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Adapting participatory research methods for reflexive environmental management

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This article discusses methodological adaptations to participatory methods for reflexive environmental management. Reflexive approaches to research methods as process, this article contends, can elucidate social dynamics that standard sampling frames and rote procedures may elide. This argument is supported through a discussion of key insights from scholarship about participatory research methods, as well as auto-reflections on methodical adaptations undertaken while conducting photovoice research on environmental management in peri-urban villages of Southwest China. Reflexive adaptations to participatory methods discussed in this paper include ethnographic attention to forms of refusal, suspended participation, and individual interviews with and without visual aids. These methodological adaptations highlight relations of power between researchers and participants, as well as amongst participants. They also highlight diverse social needs and uneven environmental management processes. Although reflexive approaches to participatory methods are key to producing more widely representational findings and socially just sustainability practices, they are not a panacea for universal inclusivity. Reflexive methodological adaptations have their own limitations and introduce new power relations between participants and researchers. The article concludes with a discussion of how reflexive methodological adaptations bear on research praxis. In particular, the conclusion highlights how reflexive adaptations to research methods are crucial to socially just environmental management and sustainability practices.
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Adapting participatory
research methods for reflexive
environmental management
Jesse Rodenbiker
Department of Natural Resources and the Environment, Cornell University, USA;
Department of Geography, Rutgers University-New Brunswick, USA
Abstract
This article discusses methodological adaptations to participatory methods for reflexive
environmental management. Reflexive approaches to research methods as process, this article
contends, can elucidate social dynamics that standard sampling frames and rote procedures
may elide. This argument is supported through a discussion of key insights from scholarship
about participatory research methods, as well as auto-reflections on methodical adaptations
undertaken while conducting photovoice research on environmental management in peri-urban
villages of Southwest China. Reflexive adaptations to participatory methods discussed in this
paper include ethnographic attention to forms of refusal, suspended participation, and individual
interviews with and without visual aids. These methodological adaptations highlight relations of
power between researchers and participants, as well as amongst participants. They also highlight
diverse social needs and uneven environmental management processes. Although reflexive
approaches to participatory methods are key to producing more widely representational findings
and socially just sustainability practices, they are not a panacea for universal inclusivity. Reflexive
methodological adaptations have their own limitations and introduce new power relations
between participants and researchers. The article concludes with a discussion of how reflexive
methodological adaptations bear on research praxis. In particular, the conclusion highlights how
reflexive adaptations to research methods are crucial to socially just environmental management
and sustainability practices.
Keywords
Photovoice, reflexivity, participatory methods, visual methods, qualitative methods,
environmental management, sustainability, environmental justice, China
Corresponding author:
Jesse Rodenbiker, Department of Natural Resources and the Environment, Cornell University, 111 Fernow
Hall, Ithaca, NY 14853-0001, USA.
Email: rodenbiker@cornell.edu
990966QRJ0010.1177/1468794121990966Qualitative ResearchRodenbiker
research-article2021
Standard Article
2 Qualitative Research 00(0)
Introduction: situating photovoice method, practice, and
critique
Photovoice is a visual research method involving participatory processes of creating,
sharing, interpreting, and discussing photographs. Photovoice was initially conceptual-
ized as a research method for carrying out public needs assessment with emancipatory
and empowering potential. It is among visual ethnographic methods that depart from
the scientific-realist paradigm of research and knowledge production (Pink, 2013).
Photovoice emerged from photo novella, a form of narrative storytelling derived from
the coupling of images and text within historical and social context (Wang and Burris,
1994). The visual participatory method is a form of community-based research centered
around taking photos and discussing them collectively in focus groups. Through this
process, participants learn about mutual needs, life experiences, and senses of self.
Photovoice emerged as a visual methodology with an explicit impetus to create social
change by bridging communities with policymakers, community leaders, and those
with positions of relative power (Milne and Muir, 2019). Wang and Burris (1997), at the
forefront of this methodological approach, articulated core principles: giving voice to
communities, especially those underprivileged and without representational appara-
tuses to communicate basic needs and concerns; utilizing photographs and focus group
discussions to promote critical dialogue in effort toward eliciting knowledge about
community issues; and connecting communities with those that have a direct role in
shaping relevant policies (see also Wang, 2006). They advocated for the distribution of
cameras, collective image making and discussion, and engagement with policymakers
toward social change.
