By Alfredo Ortiz AragónA Ortiz side room blog

In a previous blog post (see “Do participatory CB methods really engage people’s diversity?”) I reflected on how people’s participation is enabled and constrained, included and excluded by all intervention method, including capacity building methods. When these methods neglect to take into account the diverse ways people express themselves and learn, participation may become unduly constrained, depriving people of their legitimate voice and depriving groupings of people of the diversity that is needed to generate learning and change in complex environments. This post builds on that previous post, but speaks more directly to how all methodological decisions enable some participant ideas and constrain others, and thereby generate dynamics of inclusion and exclusion which affect learning and change.

I offer an example from an end of year workshop I co-facilitated with my co-action-researcher, Juan Carlos Giles, intended to clarify the focus for 2011 organizational activities of an activist organization we were working with in Peru. On day three of the workshop, Juan-Carlos and I introduced the issue of problematic power relationships that had been present when our action-research began 18 months earlier.  The reason for introducing this theme was because we knew it to still be problematic, yet participants had not yet chosen to address it in any meaningful way in the first two days.   After a rich session of analysis and reflection, the newly named organizational leader, “Ana”, openly reflected howoutside of consultative sessions with Juan-Carlos and me—most methodological decisions until this workshop had been left up to “the facilitators”. She added that this has implications for the types of issues which were addressed in the action research (AR) process. For example, although she frequently brought up her perceptions of problematic machista (male chauvinistic) behaviors in her organization, Juan-Carlos and I—either by design or omission—rarely followed through on those issues. She felt we were quick, however, to follow through on issues of problematic power relations related to organizational leaders.  Later in the reflection, other organizational participants agreed that they too had played too passive a role in shaping the action-research methodology.

Ana’s observation is consistent with critiques from feminist systems theory (FST) that women’s perceptions may be taken as either unimportant or parallel to those of men, and thereby go unaddressed (Stephens, 2012). Relative methodological autonomy in this process gave me and Juan-Carlos enormous power in dealing with themes of our choosing. Even though we consulted and co-designed the overall emerging process with this organization, methodologically, we were given huge license to read situations and propose methods as we saw fit. We were undoubtedly influenced by our worldviews and preferences. For example, while I personally do care about how machista culture constrains opportunities for women, I do not see it as my primary battle and I do not become passionate about it.  But without concepts of feminist pedagogy in our approaches we fail to really “see” issues with gender and patriarchy—forms of power that ‘build… a vivid, internalized construct about how we learn and how our learning contributes to social change’ (Pettit, 2012: 24).   Juan-Carlos and I later discussed this issue and fully accepted Ana’s reasoning that we had consciously or unconsciously neglected to follow through on those issues as she raised them.

We were not alone in this. When Ana would raise these issues, other organizational members did not enable this line of argument either.  Conversation did not ensue on this theme because that which participants did not feel to be a personal battle (or whatever their reasons for omission) did not resonate enough to shift patterns of communication.  In complexity terms, the diversity introduced by Ana could not overcome the lack of excitement on this issue by other participants—i.e. no attractor emerged.

Our (Juan Carlos and me) selection of methods was inevitably shaped by our understanding of emerging priorities.  But our methodological actions promoted and restricted participation, diverse meanings and fluid communication that may have been needed to shift patterns of interaction in this organization.  By being unreflective about our methodological power to include or exclude we may uphold and “make local” (i.e. reproduce) unjust societal power relations that deprive people of meaning, or even their very livelihoods.

So what is the facilitator’s role?  If machismo is a real problem, and I believe it is, then might the facilitators have a particular responsibility to pay closer attention and draw it out—“give it a full hearing” as it were?  In retrospect, I think the answer is yes.  But how likely are we, two males, to do so?  That is the focus of my next post.

[Note: participants have given permission to share their stories from the action research discussed above.  Participant names are fictitious but refer to actual participants].

Alfredo Ortiz Aragón is an IDS PhD graduate. His research investigated how can systemic methodology help strengthen organizational capacities for grappling with social change in complex environments. In other words, if social change is complex and contested, and not straightforward and controllable, what should be different about organizational capacity building?  How should capacity building be different in complex environments? 



PETTIT, J. 2012. Getting to Grips with Power: Action Learning for Social Change in the UK. IDS Bulletin, 43, 11-26.

STEPHENS, A. 2012. Feminist Systems Theory: Learning by Praxis. Systemic Practice and Action Research, 25, 1-14.