Silence and voice in participatory processes - Causes, meanings and implications for empowerment

Michelle Brear

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

7 Citations (Scopus)


The empowerment-related outcomes of participation in development rely on community members contributing intellectually to deliberative processes. However, people are entitled to remain silent. Silence is conceptualized both as a form of resistance and a type of structured self-censorship. In participatory development, these divergent conceptualizations manifest as the incongruent recommendations to 'give voice' and 'tolerate silence'. My aim is to advance understandings of the causes and meanings of silence in participatory development and discuss the implications for deliberative processes. I do this through an interpretive analysis of ethnographic data detailing a process of co-designing participatory action research (PAR) about health, which I facilitated. The analysis is informed by Bourdieu's theory of social power relations and Nussbaum's capabilities approach. The co-researcher participants often remained silent when provided an opportunity to contribute their voices because they were afraid, for example, of getting the wrong answer. The silences frustrated the co-researchers because they valued having a voice. They frustrated me because I expected and needed the co-researchers to contribute their voice to make the research design process participatory. I used a variety of strategies to disrupt silences, which when successful generated lived experiences through which the co-researchers could imagine themselves as important people, with entitlement and competence to speak. The study demonstrates the importance of considering the structural barriers to marginalized people contributing their voices, and incorporating strategies for disrupting marginalized silences into PAR and other participatory development processes.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)349-368
Number of pages20
JournalCommunity Development Journal
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2020

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