Early practitioners of photovoice cite inspiration from three sources including social
empowerment scholarship that considers knowledge not as a domain of experts, but
emergent from co-productive processes of exchange (Freire, 2018), feminist theory that
gives voice to subaltern subjects (French, 1985; Linton, 1989), and critically reflexive
approaches to community-based documentary photography (Liebenberg, 2018; Milne
and Muir, 2019). Standard practices involve first selecting community leaders or those
with policymaking power to help organize and shape the photovoice process. Then, often
in conjunction with a community leader, the researcher(s) forms a group or multiple
groups of participants and provide a photography assignment through introducing cam-
era use techniques, ethics of taking photos, and the aims of the research. Participants are
allotted time to take photos. After developing the photos, participants discuss them in
focus groups discussions. Participants tell stories about their photos and collectively
codify themes that address their lived experiences. In some cases, ‘best’ photos are cho-
sen, which indicate that they represent a common need or shared experience. These focus
group discussions are generally followed by a public display of some of the images and
stories from the photovoice group discussions that communicate findings to a wider
audience and policymakers (Wang, 2006: 149–152).
The method became popular in the 1990s and early 2000s, through studies in
Southwest China’s Yunnan Province in relation to public health and community devel-
opment (Wang and Burris, 1997; Wu, 1995). As a research method, photovoice has
since been deployed in forms of sociological inquiry to address issues as diverse as
Rodenbiker 3
childhood autism (Ha and Whittaker, 2016), Latina transgender identity (Rhodes et al.,
2015), entertainment-education (Singhal et al., 2007), life course analysis of aging
immigrants (Brotman et al., 2019), as well as youth empowerment and health education
(Wilson et al., 2008). The method evolved into a popular form of participatory action
research that can facilitate the exploration of shared experiences, critical reflection, as
well as the needs of marginalized communities (Liebenberg, 2018). Many social sci-
ence researchers, public health practitioners, and community development organiza-
tions utilize this visual research method (Delgado, 2015; Jurkowski and Paul-Ward,
2007; Strack et al., 2004). Although early proponents of photovoice suggest researchers
be aware of the embedded power relations in the research process (Wang and Burris,
1997: 374–375), critical analyses of photovoice illustrate that underlying the method
are assumptions that linear procedural processes of creating and disseminating knowl-
edge will shape policy and social change. This assumption elides relations of power
embedded within the method, which require reflexive attention.
Relations of power between researcher and participants, amongst participants, and
those with the capacity to shape policy, such as community leaders or state representatives
are crucial facets of participatory methods. In order to understand the content and mean-
ing of participatory research engagements, these relations demand critical reflexivity.
Many compelling scholarly critiques discuss reflexivity (England, 1994; Pillow, 2003)
and problematize forms of ethnographic refusals (McGranahan, 2016; Ortner, 1995;
Simpson, 2007, 2014; Sutton and Levinson, 2001). Over the past decade, issues of power
and subject positionality have been explicitly researched in relation to photovoice prac-
tice, visual participatory methods, and participatory action research (Brushwood Rose,
2019; Hayhurst, 2017; Milne, 2012; Mitchell, 2019; Mitchell et al., 2017; Switzer, 2018,
2019). In the effort to reformulate methodological approaches, scholars have sought to
address relations of power and methodological decolonization (Higgins, 2016). For
instance, Lykes’ (2006) collaboration with Mayan women in Guatemala suggests the need
for more attention to participant agency and increased input in framing the themes of
research at each stage in the photovoice process. Similarly, the work of Castleden et al.
(2008) shows how research can be modified through a joint iterative approach, with
researcher(s) and participants collectively making changes to themes and the overarching
research program at different stages of the research process. They argue that this shared
process-oriented approach creates a sense of ownership among participants but requires
significant time to allow for multiple iterations. Key methodological addendums they
propose include ongoing recruitment, contextualization, individual selection of photo-
graphs for photovoice focus groups, and iterative discussion of themes throughout the
research process (Castleden et al., 2008). Analogously, Hayhurst (2017) contends that
participatory visual research presents opportunities to give voice to marginalized com-
munities but that a critical awareness informed by postcolonial theory should be applied
to forms of image ownership, access, control, and possession, as well as representational
uses of images. These interventions nuance the methodological approach espoused by
Wang (1999, 2006), which has been interpreted by many practitioners as a set of linear
procedures that include recruitment, training, photography assignment, group selection of
‘best photos’, group contextualization, and a participatory evaluation, which is then
shared with policymakers and the public.
4 Qualitative Research 00(0)
Within this vein of critical dialogue on participatory methods, I discuss reflexive
adaptations to methods in the context of applying photovoice to research environmental
management. In using the term ‘reflexivity’, I mean to draw attention to the situated
character of all involved in the moments of research interaction; the researcher(s),
participant(s), and the conditions within which interaction transpires. For Pillow (2010),
reflexivity entails the iterative process of coming to understand positionalities involved
in research – an unavoidably geographical process. A reflexive approach to participatory
methods considers aberrations, alternative and flexible forms of participation as informa-
tive to research method as a dialogic process.
