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Author:  Knowles, Jenny,
Type: Ph.D. Thesis
Institution: New York University
Year: 2008 ,
Volume: 410 pages; AAT 3308717


Understandings of development require grounding-both in the sense that understandings of the principles underlying participatory development must be held by local and international staff working on the ground, but also grounded in the local culture. This dissertation seeks to close the cognitive gap between international and local perspectives on participation by asking the research question: How do multiple environments interact to create local understandings of participation in international development environments ?

This ten month ethnographic study of a donor program in Cambodia included a mix of interviews, program and historical document analysis, and observations in order to explore the implementation of the participatory development policy through a sensemaking lens. The research draws on three fields of knowledge to make connections across these macro and micro environments: managerial sensemaking and schema literatures, studies related to domestic and international policy implementation, and theoretical conceptualizations of participatory development.

To answer the research question, five ‘socio-cognitive environments’ (SCEs) surrounding the Seila program environment in the country of Cambodia were explored. This theoretical construct helped to disentangle the factors that influenced how one group of local staff negotiated complex cultural and historical realities in juxtaposition to donor conceptualizations of development. The five SCEs documented include the international macro-environment, the Cambodian historical and cultural macro-environments, the more immediate policy environment surrounding the program, and the micro-programmatic environment composed of the program’s internal operations and organizational culture.

By employing the SCE construct, a complex picture emerged of how local mid-level managers, working to implement the program’s participatory mandate, were influenced by their positioning at the confluence of these five socio-cognitive environments, providing new understanding of the forces which promote local staff’s internalization of democratic governance principles. This study suggests that even in program environments with high degrees of cognitive dissonance due to macro-historical factors, and where international development mandates tend to create additional cultural and organizational blockages, micro-programmatic interactions can significantly influence the ability of local staff to surmount strong cognitive obstacles.