A Critical Analysis of Participation and Empowerment in Community Development: An Ethnographic Case Study from Chiapas, Mexico


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Virginia Tech


Participatory approaches to international and community development have gained significant popularity, and are commonly held to be intrinsically empowering processes. In the context of development, both participation and empowerment were borne of radical claims and democratizing goals, but over time, both concepts have been confused and misappropriated. The popularity of the terms participation and empowerment, coupled with the ambiguity of their meanings, illustrates a symptom of their co-optation away from their radical and political roots. This ethnographic case study explored the mechanics of the participatory approach and claims of empowerment within the experience of a non-governmental organization based in Chiapas, Mexico. This study aimed to investigate the linkages between participation and empowerment, in their original radical and theoretical forms, as well as in practice—addressing questions of whether and how participation may lead to empowerment. The organization's endeavors to create space for participatory learning for critical consciousness and self-sufficiency, as understood through 30 semi-structured interviews and three months of participant observation, provided insight into these questions and their conceptual underpinnings. I analyzed data by drawing upon Freirean critical pedagogy, critical theory, and theories of participation and participatory learning. Findings examine the influence of clientelism, Catholic liberation theology, and the Zapatista uprising on the ways rural campesinos develop critical consciousness and organize to dismantle systems of oppression. Findings illustrate examples of interactive participation and self-mobilization. The study serves to demonstrate the importance of cultural and historical contexts, and of solidarity and downward accountability within the praxis of participation and empowerment.



Participation, Empowerment, Community Development, Participatory Learning, Critical Consciousness, Critical Ethnography