Attention to forms of resistance to prescribed ways of participating, scholars have
shown (Brushwood Rose, 2019; Milne, 2012), can also elicit information about the lived
experiences, social positionality, and needs of (non)participants. Nonparticipation, resist-
ance, and refusal, Milne (2012) contends, require reflexive attention from all involved in
research processes. Brushwood Rose (2019) demonstrates that the kinds of agency exer-
cised by (non)participants to augment, alter, or confound normative forms of participa-
tion are worthy of critical attention. This is particularly important as research has shown
how participation in photovoice can elicit unintended consequences that may not only
enable participants to express themselves in new ways but also create new silences, sus-
picions, or omissions (Prins, 2010). As Milne and Muir (2019: 8) articulate, ‘understand-
ing and exploring absences, silences, and exclusions’ may be as important as exploring
what is visually presented and said out loud. It may potentially be more so in disadvan-
taged communities for whom research participation has historically portended further
societal marginalization. As these works, and this article, demonstrate the complexities
of (non)participation can be viewed as terrain for reflexive approaches to research meth-
ods. Building on critical scholarship, I address issues surrounding positionality and
power relations embedded within participatory research. I address limitations due to the
lengths of time dedicated to research, recruiting, and analytical processes (Sitter, 2017).
My intervention brings insights from critical studies of participatory methods to exam-
ples of adapting photovoice research methods in the context of studying environmental
management.
In this article, I address these questions: How can reflexive approaches to participa-
tory methods be applied to the study of environmental management? What might
reflexive adaptations to visual participatory methods reveal or obscure? How can
reflexive adaptations inflect power relations within the research process and shape the
research content? How can reflexive approaches to participatory research methods
support more socially equitable sustainability practices? These questions are critical as
scholarship in environmental studies advocates for a greater scope of participatory
engagement in effort toward a public praxis of earth stewardship (Osborne, 2017).
Alongside calls for greater public participation, and the foregrounding of Black, indig-
enous, and subaltern experiences (Finney, 2014; Taylor, 2016), are critical accounts
that rethink the universality of sustainability’s core tenants and approaches to environ-
mental management. In particular, scholars argue that environmental justice be consid-
ered a key component of sustainability (Agyeman, 2013; Rodenbiker, 2020a, 2020b;
Sze, 2018). In addition, researchers have shown how particular social and political
Rodenbiker 5
contexts within which sustainability takes on meaning shape environmental manage-
ment practices and the social effects of sustainability projects (Rodenbiker, 2021; Sze,
2018). These studies demonstrate the need for reflexive attention to how environmen-
tal management practices affect people and how sustainable development practitioners
can engage with those unevenly effected by environmental management practices.
Greater reflexive attention to research methods is crucial to socially just sustainability
praxis.
In what follows, I discuss reflexive adaptations to photovoice research in the context
of studying social dimensions of conservation in Southwest China. I illustrate how cru-
cial insights came from adopting reflexive adaptations to standard photovoice proce-
dures. In addition, I highlight how methodological adaptations produced new omissions,
limitations, and uneven power relations. After providing context for the study, I discuss
ethnographic moments of refusal as grounds for intersubjective exchange. I then high-
light insights from conducting individual interviews with and without photographic
images, in addition to standard photovoice focus group discussions. Next, I consider
what I call ‘suspended participation’—a process of extending the duration of the sam-
pling period and mode of sampling. Following these sections, I discuss critical concerns
surrounding technologies of photography, image sharing, and digital surveillance. These
reflexive adaptations revealed social needs and inequities linked with recent conserva-
tion projects. I conclude arguing that reflexive approaches to participatory methods can
yield information that speak volumes and shape more equitable sustainability practices,
but that such adaptations can also generate new omissions and uneven power relations
between researchers and participants.1
Context
To align with central state policy, city governments across China are turning 20% of land
that falls within municipal regions into urban ecological protection areas (Rodenbiker,
2019; UNDP, 2016). The bulk of these new conservation areas are being zoned along the
peri-urban fringe of cities and include rural land within municipal jurisdictions. As the
majority of urban ecological protection areas are on the peri-urban fringe, I aimed to
determine how peri-urban villagers were being affected as village land and housing were
included into conservation projects. I identified a group of provincial and municipal-
level government officials and environmental scientists as key policy interlocutors.
These individuals either had formal roles in government or were involved in the techni-
cal planning and management of conservation areas. As such, they had vested interest to
learn more about the social effects of the environmental management practices they gov-
erned. Prior to carrying out photovoice research, I determined that I would not have a
public exhibition of the photos. Instead, a team of researchers from an environmental
protection bureau and I decided to co-write a report that detailed our findings and advo-
cated for appropriate changes to policy and environmental management. We made this
decision to align with China’s context of policymaking, which privileges research reports
internal to the state. Collectively, we identified peri-urban villages to conduct the study
based on the environmental bureau’s involvement in overseeing environmental
6 Qualitative Research 00(0)
management and villagers’ willingness to participate. I conducted preliminary interviews
with villagers in two sites, both individually and with state scientists. These interviews
queried interests of participants and defined initial questions and concerns related to
conservation zoning. At the time cameras were distributed in the fall of 2016, I had con-
ducted interviews and ethnographic fieldwork for over six months over a two-year
period. Participatory research in China remains novel for many government agencies
(Chang et al., 2019). This was the first participatory visual research project for the state
scientists I partnered with. Within this context, state scientists expected participation to
align with rote procedures outlined in cases where the method developed in Southwest
China (Wang and Burris, 1997).
