representation (Fraser, 1999, 2005) in research. As such, these three spheres are considered as equal loci of power structures. Thus, an integrated approach not only challenges power hierarchies, and dominant perspectives and approaches in research, but also explores the transformative potential of undertaking research.

According to Fraser (2005:73), overcoming injustice means eliminating the institutionalised barriers (economic, cultural, and political) that hinder “parity participation” in societal interaction, between and among social classes and status order. Injustice emanates from economic maldistribution, cultural misrecognition (especially women’s subordination to men), and political misrepresentation. Thus, an integrated approach to justice becomes useful in developing a more comprehensive understanding of social injustice, by bringing both gender and class concerns simultaneously to the forefront of research and analysis. In the following sections, I use the case of land injustice to illustrate the utility and challenges of employing an integrated approach towards developing a nuanced understanding of the various intersecting forces that shape and sustain land injustice.

Understanding an integrated approach to research: the case of gender and land injustice

The economic sphere of justice centres on the redistribution of resources, where class structure is the main barrier. When people are deprived of required economic resources to participate fully in societal life, there is a distributive injustice (Fraser, 1999/2005). This subscribes to the Marxian understanding that class is an economic relation between the capitalist and proletariat, and thus focuses on structures of exploitation and domination (Wright, E.O. 2009:60). Examining the agrarian structure, for instance, Borras, (1997/2007) found the link between landlessness and peasants’ socio-economic status in relation to land reform. Borras elucidated, among other factors, that landlessness has a direct correlation with peasants’ poverty and injustice, and landowners’ domination and violence (Ibid). Similarly, feminist scholars have found that women’s landlessness is brought about by both — a lack of land redistribution, and a lack of recognition of women’s equal land rights (see for example, Deere and Leon, 2001, Jacobs, 2013, Deere, 2017 , and Bejeno 2021a and 2021b).

The cultural sphere, which centres on the recognition of status order, posits that status relations (in this case the gender relations) is the main barrier. When people, particularly women, are deprived of required recognition to fully participate in societal life, there is recognition injustice (Fraser, 1999/2005). This gender injustice is produced and reproduced through patriarchy or male supremacy, and is described as “the institutional all-encompassing power that men, as a group, have over women, [along with] the systematic devaluation of all the roles and traits which the society has assigned to women.” (Popkin, A., 1979).  Therefore, under patriarchy, men obtain economic, cultural, and political dominance, on one hand, and maintain women’s subordination and oppression on the other. This divide between hegemonic power of men, and the subordination of women, shapes the societal everyday practices, norms, and public policies, that in turn produce and reproduce gender-based injustice, such as land injustice (Bejeno 2021a).

Now, in the political sphere, which centres on the representation of peoples (in this case of women’s voices and participation), the political structure is the main barrier. When people (such as poor women and men) are deprived of participation, such as in framing policies, there is a representation injustice (Fraser, 2005). The political misrepresentation of women, for instance, in policy formulation and implementation (be it in state or peoples’ organization), may jeopardise women’s advancement and equality, such as in land (Bejeno, 2021a). Thus, by employing an integrated approach to research, the simultaneous scrutiny of the economic, cultural, and political sphere, as discussed above, can result in a more holistic and nuanced understanding of the intersecting injustices at play, thereby pointing to more transformative solutions for societal change.

Barriers in using integrated approach to research in understanding land injustice

In land reform and peasants’ studies, various dimensions of land justice are oftentimes ignored, which render gender (in)justice invisible. Gender justice here means that women are also recognised, for instance, to own land independently, or as co-owners in the event of all agrarian land redistribution (Bejeno, 2021a). Many studies are oftentimes not cognisant of gender inequality and fail to consider the contemporary status relations in the society. Therefore, the land reform discourse remains generally centred on class question, which in turn, continuously neglects gender-based injustice in land reform. Moreover, such a discourse is also bolstered by discriminatory laws and policies, women’s ignorance to their land rights, male dominance in decision-making bodies, directed distribution of land to household heads, (primarily men), and the strong opposition of men, on one hand, and non-assertion of women, on the other regarding their land rights (Agarwal, 1994a; Deere and Leon 2001; Levien, 2017; Morgan, 2017; Leonard, et.al 2015 Bejeno, 2021b:7-8).

