It is argued here that development studies tend to ignore the ways in which external interventions become embedded within existing fields of power and are influenced by past experiences. This explains to a large extent the failure of many so-called 'participatory' programmes. Crucial changes introduced by the Mexican Agrarian Law in 1992 are examined, with particular reference to the impact and grassroots perception of new 'participatory' styles of government intervention. The latter process is illustrated by means of peasant-state interaction on an ejido in Jalisco, where 'local participation' that is central to government programmes 'imposed from above' reinforces stereotypes such as the 'corrupt', 'ignorant' official and the 'lazy', 'distrustful' peasant. Accordingly, encounters between state officials and smallholding peasants in the ejido display a combination of trust/distrust and cooperation/resistance.