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Exploring pitfalls of participation and ways towards just practices through a participatory design project in Kisumu, Kenya

Doctoral thesis
Authors Helena Kraff
Date of public defense 2018-05-04
Opponent at public defense Mugendi K. M’Rithaa
ISBN 978-91-982421-7-1
Publisher ArtMonitor
Place of publication Göteborg
Publication year 2018
Published at School of Design and Crafts
Language en
Keywords Participation, participatory design, participatory research, pitfalls, just participation, Kenya
Subject categories Design


It is my belief that participatory processes can lead to positive transforma- tions for the people involved. However, I do at the same time recognize that participation is inherently ambiguous and complex, and that this makes it vulnerable to unjust practices. It is this view of participation that led me to a focus on challenges that can emerge in participatory processes, or as they will be referred to in this thesis: pitfalls. The purpose is to explore pitfalls of participation, especially regarding when, how and why participatory practices lead to unjust forms of partici- pation. My experience of being engaged as a Swedish researcher in a partici- patory design project in a Kenyan context, and critical reflections on this experience serve as the foundation for this exploration. The project concerns small-scale ecotourism development in a fishing village on the shores of Lake Victoria in Western Kenya, where I worked with the development of ecotour- ism related products and services in a participatory manner with a local guide group and residents, and with PhD student colleagues from Sweden and Kenya. A number of pitfalls are highlighted as particularly problematic, which are connected to either abstracted and simplistic conceptualizations of par- ticipants and their participation, or to an unjust role distribution in projects. The terms community, empowerment and ownership are used to exemplify how the use of vague and elusive words to describe participation tends to hide participant diversity or lead to overstatements regarding the benefits de- rived from the project. I discuss how an unjust access to knowledge resources between actors who are to collaborate closely together hinder co-production of knowledge, and I acknowledge how designers’ and design researchers’ prejudices and a cultural unawareness can lead to some groups not being recognized as important. The aim is to contribute with methodological guidance regarding how researchers and practitioners can identify and work against the pitfalls that they come across in their practice, and towards achieving just participation.

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