This article analyses how neoliberal restructuring encouraged the use of participatory methods in agricultural research in Bolivia and how, at a later stage, participatory development initiatives had to be adapted to prevent conflicts with the post-neoliberal views of farmer organizations. The article contributes to the debate on the normalization of participatory methods in agrarian development. Engaging with Foucault's work on governmentality and neoliberalism, our analysis goes beyond interpretations of participation which conceptualize it exclusively as a technology of power to discipline subjects. Drawing on a distinction between a liberal and a neoliberal moment in the restructuring of agricultural research, we study the case of PROINPA (Foundation for the Promotion and Research of Andean Products), a national NGO that was once part of the state system for agricultural research but was then privatized. Although PROINPA employed participation mainly to enhance managerial effectiveness, it also facilitated moments of participation from below. We argue that participation designed by this type of NGO is not just ‘technical’ as PROINPA professionals would like to perceive it, nor is it simply ‘political’ as critical views on participation hold. Instead it is malleable in the sense that each actor is involved in finding a new balance between technical, economic and political considerations.