This discourse is also rooted in the undervaluation or devaluation of women’s labor and contribution to production, and the equation of reproductive work to ‘unemployment’ (Bejeno, 2021a). Women’s access to, and control over land, is oftentimes determined by the patriarchal households (Walker, 2003:143). And in many cases, women may not necessarily inherit from their husbands in case of widowhood, such as in Sub-Saharan Africa (Doss et.al, 2014) and Asia (Agarwal 1994a and 1994b). A household, therefore, can be a site of women’s oppression (Jacobs, 2002:33, see also Agarwal 1994a) and women’s exclusion from land ownership (Ibid; Bejeno, 2021a; Kieran et.al, 2015; Leonard et.al, 2015, Alano, 2015). In effect, by giving primacy to the economic or productive aspects in research, any other  form of intervention becomes problematic, which, therefore, cyclically places women in less valued, invisible, and marginalised socio-economic and political status, and thus neglects the interconnected root causes of societal inequality and injustice.

Using a gender justice approach, therefore, can illuminate the gender-based power relations and dynamics. Thus, an integrated and transformative approach to land injustice would entail not only ensuring access to and control over land resources for women and other marginalised groups, but also engendering fundamental changes in perceptions of and about women as citizens and human beings (Cornwall, 2016). Transformative approach, therefore, requires an overhaul of social structures and power asymmetries to build a just society, where people, regardless of gender and other status order, have equitable resources, standing, and voice (Fraser 2005).

Paving the way forward for transformative social change

In conclusion, a transformative methodology in research considers both the class hierarchy or economic maldistribution, status relations (such as gender relations) or cultural recognition, and political structure or misrepresentation, to  understand and address societal problems in a more nuanced and comprehensive manner.  The case of land injustice discussed in this article illustrates, for instance, how gender relations, as a form of status order, is often neglected in  more traditional research approaches, and how an integrated approach can offer a more nuanced analysis by taking into account gender relations as a critical dimension of inquiry in agrarian concern. Such an approach, therefore, may result addressing the gendered control of assets, decision-making power within the household and communities, and women’s participation, among others, thereby leading to a more transformative change in the long term.

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

About the author:

Cynthia Embido Bejeno is a PhD and a Guest Researcher of Civic Innovation group at ISS

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 | Using a caring approach to equalise research relationships

Collaboration between researchers and those they engage with for their research is increasingly promoted as a way to address some of the epistemic injustices arising from the process of producing knowledge. Stepping back and allowing those we work with to shape research agendas and become intimately involved in the research process is an act of care, and the effects and benefits are tangible, writes Marina Cadaval Narezo. Care can be a thread that weaves together multiple and diverse actors, helping create a dense fabric of experiences through which researchers and those they work with can collectively, and in more equitable ways, make sense of the creative process.

Uncomfortable questions

Before starting my PhD at the ISS, I was working in Mexico for an initiative that provided grant scholarships to indigenous people to pursue graduate studies. During the 15 years I was involved in operational and executive activities for this initiative, I got to know many inspiring women whose stories to obtain a university degree filled me with uncomfortable questions. Most of them were the first in their families or in their communities to go to university; most of them had attended boarding schools since they were children or had to migrate as teenagers to continue their education. Most of them had full-time jobs to cover their university expenses; those who did not face these challenges were considered privileged. Their academic trajectories were at times the result of collective efforts and at others that of solitary struggles. Nevertheless, they were generally painful, complex processes.

I felt that a better understanding of their paths was needed, so I decided to explore and highlight their stories through my PhD research. I wanted to know what had happened to some of the women who received a scholarship after they graduated and how their master’s or doctorate degrees affected their professional – and personal – development. I was puzzled about what changed and what remained in their lives as women, as indigenous people, and as professionals. Given my closeness to many of them due the long journeys together at the scholarships program called IFP-Probepi[1] but also as a researcher committed to anti-oppressive (Brown and Strega 2005), feminist (Haraway 1988; Harding 1991), and indigenous methodologies (Wilson 2008; Smith 2012), I thought that the most appropriate thing to do was to ask them directly. To talk it over.

‘Reflective conversations’: bridging times and spaces[2]

At the end of 2019, I contacted 36 indigenous women who had obtained master’s or PhD degrees between 2004 and 2014. Of those I contacted, 17 participated in the research. They were from different indigenous groups, states, ages, and areas of specialisation. Diversity was intentionally considered in order to identify those changes and continuities I was looking for, as well as the intersections of gender, race, and class that inform educational policies in Mexico. Originally, I was exclusively paying attention to their exclusion in terms of racism, sexism, classism, and tokenism.

