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How participatory is participatory modelling for complex adaptive systems?


How participatory is participatory modelling for complex adaptive systems?

Future Health Systems

By Asha George, FHS researcher, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health

[Editor's note: This blog is part of a series of reflections emerging from a workshop on complex adaptive systems research methods held in Baltimore in June 2014.]

The Partido Revolucionario Institucional, or PRI, is a political party in Mexico with something of a confusing name. It literally means the  ‘Institutionalized Revolutionary Party’, and when I first heard the name I couldn't help but laugh. Institutionalized revolution, huh? It sounds like something straight out of a Monty Python sketch, something completely contradictory!.

At a recent workshop on methods for understanding complex adaptive systems (CAS) in the context of health systems strengthening, I was struck by a similar thought. We looked at a number of modelling techniques, like agent-based modeling and causal loop diagrams, some purporting to be participatory in nature. But, like the PRI, is the idea of participatory approaches to complex systems thinking inherently contradictory? Inherently confusing? Or are they revolutionary, altering how we see the world and empowering us to transform health systems radically?

Converts to complex adaptive systems and participatory approaches can be equally zealous. They do have that in common. But what else do they share?

  • Modelling complex systems involves visualizing relationships and articulating assumptions between factors that are dynamic and non-linear. Participatory research approaches also use visualization to reveal connections and linkages that may not be readily apparent.
  • They also both involve iterative interrogation of phenomena.
  • Certain communication techniques also allow for layering of information.
  •  {C}{C}{C}And perhaps the most beneficial aspect of both approaches is that they allow for an appreciation of context.

Yet, when colleagues claimed they were participatory because the modeling efforts they undertook involved multi-disciplinary and multi-stakeholder teams developing and discussing diagrams, I was startled by my skepticism.

Participatory approaches don’t just involve people visually mapping and discussing phenomena, they are radically about people. They are about purpose. And ultimately, they are about power.

The diagrams, methods, language, all pale in comparison to key questions such as:

  • who is involved,
  •  who is in charge,
  • why and for what?

Issues of power, representation and agency are paramount. Assessing whether research or modeling is participatory or not, would require interrogating who defines research problems, facilitates the analyses, presents data, owns and acts on the information generated.

Participatory approaches elicit narratives, enable people to tell their stories and collectively build foundations for action not just through better understanding, but by fostering discussions and relationships that fuel change. Participatory researchers are facilitators ensuring that those who are otherwise marginalized find their voice, are able to exert their agency and are in dialogue with other power brokers in society. This may mean working with groups separately, before bringing everyone together. For instance, community scorecards in Afghanistan first had women specific meetings, before women felt they could and should participate in the men’s meetings to ensure their perspectives got heard.

A parallel and complimentary stream of work in FHS is that led by the RinGs partnership. We emphasize for health systems research to seriously tackle social complexity that involves gender and other social determinants, we need to pursue approaches that are embedded in local context so that it is owned by local stakeholders, that it consider how social relations such as gender intersect with other forces of social marginalization, and that the ethical implications of such power relations be examined more closely.

Keeping these three tenants from RinGs in mind, complex systems modelling may or may not be participatory. Their methods do not seem to me to be as intuitive as drawing body maps, charting seasonal calendars or ranking priority using pebbles or chapatis. Though, I certainly see potential.

Joshua Epstein, as part of his talk on ‘Why model?’, did suggest that anyone who has a projection of the world – of a social dynamic – is already modeling. Indeed, it does strike me that modeling can be an inclusive task that is mainly about making one’s assumptions explicit.

But rather than assuming that complex systems modelling are participatory by default, we should be asking tougher questions for both modelers and ‘participatory’ facilitators: for and by whom and for what ends?