Facilitation as creative bricolage: opening participatory democracy’s black box


With our Indian collaborators we embarked on a creative campaign to defend the integrity of a process that had provided a platform for the informed views of some of the most marginalised rural people in India. It was not a comfortable experience for either of us.

Michel Pimbert Tom Wakeford
4 September 2013

Participatory and action research processes are part of a diverse and growing movement to democratise processes that generate authority - in both knowledge-generation and policy-making. We have found that people who are offered such opportunities welcome their new-found responsibility as holders of authoritative knowledge. Among the roles vital to any such process is that of the facilitator – a person or people who act as intermediaries in participatory processes between different holders of authority – ranging from policy-makers to everyday citizens. We have experience of being on the giving and receiving ends of a wide range of approaches to facilitation.

According to the context, facilitators may be called animateurs, convenors or mediators. The process of facilitation is often assumed to be intellectually dull and the skills required relatively trivial. As such it has become one of the many analytic ‘black boxes’ in the study of participatory processes. While the interests of different authority-holders, the psychology of participants and their expertise have been exhaustively examined in academic studies and policy analyses, the process of facilitation itself has been largely ignored.

By contrast the best facilitators constantly undertake such self-critical reflections in their own practice. One exception to this is the detailed study of facilitation made by Celia Davies and her team in Citizens at the Centre. They conclude that the quality of facilitation in deliberative democratic processes plays a crucial part in determining both inclusivity and competence.

This was a meticulous de-construction of a particular process by observer-analysts. Our aim, based on our perspective as practitioner-analysts, is to contribute to a self-critical construction of better approaches to facilitation. We believe that, as well as having a desire to achieve positive political goals, empowering facilitation must be based on the do-it-yourself skills of a craftsperson, drawing on tacit understandings far from the critical distance of the conventional social researcher.

In much of the supposedly empowering participatory practice over the past thirty years, facilitators have contributed to the entrenchment of the very dominating authority that we could have, in theory, helped democratise. This is often because we have uncritically attempted to apply an off-the-shelf method of participation as if it were merely a technical procedure or research method. This is in stark opposition to a concept of facilitation as a craft. Like any craft skill, facilitation requires a comprehensive apprenticeship rather than a handful of brief lessons. In facilitation this training has to be sufficiently broad for practitioners to know how to facilitate in a range of complex and usually highly politicised contexts.

A useful perspective through which to understand facilitation is that of ‘intellectual bricolage’. Bricolage simply means construction using whatever was available at the time. The related French word bricoleur refers to a handyman or handywoman who makes use of the tools available to ensure he or she completes the task. A process undertaken by an intellectual bricoleur ‘is not always or even usually the same job that was initially undertaken and is uniquely structured by the set of pre-constrained elements that are selected from the treasury’. A bricolage perspective allows us to ‘move beyond the blinds of particular disciplines and peer through a conceptual window to a new world of research and knowledge-production’.

Joe Kincheloe and others have suggested that bricoleurs task themselves with ‘uncovering the invisible artefacts of power and culture and documenting the nature of their influence’. Avoiding modes of reasoning that come from traditions of logical analysis, bricoleurs embrace complexity and reject standardised modes of knowledge production. They suggest that a bricoleur’s ‘interactions with the objects of their inquiries… are always complicated, mercurial, unpredictable and, of course, complex’.

This analysis is core to understanding how good facilitation takes place in that they reject the practice of advance strategy planning. In lieu of such a rationalisation of the process, ‘bricoleurs enter into the research act as methodological negotiators’. Respecting the demands of the task at hand, bricolage ‘resists its placement in concrete as it promotes its elasticity’. Better qualitative research will come from bricoleurs understanding the ‘research method as also a technology of justification, meaning a way of defending what we assert we know and how we know it’.

The apprenticeship of facilitators, like critical researchers, involves allowing ourselves to step back from learning new methods in order to discuss concepts and develop a critical consciousness, a process that Paulo Freire famously called ‘conscientization’. ‘Such a consciousness’, they conclude, ‘refuses the passive acceptance of externally imposed research methods that tacitly certify modes justifying knowledges that are decontextualised, reductionistic, and inscribed by dominant modes of power’. We, like most facilitators we have met, recognise a similar conscientization process is part of our own ongoing development as critically-minded facilitators of participatory processes.

