Sustainability Science

, Volume 13, Issue 3, pp 879–893 | Cite as

Power in participatory processes: reflections from multi-stakeholder workshops in the Horn of Africa

  • J. Michael Denney
  • Paul Michael Case
  • Alexander Metzger
  • Maria Ivanova
  • Araya Asfaw
Overview Article
Part of the following topical collections:
  1. Special Feature: Sustainability Science for Meeting Africa's Challenges


The sustainability science literature views the participation of local stakeholders as a necessary element for both conducting transdisciplinary research and implementing sustainable development projects. However, there is very little critical reflection on how power dynamics between researchers and local stakeholders affect the success of participatory processes. This article draws on the critical tradition of political science and sociology to examine how power dynamics are inherent to, and should always be a concern during, participatory processes. This also applies for sustainability science research and the implementation of sustainable development projects, especially in developing contexts such as those of Africa. While local participation enhances the voices of local stakeholders, power dynamics between them and the researchers driving these processes can dampen local voices or elide critical pieces of information. Using evidence from participatory workshops in Djibouti and Kenya, we demonstrate that these power dynamics can unintentionally exclude critical knowledge and perspectives from the formal proceedings of participatory workshops, despite an express focus on stakeholder inclusion and participatory methods. Using Steven Lukes’ tripartite conception of power, we elicit how the workshop structure and the actions of researchers as the designers and facilitators of the workshop may have prevented the emergence of this critical information. The central argument is that reflecting on power will help researchers and practitioners identify the power dynamics inherent in the participatory processes so they can work to overcome them. Such self-reflection can strengthen sustainability science and practice in African and other contexts.


Participation International development Power Critical theory Concept mapping 


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Copyright information

© Springer Japan KK, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • J. Michael Denney
    • 1
  • Paul Michael Case
    • 1
  • Alexander Metzger
    • 1
  • Maria Ivanova
    • 1
  • Araya Asfaw
    • 2
  1. 1.University of Massachusetts BostonBostonUSA
  2. 2.Addis Ababa UniversityAddis AbabaEthiopia

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