It is crucial to point to several factors related to land-based sustainability projects in
China. Land in China is a socialized asset. Yet, which entities are able to utilize and profit
from land is constitutionally and legally underdefined. This ambiguity shapes the terrain
of engagement between would-be land users. State-led drives for environmental protec-
tion are enrolled in forms of intergovernmental competition for land control, social dis-
placement from rural land, and the uneven inclusion of rural people (Rodenbiker, 2020,
2021). Disputes over land and natural resources are often couched in state-sanctioned
discourses of rights (O’brien and Li, 2006), and, increasingly, forms of media advocacy
(Mertha, 2014), environmental protest (Steinhardt and Wu, 2016), and resigned activism
(Lora-Wainwright, 2017). None of these had yet occurred in the research sites I discuss
in this article. Villagers were being compensated with annual payments for leasing their
rural land for conservation purposes. Many villagers expressed that this as a favorable
arrangement. However, in focus group discussions with villagers and state scientists, it
became evident that some participants did not feel they could fully express themselves.
After a particularly quiet photovoice focus group discussion, several villagers indicated
that they wished to discuss something outside the focus group and without other research-
ers. This prompted me to reflect on omissions and silences within focus group discus-
sions. In the following sections, I discuss reflexive adaptations I undertook to adapt
participatory research methods.
What is said and unsaid
In this section, I contrast verbal expressions in photovoice focus group discussions when
multiple researchers are present with individual one-to-one follow-up interviews. The
juxtaposition between expressive content illustrates features of uneven power relations
embedded within participatory methods. At this site, a treatment wetland was constructed
on villagers’ agricultural land to mitigate non-point source pollutants. State envirnomen-
tal scientists posed questions to villagers about social and economic changes since the
farmland was transformed for conservation purposes. The positive verbal expressions
within the photovoice group discussions contrasted starkly with individual interviews
that followed. To illustrate the difference, I compare a quote from the focus group discus-
sions with content from open-ended interviews.
One participant showed two photos they took within the newly constructed treatment
wetland. One photo exhibited a sign that noted the importance of ‘sacrificing for
Rodenbiker 7
ecology’. The other photo showed a sign that read ‘everyone should pay attention to
hygiene’ (see Figure 1). The participant held up the photos side by side and said:
Our country has put so much investment into improving the environment so the water quality
will meet standards. Previously we (laobaixing) did not have a conscious awareness of this. . .
Since the environmental project began, more than 95 percent of people think that this way is
better. Our minimum environmental hygiene has risen, and at present those people who have
not recognized these improvements are very few. (Feb. 2017)
Statements of approval, such as this one, were isolated to focus group discussions involv-
ing researchers from the enviromental protection bureau. This suggests that, within their
presence, participants felt compelled to express statements of approval – particularly
since, in individual follow-up interviews, verbal expressions were starkly different.
Villagers expressed discontent with uneven environmental management processes and
related socioeconomic inequalities.
In individual follow-up interviews, participants challenged the notion, implicit in the
quote above, that rural people should be sacrificing for environmental protection. Instead,
many participants suggested polluting industries should sacrifice first. They also
expressed discontent with how environmental management roles were organized in the
newly built treatment wetlands. Environmental management within the village was
largely monopolized by a single individual hired by the local government. Participants
characterized this environmental manager as the head of a company with seemingly end-
less ways of drawing in business opportunities (tianya gongsi). As the primary manager,
this person profited from harvesting and selling fish and lotus from the treatment wet-
lands. When wetlands were drained, this environmental manager netted all of the profits
from the sale of lotus and fish. One respondent estimated that a large catch of fish from
Figure 1. Village house with a slogan written reading ‘everyone should pay attention to
hygiene’ on the wall.
Source: This photo was taken by a peri-urban villager, reproduced here with permission, and on file with
the author.
8 Qualitative Research 00(0)
the wetlands was worth 50,000 RMB (~8,000 USD) and the lotus harvest was worth
approximately 100,000 RMB (~16,000 USD). Only a few other villagers were hired to
work as environmental surveyors and garbage collectors by the local government and
were paid 600 RMB (~95 USD) a month.
While participants expressed overwhelming praise for conservation efforts in focus
group discussions with state scientists, in individual follow-up interviews many expressed
what they perceived as newly emerging inequalities related to the limited opportunities
for employment in environmental management and uneven profiteering from natural
resources produced within the treatment wetlands. This discrepancy indicates that within
focus groups, participants refrained from expressing inequalities linked with the conser-
vation project. This may be because state scientists have power to influence who is
employed as environmental managers, which incentivizes a performative level of sup-
port and tacit compliance. The discrepancy may also be related to interpersonal relation-
ships between villagers or the fact that participants may convey the information shared
within the focus group to others. Each possibility concerns the uneven social positional-
ity inherent in focus group discussions.