I went to the towns or cities where they lived, including Yucatán, Chihuahua, Oaxaca, Mexico City, Chiapas, and Veracruz. We had long talks, or what I call ‘reflective conversations’, which I understand as dialogues that start from previous common and mutual understandings – such as the IFP-Probepi scholarship, the graduate courses, our feminisms, our families, and our health – that allowed us to meet and examine ourselves across multiple times and spaces. While sharing a meal, a drink, or a walk, we conversed, reflecting on the experience of studying abroad, on our current jobs, on how much or how little life had changed. We connected those we were when we first met through IFP-Probepi with those we had become.

Shifting centers – from ‘victims’ to social and political change agents

After organising, systematising and analysing the information obtained, in the summer of 2020 I shared the preliminary findings with them. The meetings were online which allowed us to connect our multiple geographies: Oaxaca, Chiapas, Yucatán, Veracruz, Chihuahua, Mexico City, The Hague (The Netherlands). Sharing and discussing these findings and listening to their responses led me to shift the focus of my research -initially centered in their exclusion of the education system- to their processes and strategies of resistance. “We do not want to be the victims nor being seen only as beneficiaries of educational programs and social schemes,” some stated. “We must be recognised as the social and political actors that we are.”

Our encounters allowed me personally to understand in a much clearer way their paths and to address my research questions considering their gazes, but also to build networks and take action that goes beyond the very objective of writing a doctoral thesis and is more closely linked to the reality we want to transform. Thus, in 2020, we participated in a campaign to help eradicate racism in higher education promoted by Cátedra UNESCO Educación Superior y Pueblos Indígenas y Afrodescendientes en América Latina (UNESCO Chair in Higher Education and Indigenous and Afro-descendant Peoples in Latin America). Through the ISS Research Innovation Facility (RIF), we then set up an independent and collective blog called Resistencias y Mujeres Profesionistas Indígenas (Resistances and Indigenous Professional Women) that we are using to share our stories of racism and the strategies that each of us has developed to face it.

A transformative methodology?

Was the methodology I developed and used transformative? For the way academia produces knowledge, I think so. I am doing research showing how collaboration, reciprocity, and recognition can work together to create caring processes in which different voices can be woven together into one fabric of experiences. For the women I am working with, I think it also does. It has created synergies and coalitions necessary to challenge stereotypes and transform not just how knowledge is produced, but how we want to walk in this world. For me, for sure. It has allowed me to reconnect with those women who have made me confront my own privileges and prompted me to use my position to continue exposing some of the still-existing structural exclusions. The way is long, but it is important to keep sharing, discussing, and resisting.


Brown L. and S. Strega (2005), Research as Resistance. Critical, indigenous and anti-oppressive approaches, Toronto: Canadian Scholars’ Press.

Cadaval Narezo, M. (2022), “Methodologies for collaborative, respectful and caring research. Conversations with professional indigenous women from Mexico”, in W. Harcourt, C. Dupuis, J. Gaybor & K. van den Berg (eds.), Experiments and Reflections in Feminist Methodologies, Series: Gender, Development and Social Change. Switzerland: Palgrave.

Haraway, D. (1988) “Situated knowledges: The Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective”, Feminist Studies, 14(3): 575-599.

Harding, S. (1991), Whose Science? Whose Knowledge? Thinking from Women’s Lives, Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.

Smith, L. T. (2012), Decolonizing Methodologies. Research and Indigenous Peoples, New Zealand: Zed Books/Otago University Press.

Wilson S. (2008), Research Is Ceremony Indigenous Research Methods, Winnipeg: Fernwood Publishing.

[1] The initiative was financed from 2001 to 2012 by the Ford Foundation as the International Fellowships Program (IFP), and from 2013 until present (2022) by the Mexican government through the National Council of Science and Technology (CONACYT) as the Fellowships Program for Indigenous People (Probepi). In both cases, it has been administered by the Center for Research and Higher Education in Social Anthropology (CIESAS).

[2] For a more in-depth discussion of the methodology I used, see Cadaval Narezo (2022).

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

About the author:

Marina Cadaval Narezo is a PhD researcher at the 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.

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 | 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.