Development and Anthropology: Moving from Participatory to Collaborative Methods

13 Pages Posted: 30 Nov 2016 Last revised: 21 Dec 2016

Temily Tavangar

University of Hong Kong - Department of Sociology

Date Written: August 30, 2016


The approach broadly known as participatory development has become a catchphrase in both development theory and practice. The idea of local populations becoming involved in processes of transforming their communities, first introduced as participatory rural appraisal (PRA), marked a paradigm shift in development methods. By the 1990s, participatory approaches, incorporated by the World Bank in its projects, had become incorporated into mainstream development methods. However, in recent years, development has come under severe criticism despite this approach. These critiques — part of the broader post-modern debate that gained prominence in the 1990s — though valuable, do not offer an alternative. Is participatory development — or development as it is currently theorized and practiced—achieving what it promises to?

This paper reviews recent critiques of development and then discusses a few promising approaches that may contribute towards transcending the current impasse. One approach can be found within recent methodological developments within the discipline of anthropology. Many of the criticisms against participatory development parallel criticisms raised against anthropological methods. It is in reflecting on the criticisms of “participatory observation” in anthropology that Luke Lassiter, drawing upon feminist and post-modern approaches to collaboration, developed an approach known as “collaborative ethnography.” The standard of collaboration that he introduces goes much further than mere participation. Collaboration is an act of reciprocal co-creation and co-interpretation, from the conception of the project through to the analysis of the data collected. It requires that the project articulate knowledge from the indigenous standpoint, rather than through externally imposed assumptions and concepts. This approach, as Lassiter himself recognizes, calls into question current institutional practices within academia, such as favoring single-authored works and the tendency to favor academic knowledge over indigenous knowledge.

A similar shift needs to take place within development practice if it is to move beyond its current understanding of participation. The process of co-creating development projects based on local relevance and knowledge, and co-interpreting findings with the local community, will call into question the role of development “experts”, the relevance of development organizations and fundamental assumptions of knowledge and power underlying development’s world-building enterprise. This approach that I call collaborative development thus has the potential to re-imagine development from the bottom up and take into account local contexts, relevance and interests. In many ways, the move to collaborative development returns to the origins of activist participatory research, but goes further by taking into account the influence of global, hegemonic flows of power on local processes. It is at this global-local intersection that development consultants, or to be more specific, development collaborators will have relevance. Rather than being perceived as “experts”, development collaborators are those intimately familiar with local processes in multiple places and are able to share experiences and insights generated from one grassroots locality to another without imposing formulas.

Keywords: Anthropology of development, collaborative ethnography, participatory development, collaborative development, ideology and utopia

Suggested Citation

Tavangar, Temily, Development and Anthropology: Moving from Participatory to Collaborative Methods (August 30, 2016). OIDA International Journal of Sustainable Development, Vol. 09, No. 08, pp. 33-46, 2016. Available at SSRN:

Temily Tavangar (Contact Author)

University of Hong Kong - Department of Sociology ( email )

Pokfulam Road
Hong Kong, Pokfulam HK

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