As a white Mandarin-speaking cisgender male researcher, I was a clear outsider to this
rural community in China. Many participants made it clear that they wished to communi-
cate issues they found problematic with me in hopes that I could share them with interna-
tional research communities and government entities not present during focus group
discussions. I was able to fulfill the latter through research reports that identified forms of
social inequality precipitated by conservation-oriented environmental management. It is
crucial to note that, although I conducted individual interviews in response to the ‘silences’
of focus group discussions, follow-up interviews created new forms of uneven power
relations. Villagers began to view me as a conduit to policymakers. This created new ten-
sions and uneven power relations between my role as a researcher and participants.
Those who had time to meet with me were inevitably those with higher class posi-
tionality within the community – predominantly male – and ambitions to enter into
environmental management positions. Carrying out individual open-ended interviews
conditioned uneven access to the researcher and therefore created novel discrepancies
in whose voices I heard and represented in subsequent research reports. Despite these
new limitations, follow-up interviews also generated meaningful prescriptions for
modifying environmental policies and environmental management. For instance, vil-
lagers proposed including a larger number and more socioeconomically diverse set of
employees, instead of concentrating environmental management opportunities in the
hands of a few. They also stressed that the profits from land-based natural resource
production within the treatment wetlands – built on land allocated to the village –
should be more equitably distributed to members of the village instead of monopolized
by those with managerial power.
Suspended participation
Scheduling photovoice focus group interviews did not pose a significant challenge.
However, participant attendance at initial focus group discussion meetings was sparse.
Calling participants via phone elicited myriad explanations for nonattendance. Some had
Rodenbiker 9
work obligations. Others had moved for temporary jobs. Still others were busy with fam-
ily care responsibilities. Yet, many participants who missed initial meetings did not wish
to withdraw. We rescheduled. Then, after a similar outcome, we rescheduled again. In a
series of subsequent attempts to gather for focus group discussions, many continued to
be unable to attend. But always with compelling and informative reasons. I began to
consider these absences and the reasons noted for nonattendance as a kind of ‘suspended
participation’—a form of (non)participation that elicits ethnographic knowledge.
Charting suspended participation revealed key aspects of villagers’ socioeconomic
transitions and social relationships. Many were unable to come to meetings because of
their obligations as temporary wageworkers. Many participants – particularly women –
were employed in the seasonal agricultural harvest as temporary laborers, which, along-
side household care, are predominantly gendered forms of labor in rural China (Wu and
Ye, 2016). I followed up individually with each participant via phone and learned about
other social commitments and work demands that prevented them from attending focus
group discussions. Tracing forms of suspended participation revealed transitions in labor
processes and gendered labor relations that contributed to new lines of inquiry for subse-
quent focus group discussions and open-ended interviews.
Following up on forms of suspended participation prompted new insights into the
social effects of environmental management. Follow-up interviews and phone calls pro-
vided insights into the daily lives of people moving across sectors of employment due to
the loss of access to farmland. Some moved from agrarian production to other agrarian
sectors. Others began temporary waged employment. Still others became day laborers.
Some participants noted that the land rents associated with the conservation area land
lease provided socioeconomic stability and flexibility to try new economic endeavors.
Milne (2012) has illustrated how forms of nonparticipation and alternative participation
should be considered integral to ethically sensitive research. In contrast with Milne’s study
where (non)participation reflected a conscious refusal to produce images that may repro-
duce societal norms associated with marginalized communities, the case of villagers’ sus-
pended participation illustrated crucial shifts in place-based and gendered labor relations.
In the following section, I turn to other forms of reflexive adaptation to (non)participation,
including delayed refusal to participate in photovoice focus group discussions followed by
open-ended interviews, which shed light on uneven social positionality, questions of access
and social needs related to conservation projects.
Delayed refusals and open-ended interviews
In this section, I highlight a case where a participant agreed to join photovoice focus
group interviews, but later expressed a preference for open-ended interviews. Upon
meeting to collect the camera, the participant explained that they decided not to take
photos. The context surrounding their reticence to participate became clear in a series of
follow-up interviews. The participant had relied on farming and still needed to grow
food for sustenance. But the participant no longer had access to agricultural land, which
was zoned for conservation. The participant’s children provided minimal support.
Elderly subsidies from the government and low-income state subsidies (dibao) were
hardly enough to get by. The participant started growing in the open tracts of land
10 Qualitative Research 00(0)
within the ecological protection area, essentially guerrilla gardening to supplement their
diet. Their guerrilla agricultural plots were removed multiple times by environmental
surveyors. Despite this, the participant continued to grow vegetables in the interstitial
spaces of the conservation area out of necessity.