A defining characteristic of grassroots-led processes with the potential to democratise authority is that they are established in order to resist or reconfigure a specific policy or its implementation by a dominating authority.  The knowledge and authority of powerful institutions stem from their capacity to exert control over the gathering, interpretation and deployment of that knowledge. Creating spaces in which non-elites can have a voice – an essential part in the co-production of authority - not only challenges the validity of authoritative knowledge but can also undermine the legitimacy of those who deploy it.

Taking participation seriously inevitably risks conflict with organisations that have a vested interest in maintaining their existing dominance.  Those institutions may take steps to respond by attempting to discredit the process. A response that utilises facilitation skills uncritically as a mere collection of methods has little chance to enter into a constructive dialogue with dominating authorities. However, we have found that adding the skills of a widely-experienced bricoleur can allow people whose voices have been marginalised to gain authority for their knowledge beyond what they could have previously thought possible.

Our experience acting as facilitators of participatory processes includes one set of events that took place in a particularly highly-charged political context – our co-facilitation with Indian colleagues of the Prajateerpu hearings in 2001–02. In attempting to facilitate an empowering process, we aimed to achieve multiple objectives simultaneously. For example, we attempted the co-production of authority with communities whose knowledge had been marginalised, while building a democratic process of resistance to attempts by dominating powers to undermine the new authority that such a process created.

Prajateerpu was a participatory response to Vision 2020, a government-sponsored plan for the future of eighty million people in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. It was authored by McKinsey’s, a US consultancy firm, based on their model for the future of rural development, based on global-trade and  international moves towards industrial agriculture. In 2000 this global vision had been endorsed by the Government of Andhra Pradesh for this highly agricultural Indian state. It was also backed by the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) and the World Bank.

At the heart of the Vision was a radical strategy proposing a shift of 80% of farmers from land they currently farmed, along with a mechanising of agriculture and the introduction of genetically modified (GM) crops. With the livelihoods of their members and those of their families at stake, civil society groups called for a genuinely participatory process: Prajateerpu (literally meaning ‘people’s verdict’ in Telegu). They asked that it address what they saw as the illegitimate authority attributed to a consultation process that had been overseen by the Government and foreign aid donors. DFID documents claimed that the agency had been part of


A member of the Prajateerpu ("People's Verdict") process questions a witness in Medak District, Andra Pradesh, India, 2001.

consultations with local farmers, but all the evidence from NGOs in the State suggested that only very large landowners had been consulted in meetings from which smallholder and marginal farmers had effectively been excluded.

Our involvement in this two year project took place while we were employed in two organisations: Tom at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) and Michel at the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED). IDS, the larger of the two organisations, is located on the campus of the University of Sussex but it is a separate organisation that is not part of the University. Its leadership had an ambivalent attitude towards participatory processes, a characteristic that was particularly important in what followed. IDS is a privatised government agency, retaining close personal and funding links to senior Whitehall officials, particularly at DFID.

Michel, then at IIED, was approached by Indian activist groups to undertake a participatory process. Using funds obtained from the Netherlands' Directorate-General for International Cooperation (DGIS) and the Rockefeller Foundation, we were able to support civil society groups from across Andhra Pradesh in co-designing a process that would enable the groups who would be most affected by vision 2020 to explore the consequences of this Vision and potential alternative visions for the future of the State’s rural people.

We joined local collaborators in co-designing a participatory process of dialogue that would encompass multiple perspectives. We drew on our previous experience in order to co-design a process with our Indian partners that allowed our locally-based co-facilitators, speaking in dialects familiar to local farmers, to support the jury members to develop their analysis of the issues relevant to them and their communities.

Prajateerpu took place in the context of the dominating power of a State Government that had no means of entering into dialogue with smallholder farmers. The process enabled the knowledge of  rural dwellers, informed by a deliberative process, to be applied and used in the cross examination of experts, many of whom were in a village setting for the first time. External experts presented different visions of the future of rural development in the State, but it was the jury who wrote the recommendations based on their own perspective, knowledge and analysis.

