Many papers in the recent literature on participatory approaches emphasize the need to take better account of the complexity of the social contexts in which they are conducted. Without attention to power asymmetries, there is a risk that the most powerful stakeholders will have greater influence on the outcomes of the participatory process than marginalized stakeholders. However, very few authors address the question of how to deal with such power asymmetries. This question puts designers of participatory processes in a dilemma. On the one hand, if they claim a neutral posture, they are accused of being naively manipulated by the most powerful stakeholders and of increasing initial power asymmetries; but, on the other hand, if they adopt a nonneutral posture and decide to empower some particular stakeholders, their legitimacy to do so is questioned. We test a particular posture to overcome this dilemma: that is, a “critical companion” posture, which strategically deals with power asymmetries to avoid increasing initial power asymmetries, and which suggests that designers should make explicit their assumptions and objectives regarding the social context so that local stakeholders can choose to accept them as legitimate or to reject them. Legitimacy is seen as the product of a coconstruction process between the designers and the participants. This posture was tested in the context of a participatory process conducted in northern Thailand to address a conflict between the creation of a national park and two local communities. While we show that this posture makes it possible for designers to be both strategic and legitimate at the same time, it also raises new questions and new dilemmas. Can we, and should we, really make all our assumptions explicit? How can we deal with stakeholders who refuse to engage in any form of dialog? We conclude that there is no “right” posture to adopt, but that designers need to be more reflexive about their own postures.
- social-ecological systems
- natural-resource management