Mitchell (2019) details the risks inherent in producing images for visual participatory
research. This includes risks to individuals producing images. There is a potential that
the images may negatively affect the image-maker, contribute to their vulnerability, or
promote interventions against their own interests. For this participant, a delayed refusal
was influenced in part by past experiences with enforcement of environmental policies
that impinged on subsistence agricultural practices. In order to meet basic needs, the
participant transgressed new environmental protection policies. In addition to growing
vegetables in the conservation area, the participant collected scraps from rural-themed
restaurants (nongjiale) that cater to urban tourists within the conservation area, dried
them and ground them into powder for chicken feed. Delayed refusal was a way to safe-
guard against exposure to risk. I highlight it here to bring attention to how images pro-
duced through visual methods may engender new vulnerabilities.
Importantly, open-ended interviews highlighted how environmental managers’ enforce-
ment of conservation policies created additional hardships for those with acute socioeco-
nomic need. The methodological adaptation of conducting open-ended interviews allowed
the participant to voice needs without image creation. Open-ended interviews illustrated
the inadequacy of the social welfare systems for villagers whose land-use rights have been
revoked for conservation purposes. They also highlighted productive strategies without
access to land and how subsistence strategies are constituted in relation to the waste prod-
ucts of conservation-based tourism. Additionally, open-ended interviews elucidated une-
ven relations of power in environmental management practices. Instances such as this
prompted me to continue to adapt visual participatory methods by individualizing photo-
voice interviews across a broader range of participants.
From focus group discussions to individual interviews
Individualizing photovoice interviews can be thought of as a form of photo elicitation
(Harper, 2002), wherein the interviewee produces photos with the express purpose of
discussing their significance in an individual interview context. In this section, I consider
examples from individualized photovoice interviews and reflect on what they revealed
about the social and economic effects of conservation projects.
In one example, a participant highlighted several photos they took of an industrial
dairy farm recently built within the area zoned for conservation (see Figure 2). In the
discussion, the participant noted that conservation mandates prohibited animal rearing
and agricultural production within conservation area boundaries. Despite this, those with
high-level roles in environmental management were able to operate an industrial dairy
enterprise within the conservation area. Accounts from individualized photovoice inter-
views, such as this, illustrated the unevenness in environmental governance oversight.
Additionally, the account pointed to alliances formed between corporate entities and
environmental managers.
Rodenbiker 11
A different participant in an individualized photovoice interviews explained how they
considered the newly made ecological area to be a ‘privatization of rural land’. The par-
ticipant held up several photos they took of different businesses operating within the
ecological protection area saying:
This is their big hotel. . .built by a national investment corporation, which is nominally saying
it is protecting the environment. In order to build this, they say they have to remove us. But they
come again and build these structures, rent them out, and open these big restaurants. It’s totally
irrational.
In this interview, the participant used photographic images as a starting point to express
how companies tasked with environmental management are profiting from newly made
conservation land in ways that villagers are excluded from.
Another participant in an individualized photovoice interview took out several photos
of village houses and discussed how their village was demarcated as a ‘slum improve-
ment’ (penghuqu gaizao) project when it was incorporated into a conservation area (see
Figure 3). The participant pointed to several photos of houses in the village and described
how they felt about the village being designated a ‘slum’:
Now on their exhibition boards, our village is marked as a slum improvement project. This
means that they would call a village as beautiful as this one, with beautiful homes, a slum. What
is a slum? Real slums are crowded areas. They have houses made out of temporary materials. . .
They are in danger of fires. That is a slum. . . But now our village flies under this flag as
well. . . Look at these good houses here in this photo. We do not live in a slum. Calling this
village a slum is just an excuse to make us move.
Figure 2. A dairy production facility that is located within the boundaries of an ecological
protection area.
Source: This photo was taken by a peri-urban villager, reproduced here with permission, and on file with
the author.
12 Qualitative Research 00(0)
These excerpts from individualized photovoice interviews provide a sense of socioeco-
nomic exclusion and state-corporate alliances within conservation projects.
Individualizing photovoice interviews brought attention to relationships between envi-
ronmental managers and corporate entities that contravened environmental policies.
Such findings are crucial to understanding the political economic dynamics surrounding
environmental policy, rural displacement, and socioeconomic exclusion. Adapting
research methods in this way offered opportunities for participants to communicate indi-
vidually where they felt more secure than focus group discussions. In the next section, I
turn to technologies of image-making, surveillance, and digital worlds.
Digital versus analogue
Prins (2010), drawing on Foucauldian insights on the operation of power, has argued that
studies often romanticize the liberatory potential of visual participatory methods and
neglect the ways participatory research – participatory photography in particular – serves
as a surveillance mechanism. I would extend this argument to digital image making and
online sharing. Digital image making and online platforms for sharing images and text are
common. In China, the popular application WeChat allows people to interface via chat
boards similar to Facebook and SMS messaging services, which may be more familiar in
the West. WeChat is the most widely used application in China (Lien and Cao, 2014).