The eighteen members of Prajateerpu thus developed their own vision for rural development in the State that threw a wholly different light on development and was diametrically opposed to some of the core assumptions behind Vision 2020.  Their vision was one of greater local autonomy and reviving crop varieties that had been wiped out due to recent changes in the State’s agricultural policies. They stated that they had never seen all the foreign aid money, which they had learnt, through Prajateerpu, had been sent to their State to be used for communities like theirs. They had not been consulted about Vision 2020. In their report they made it clear that they didn’t want any part of the plan to take place and that they had an alternative vision.

The process of organising and facilitating Prajateerpu saw us constantly adapting the process to changing circumstances.  We took a bricoleur’s approach to addressing the potential for those whose interests were threatened by Prajateerpu to accuse us of manipulating the process. We instituted an extensive range of safeguards that were enough to convince a range of stakeholders – from the State Government to Syngenta – to accept that the proceedings had been fair. Our Oversight Panel was convened by a retired Chief of the Supreme Court of India.


Director of the International Institute for Environment and Development, Nigel Cross, receives the Telegu language edition of the report of the Prajateerpu.

Despite the safeguards we instituted, DFID-India decided to challenge our report of the process, conveying their perspective in letters to our respective institute directors.

With its annual budget so dependent on governmental sources, IDS management took the unprecedented step of removing the report from its website and withdrew copies of the printed version. This was undertaken immediately without any process to review any flaws that may, or may not, have been present in the Prajateerpu report.

At this point our efforts seemed to have been in vain. Yet we believed we had co-facilitated a process that was fair and open. Despite being far superior to anything DFID had undertaken on the topic, the UK Government officials were, we believed, using their authority over IDS and other players to retain control of the policy space.

Together with our Indian colleagues, we decided to defend Prajateerpu’s transformative potential, in policy contexts both in India and internationally. We ensured our reply to DFID’s criticisms was widely circulated. Our actions as participatory bricoleurs allowed the public exposure of the double standards existing at DFID and IDS. With our Indian collaborators we embarked on a creative campaign to defend the integrity of a process that had provided a platform for the informed views of some of the most marginalised rural people in India. It was not a comfortable experience for either of us.

We responded directly and publicly to the government criticisms of the censored jury report. Our whistle blowing on DFID’s failure to implement its own policies promoting the use of community participation in the planning of development led to widespread media coverage and a global online campaign. This was among the factors causing DFID to pause to review its policies and gradually shift away from supporting McKinsey’s original Vision 2020. More importantly, it is one of many instances of facilitators being able to nurture the transformative power of participatory processes by a process that is best described as bricolage.

Our experience of being bricoleur-facilitators suggests that much more is needed for the participatory democratic model to succeed than the standard ‘principles of good practice’ drawn up by various participation organisations in recent years. We argue that such guidelines perpetuate a myth that giving communities a voice through participatory processes can be achieved simply by the application of a preconceived toolkit of methods.

In Prajateerpu, the use of bricolage in a complex and highly political process led to a partial transformation of authority, though not without ongoing controversy. Far from being the exception, our practical experience of participatory work over a combined total of forty years suggests that the way such processes democratise authority is more through craft-like processes rather than those based on rationalistic epistemologies.

The lack of dialogue between social scientists and practitioners of participatory processes is perhaps the biggest reason why facilitation has remained as a virtually-unexamined black-box for so long. In the current UK and global recession, facilitators have even less time and resources to undertake critical reflection, particularly when compared with those employed as professional researchers by universities and other research institutions. To enter the new age of participatory democracy, we need to ensure that the comparatively generous resources for analysis available to us as researchers are shared with practitioners in order for further insights to be co-produced. If such dialogues could take place, both groups would be informed and inspired by diverse perspectives of the other. Together we can light more candles of participatory hope to offset the social disintegration promised by those who use their authority only to dominate.



This article is part of an editorial partnership called 'The Struggle for Common Life', which is the outcome of an AHRC funded project led by the Authority Research Network. The editorial partnership was funded by the University of Warwick and Plymouth University.

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