Key Terms Explained

This section contains definitions of some of the jargon – technical terms and uncommon phrases – that we have used elsewhere on the Participatory Methods site. But we have also added definitions of some of the tools, techniques and language you might encounter as you are reading through resources you have found on our database.

We will add entries to this section as the need arises, so if there is anything you would like to see included here, please let us know.

Participatory Action Research

Participatory Action Research (PAR) is an approach to enquiry which has been used since the 1940s. It involves researchers and participants working together to understand a problematic situation and change it for the better. There are many definitions of the approach, which share some common elements. PAR focuses on social change that promotes democracy and challenges inequality; is context-specific, often targeted on the needs of a particular group; is an iterative cycle of research, action and reflection; and often seeks to ‘liberate’ participants to have a greater awareness of their situation in order to take action. PAR uses a range of different methods, both qualitative and quantitative.

Participatory Audits

Many governments have an official agency that audits their departments and programmes, often called a supreme audit institution. In several countries in recent years, these institutions have included alliances of civil society organisations in participatory audits with the aim of promoting transparency in their own work.

Participatory Budgeting

Participatory budgeting, pioneered in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 1989, directly involves citizens in making decisions on spending and priorities for a defined public budget. It allows them to identify and discuss public spending projects, and gives them the power to make real decisions about how money is used.

Participatory Geographical Information Systems (PGIS)

Participatory Geographical Information Systems (PGIS) integrate a range of geographic information technologies (GIT) into community-centred initiatives with the aim of creating community-led spatial information gathering and decision making.  Because GITs have often relied on expensive technology, they had a tendency to be exclusive: this differential access has favoured those with the power to use them often to the disadvantage of local people and communities.  PGIS attempts to reverse this and includes a range of 3-D mapping and modelling methodologies that make the most of geographical information technology, are more complex than traditional PRA maps and are accessible to local communities.

Participatory Learning and Action (PLA)

Participatory Learning and Action is a family of approaches, methods, attitudes, behaviours and relationships, which enable and empower people to share, analyse and enhance their knowledge of their life and conditions, and to plan, act, monitor, evaluate and reflect.


Participatory Poverty Assessments (PPAs)

Participatory Poverty Assessments (PPAs) were large-scale research initiatives which used PMs to gather the views of citizens about poverty in order to influence the public policy of developing country governments. Popular in the late 1990s and early 2000s, PPAs were mainly carried out as policy research exercises and aimed to bring an understanding of the perspectives and priorities of poor people to poverty reduction agendas.

Participatory Video

Participatory video involves a group or community creating its own film. The film-making process can enable participants to take action to solve their own problems, or to communicate their needs and ideas to decision-makers. Participatory video can also be an effective tool to engage and mobilise marginalised people.


Giving cameras to people provides a participatory technique for them to take photographs to illustrate their lives and to share their knowledge and expertise of their issues. PhotoVoice allows people to present their voice. Individuals can express their own perspectives on life and enable others to understand their issues.

Photographs produced from PhotoVoice are used to elicit reflection and information on participants’ life experiences through interviews and group discussions, trigger debate, raise awareness and instigate social change. The photos are often presented to the wider community and policymakers through exhibitions, publications or public events.

PhotoVoice has been used across many sectors, including WASH, construction, sexual and reproductive health and climate change.

Planning for Real®

Planning for Real® (PFR) emerged in the UK in the 1970s, and is now is a trademarked community planning process based on a three dimensional model. PFR allows residents to register their views on a range of issues, to work together to identify priorities, and – in partnership with local agencies – to develop an action plan for change.

Popular Education

Popular education is a tradition that arose in Latin America in the first half of the twentieth century, although its ideological roots stretch back much further. It is based on the understanding that, in a context of social injustice, education can never be politically neutral. If it does not explicitly attempt to transform society in favour of the oppressed, then it is complicit in maintaining the existing structures of injustice.

Popular Theatre

Popular Theatre describes theatre which speaks to ordinary people in their own language or idiom, and deals with issues that are relevant to them. It also concentrates on awakening the capacity of those involved to participate, to make their own decisions and to organize themselves for common action.

PRA South-South Exchanges

During the mid-1990s, when early innovations in Participatory Rural Appraisal were at their height, the Institute of Development Studies in the UK played a key role supporting the growth of practitioner networks. Central to this role was the organisation of ‘South-South’ exchanges, where practitioners from different parts of the global South met in each others’ countries to share experiences and learn from each other and from community members. Village immersions were a key element of these exchanges.

Public Expenditure Tracking Survey

Public Expenditure Tracking Surveys (PETS) are surveys that measure the amount of funds received at each point in the chain of public service delivery, from a nation’s treasury to the classroom or health clinic where the funds are intended to be spent. Citizens are involved in monitoring a sample of schools or clinics. PETS findings can provide evidence of corruption and be used for advocacy and campaigning.

Rapid Action Learning

Rapid Action Learning (RAL) methodologies are action-orientated and participatory, but their defining feature is that they are short, intense, largely one-off research projects that are carried out often at a critical point in time. The Sanitation Learning Hub have used these approaches to rapidly gather evidence, often on an urgent overlooked issue, to provide an initial exploration and recommend actions for first steps. Key RAL research methods include debiasing, rapid topic explorations and hunter-gathering.

Rapid Rural Appraisal (RRA)

Rapid Rural Appraisal (RRA) emerged in the late 1970s in response to some of the problems with large-scale, structured questionnaire surveys. It provided an alternative technique for outsiders – often scientists carrying out research into agriculture – to quickly learn from local people about their realities and challenges. RRA practitioners worked in multi-disciplinary teams and pioneered the use a suite of visual methods and semi-structured interviews to learn from respondents. While it was largely about data collection, usually analysed by outsiders, RRA contained the seeds from which other PMs grew in the 1980s. Reflections on RRA led to the development of Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA), which focused more strongly on facilitation, empowerment, behaviour change, local knowledge and sustainable action.