Online platforms and digital devices are attractive for the ease with which participants can
share images and text. With the ubiquitous use of cell phones in China (Oreglia, 2014),
making use of digital platforms could simplify many research processes. For instance,
sharing images and curating collective discussion could be facilitated by creating an online
WeChat group. Online discussions enable interlocution beyond the biophysical and tempo-
ral limitations commonly experienced during field-based research. Similarly, the use of
Figure 3. Village house with electric power line and motorbike in front.
Source: This photo was taken by a peri-urban villager, reproduced here with permission, and on file with
the author.
Rodenbiker 13
digital cameras could simply entail delivering and exchanging memory cards with partici-
pants. However, both digital platforms raise concerns surrounding anonymity and loca-
tional tracking technologies.
Depending on the context of research, the consequences of utilizing such technologies
may outweigh the convenience. All information – images, comments, and locations –
shared in online platforms, such as WeChat, would be available to the application adminis-
trators. Additionally, any information shared could be made available to outside parties or
indiscriminately shared by participants. The reproducibility and shareability of the infor-
mation through the application makes it nearly impossible to ensure that content created by
participants remains within the confines of the group forum. Furthermore, online platforms
in much of the West are subject to market-oriented surveillance technologies that would, at
the very least, compromise data shared by participants and commodify personal data for
sale to third parties (Zuboff, 2019). Across contexts, cameras and phones are equipped with
GPS tracking technology that record time and location stamps on the images, which may
reveal identifiable information to parties beyond the researcher(s) and participant(s).
In addition to concerns over anonymity, digital discussions happen within virtual
space. Interactions between participants within a digital realm are significantly different
than biophysically-spatially-coterminous interlocution (Hine, 2000; Pink et al., 2016).
Participants’ real-time discussion can further develop themes surrounding shared experi-
ences. This is exemplified below in a two-person dialogic exchange during a photovoice
interview. ‘Participant 1’ held up a photo of a newly made treatment wetlands in a con-
servation area (see Figure 4) and said:
Participant 1: This environment is good, but it is not so good for us farmers.
[Pause]
Participant 2: Yeah, now we have no income and no way to make money. Families with elderly
people need to go out and do manual labor every day.
P1: That’s right. Without land everyone is reliant on themselves to figure out what to do. If you
don’t do manual labor, the little bit of money they gave you [for land compensation] will be
used up quickly.
P2: [Compensation] is not enough even for smoking, not to mention eating. [Shared Laughter]
P1: Don’t even mention if you end up getting sick.
The real-time call-and-response interlocution between these two participants was key to
developing a sense of shared experiences and socioeconomic hardship stemming from low
levels of compensation and inadequate health care services. They collectively identified
shared experiences of low compensation, transitions in labor, and inadequate health insur-
ance for rural people. Real-time discussions, such as this, can provide a sense of partici-
pants’ collective challenges and shared needs. If researchers choose digital platforms for
image sharing or discussion, it is imperative to inform participants about the risks of digital
surveillance and take precautions to mitigate such risks.
14 Qualitative Research 00(0)
Discussion and conclusion
In this article, I have brought insights from critical accounts of visual participatory
methods and my own methodological adaptations to bear on conservation-based envi-
ronmental management. My reflexive approaches to visual participatory methods
included attention to ethnographic moments of refusal, suspended participation, fol-
low-up open-ended interviews, and individualized interviews with and without photos.
What I learned during standard photovoice focus groups sampling and discussion pro-
vided a limited sense of environmental governance relations, villagers’ experiences
and their socioeconomic needs. Triangulating between reflexive methodological adap-
tations was crucial to developing a broader understanding of participants’ needs, con-
cerns, and lived experiences.
In advocating for reflexive approaches to participatory methods, I bring attention to
the need for a critical reflexivity (Foley, 2002), which is apropos calls to decolonize
research methods (Kindon, 2016; Milne, 2016; Switzer, 2018) and practices of environ-
mental management (Adams and Mulligan, 2003). Reflexive approaches to participatory
research recognize that the interactions between researcher and participants inevitably
shape the content of qualitative data. Reflexive approaches to methods are open to aber-
rations and altered forms of participation. Additionally, they are open to shifting dialogic
processes in response to uneven positionalities and recognition of self-silencing.
Adopting reflexive approaches to participatory research can allow for forms of interlocu-
tion that would otherwise elide standard methodological procedures. As such, they con-
stitute a crucial opportunity to account for social dynamics in environmental management
and sustainability practice that other research methods neglect or obscure.
Working toward greater reflexivity entails that researchers maintain iterative
approaches to methods as process. This includes reflexive attention to recruitment,
moments of refusal, and diverse forms of interlocution with (non)participants on terms
Figure 4. An artificial treatment wetland within an ecological protection area.
