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A review of PAR/PRA methods and techniques

by Phil Bartle, PhD

Co-ordinators' Reference

A review of PAR/PRA methods and techniques

The acronym, PRA (Participatory Rural Appraisal/Assessment), may look misleading at first because it includes "Rural" although it can be applied to urban neighbourhoods as well as rural villages, and because it implies "Appraisal" or "Assessment" even though it can be carried past the assessment stage on to action planning and project design.

What is consistent is that the process is characterized by "Participatory." This may be the participation of community members (rural or urban), or the participation of members of an organization.

You emphasize the giving of a voice to those members who are not usually heard. As facilitator, you provide some structure and stimulation, but the content must be the choice of the membership as a whole. Data collection and analysis are undertaken by participants, with you acting to facilitate rather than to control these processes.

Techniques of Participatory Appraisal:

There are many methods and approaches to participatory appraisal. Over your career, you will develop various approaches of your own, modifying and selecting as you go along.

These are provided here to get you started. Change them and mould them to fit the size of the client group, location, time and other characteristics of the participants and their situation.


Making a community map is probably the best approach for you to get started, and for a community to get started. Take a group on a walk through the community, and let them draw a map of the area. Let the map include communal facilities, personal and family buildings, assets and liabilities. Do not draw the map for them.

One method is for individuals or small groups to each make a separate map, then, as a group exercise later, all the small groups of individuals prepare a large map (eg using newsprint or flip chart paper) combining and synthesizing what is included on all the maps.

Valuable information over and above that shown on scientifically produced maps can be obtained from maps drawn by local people. These maps show the perspective of the drawer and reveal much about local knowledge of resources, land use and settlement patterns, or household characteristics.

Between maps and the models which are described next, you can encourage community members to draw their map on the ground, using sticks to draw lines. Drawing the map on the ground, like drawing a large map on the wall, gives you and the participants a chance to easily make the drawing process a group process.


If the community members add sticks and stones to a map scratched onto the ground, they are making a simple model: a three dimensional map.

Do not draw the map or construct the model for the participants; encourage them to all contribute. As you watch them, note if some facilities are made before others, if some are larger in proportion than others. This will give you some insight into what issues may be more important than others to the participants.

Make notes; these will contribute to your sociological understanding of the community. Make a copy on paper of the map or model as a permanent record. Maps and models can later lead to transect walks, in which greater detail is recorded

Creating a Community Inventory:

The inventory, and especially the process of making it, is the most important and central element of participatory appraisal.

The process of making the community inventory is sometimes called semi structured interviewing. If it were perfectly unstructured, then it would be a loose conversation that goes no where. A "Brainstorm" session, in contrast, is highly structured. (The brainstorm has its uses, especially in the project design phase of community empowering). Making the inventory is somewhere in between these two. You also allow the discussion to be a little bit free, especially in allowing participants to analyse their contributions to making the inventory.

You do not work with a set of specific questions, but you might best prepare a check list of topics to cover and work from that so that you cover all topics. When you prepare your check list, remember that you should include both assets and liabilities in the community. Include available facilities, including how well they are working, or not working. Include potentials and opportunities as well as threats and hindrances, both possible and current. Remember that this is an assessment.

Aim for an inventory that assess the strengths and weaknesses of the community. Your job is not to create the inventory, but to guide the community members to construct it as a group.

Focus Group Discussions:

There may be a range of experiences and opinions among members of the community or there may be sensitivity in divulging information to outsiders or to others within the community. This is where a focus group discussion can be useful. It is best here if you do not work alone, but as a facilitation team of two or three facilitators, one leading the discussion and another making a record.

The discussion topics chosen should be fewer than for the general community inventory. First conduct separate sessions for the different interest groups, record their contributions carefully, then bring them together to share as groups their special concerns. It is important to be careful here. While you recognize the different interest groups in the community, you do not want to increase the differences between the groups - to widen the schism.

See the training document, Unity Organizing.

You are not trying to make all the different groups the same as each other, but to increase the tolerance, understanding and co-operation between them. Special focus groups gives you the opportunity to work separately with different groups that may find it difficult at first to work together; but you must work towards bringing them together.

Preference Ranking:

When you are working with a community with different interest groups, you may wish to list preference rankings of the different groups, then look at them together with the groups together.

Preference ranking is a good ice-breaker at the beginning of a group interview, and helps focus the discussion.

Wealth Ranking:

This is a particularly useful method of (1) discovering how the community members define poverty, (2) to find who the really poor people are, and (3) to stratify samples of wealth. This is best done once you have built up some rapport with the community members.

A good method here is to make a card the name of each of the households in the community on it. Select some members of the community. Ask them to put these cards into groups according to various measures of wealth and to give their rationale (reasons) for the groupings. How they categorize members of the community, and the reasons they give for making those categories and for putting different households into each category, are very revealing about the socio-economic makeup of the community.

Seasonal and Historical Diagramming:

Seasonal and historical variations and trends can be easy to miss during a short visit to the field.

You can attempt various diagramming techniques can help explore changes in: rainfall, labour demand, farming (fishing, hunting, herding) activities, wood supply for fuel, disease incidence, migration for employment, food stocks and many other elements that change over time. The diagrams you produce can be used as a basis for discussions for the reasons behind changes and implications for the people involved.

Institutional Mapping:

Elsewhere, you were told that a community mobilizer needs to be a social scientist, a practising social scientist. Information about the social organization of the community and the nature of social groups is difficult to get in a short visit. Complex relationships between rich and poor segments of the community, family ties and feuds, and political groups can not be untangled in a few weeks. Using participatory appraisal methods can be useful here.

One way to understand the less sensitive aspects of social interaction in a community is to ask key informants to construct a Venn diagram. This technique is simply a collection of circles, each of which represents a different group or organization active in the community. The size of each circle reflects the relative importance of the group represented-the smaller the circle, the less influential the group. The amount of overlap between two circles represents the amount of collaboration or joint decision making between two groups.

Know When to Use These Methods:

The PRA/PAR methods are most appropriate for making assessments and appraisals when you want the community to participate in the assessment. They are not the most appropriate approach to all stages of the empowerment process.

They are not the best way, for example when some skill transfer has been identified as a need. Training (for skill transfer) may be participatory, in that the trainees learn by doing, but not necessarily by using PRA/PAR techniques.

We use metaphors, stories and proverbs when getting a point across to community members. One such proverb is, "Do not ask a chicken to give you milk and do not ask a cow to give you eggs." ..

What you ask the PRA/PAR methodology to give you is participatory assessment, not something else.


© Copyright 1967, 1987, 2007 Phil Bartle
Web Design by Lourdes Sada
Last update: 2012.02.13

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