Q methodology among smallholders

Challenges and best practices of a participatory approach

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Smallholder farming is a backbone of millions of livelihoods in the Global South. It provides up to 80% of the food demanded in Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia while scarcely occupying 12% of the global farmland. About 1.5 billion deeply poor households—especially those located in rural areas—depend directly on smallholder agriculture. Stimulating its sustainable intensification is thus of utmost importance in the fulfilment of SDG 2: Zero Hunger and SDG 1: No poverty. Despite decades of (top-down) scientific research, technology transfer and international aid, effective development of this sector remains a summit hard to reach. Profound heterogeneity of smallholder farming systems exacerbates the challenges of this endeavor. Their intricate differences does not only make a single, ultimate development model impractical/impossible, but ignoring them leads us to biases that result in leaving the most disadvantaged out.

We argue that well facilitated participatory research is a sounder way to understand, and hence to act. First, it enables a bottom-up, co-creative process of mutual generation of knowledge together with relevant stakeholders. Second, it gives voice to the (generally) voiceless, therefore turning into a more inclusive and empowering exercise. We resorted to Q-methodology—a powerful qualiquantological participatory method—to explore smallholder adoption of sustainable irrigation technologies in Nepal and Indonesia. We interviewed 19 farmers and 24 experts about the uptake of a hydro-powered water pump commercially known as the Barsha pump. Through this research technique, we found three different viewpoints that placed themselves beyond typical social constructs of smallholder farming (e.g. country, land size). This deeper understanding may become an enabler for a more context-sensitive transfer of farming technology. On the flipside, the implementation of Q methodology in low-resource (rural) settings still poses a number of underreported challenges that are worth discussing, especially in light of big shocks such as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. We therefore raise questions such as, which good practices facilitate the application of Q methodology in low-resource settings? How to empower local researchers with a method that remains ‘property’ of developed countries? How to democratize the tools to allow people to learn better about themselves?