Source: This photo was taken by a peri-urban villager, reproduced here with permission, and on file with
the author.
Rodenbiker 15
they define. As illustrated through examples above, reflexive adaptations offer critical
lenses into embedded social relations, localized needs, and socioeconomic inequalities.
Reflexive adaptations to method and alternative forms of participation can provide plat-
forms for participants to voice a wider range of concerns and experiences thereby
increasing the range and scope of inquiry. Attention to the power-laden processes of
conducting research can broaden understandings of and accounting for what is said with
the aid of visual images in focus group discussions and what elides the production of the
image and the domain of focus group discussions. Cultivating this critical attention
makes room for a wider array of voices and forms of participation.
Reflexive approaches to methods detailed in this paper shed light on ways that prac-
tices of environmental management intersect with uneven access to and displacement
from land, exclusion from opportunities to participate in environmental management,
inadequate social services, and partnerships between environmental managers and corpo-
rations that contravene state environmental policies. For researchers and sustainability
practitioners, reflexive approaches to methods, such as these, can provide a more complex
understanding of social, political, and economic dynamics, as well as insights into how
environmental management programs are being put into practice and with what effects.
Augmenting research praxis in these ways requires critical attention to the actions, embod-
ied meanings, and personal linkages between researcher(s) and participant(s) (Brotman
et al., 2019; England, 1994, Serra Undurraga, 2019). In this sense, reflexive approaches to
research methods are crucial to socially just sustainability practices.
Critically assessing and adapting approaches to methods can yield insights into the
social effects of environmental management. However, it is imperative to recognize that
adapting participatory methods may not only reveal uneven social arrangements, silences,
omissions, and hierarchies of power – but also produce them anew. The standard ethical
dilemmas of conducting research – including but not limited to recruitment, representa-
tion, participation, and advocacy – remain. These issues are inherent to the research
process and are not simply ameliorated by reflexive adaptation. In fact, reflexive adapta-
tions demand additional considerations. If methodological adaptations include individu-
alizing interviews in addition to focus group discussions, power imbalances between
researcher(s) and participant(s) will be reconstituted in novel ways. With the individuali-
zation of participation, those with more time, social status, and vested interests in shap-
ing the research findings are more likely to participate. Otherwise ‘hidden agendas’ may
come to the fore. As such, elite or otherwise differentiated intra-community interests
may be given prominence in the data collected during research. For instance, a partici-
pant may misrepresent another actor’s engagements in environmental management
intentionally, through hyperbole, or otherwise frame key problems in ways that privilege
their own interests or those of a particular group within the community.
Therefore, researchers should not only consider the aims and purposes of the study, as
well as the social and political context, but also the ways in which adapting participatory
methods may produce new forms of social exclusion, as well as inter- and intra-community
divisions. Attention is required to new forms of uneven participation that may arise from
reflexive methodological adaptations, particularly to how social positionality – such as
class, gender, or race – shape who is participating and how.
16 Qualitative Research 00(0)
Author’s Note
I presented an earlier version of this article at the 2018 American Association of Geographers
Conference panel Peri-Urban China: Conducting and Coping with Fieldwork Research Challenges.
Acknowledgements
I thank the AAG panel organizer Mi Shih and conference participants for their valuable comments,
as well as the UC Berkeley Institute for East Asian Studies Haas Junior Scholars in the Placing
Asia cohort for comments on an earlier draft. I also thank Wendy Wolford for mentorship in
research methodology. Anonymous reviewers provided helpful comments for improving the man-
uscript. Finally, I am deeply grateful to all who participated in this research.
Disclosure
The author reports no conflict of interest. The author alone is responsible for the content and writ-
ing of the paper.
Funding
The author disclosed receipt of the following financial support for the research, authorship, and/or
publication of this article: This research benefitted from grant and fellowship support from Fulbright-
Hays DDRA, Social Science Research Council, Chiang-Ching Kuo Foundation for International
Scholarly Exchange, Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley Center for Chinese Studies,
Confucius China Studies Program, and the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability.
ORCID iD
Jesse Rodenbiker https://orcid.org/0000-0002-6889-4958
Note
1. In adopting reflexive adaptations to research methods, it is imperative to maintain the ethi-
cal standards of informed consent according to Institutional Review Board protocols. Most
importantly, researchers must consider the safety and security of interlocutors. I use the term
‘participant’ throughout this paper instead of pseudonyms. Additionally, I maintain anonym-
ity of research sites.
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Author biography
Jesse Rodenbiker is a Cornell Atkinson Postdoctoral Fellow in Sustainability with the Department
of Natural Resources and the Environment at Cornell University, as well as Visiting Assistant
Professor in the Department of Geography at Rutgers University-New Brunswick. He holds a
doctorate in Geography from the University of California, Berkeley. His recent research articles
appear in Geoforum, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, and Annals of the
American Association of Geographers.
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
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