Stakeholder engagement primer: 2. Identifying stakeholders

By Gabriele Bammer


How can all those who have something relevant to contribute to a research project be identified? In particular, how can we find those who, through their experience of being affected by or dealing with a problem, can provide:

  • a more comprehensive understanding of the problem
  • ideas about ways to address the problem
  • insights into how the research can best support policy and practice change on the problem in government, business and civil society?

A wide-ranging and inclusive initial process of identifying stakeholders ensures that key individuals and groups are not missed and that the broadest range of knowledge and perspectives is found, for both understanding and acting on the problem. In the identification process it is also important to include stakeholders who disagree with each other and those who hold unpopular views.

The process of identifying stakeholders should not be conflated with the process of selecting those to be invited to participate in the research. It is unlikely that everyone identified can be included in the research, but having a good understanding of the stakeholder landscape can improve the selection process.

Four approaches to identifying stakeholders are presented and can be used separately or in combination. They have different starting points and seek to open fresh ways of identifying who might have something to offer the research in understanding and supporting action on the problem. There are overlaps among the approaches.

Approach 1. Interrogating the problem and the research

Asking pertinent questions about the problem and the proposed research is one way to identify a wide range of stakeholders. Such questions include:

  • Which individuals and groups are likely to be affected by the research findings? Who, although not directly affected, may be interested in the results of the research? Is there any stakeholder who should benefit from the research?
  • Is there an Indigenous or local community perspective?
  • Are there government, business or civil society policies emerging or in existence that will be affected by the research? If so, who are the key decision makers and others involved?
  • Who is responsible for making decisions that might affect support for the research or its findings?
  • Who has been or is involved in similar projects?
  • Who is likely to have a negative view of the research? Who is likely to have particular concerns?
  • Who is likely to see the problem in a different way or through the lens of a connected problem?
  • Who is likely to have different values about the problem?
  • Who can cast light on the contextual issues affecting the research, such as the history of the problem and attempts to deal with it, cultural issues, place-related issues or political issues?
  • What should count as expertise?

Approach 2. Using networks

Networks can help identify relevant individuals or groups of stakeholders through three processes: brainstorming, snowball accumulation and promoting the research.

  • Brainstorming can usefully occur with other members of the research team, other academic colleagues, stakeholders who have already been identified, and academics and stakeholders who have worked on similar problems. The process involves rapid-fire contributions with no holding back or self-censoring. This allows everyone to contribute their suggestions. Hearing what others propose can also spark new suggestions about relevant stakeholders.
  • Snowball accumulation is an iterative process where newly identified stakeholders are asked who else should be included, and this process proceeds until no new stakeholders are identified.
  • Promoting the research through social and mainstream media, public talks, talks to stakeholder groups and so on can be used to encourage stakeholders to identify themselves or others as potentially suitable stakeholder participants.

Approach 3. Using a checklist of stakeholder categories

A checklist of relevant categories of stakeholders can be a useful trigger for identifying individuals, groups and representatives. Categories can include:

  • government departments, politicians, policy makers and advisers (local, national, international)
  • other national or international policy makers or policy groups (eg., peak bodies and agencies)
  • non-governmental organisations (NGOs)
  • business and industry
  • local communities
  • affected groups, such as patients, residents, workers in particular occupations
  • landowners and managers
  • professional groups, such as nurses, surveyors, police, veterinarians
  • the media
  • the general public.

It can also be helpful to tabulate information on such stakeholders, as shown in the example below. Identifying what the identified stakeholders would contribute to the research and why they might wish to become involved can also spark ideas about other relevant stakeholders.

A checklist of stakeholder categories, along with what they could contribute and why they might wish to be involved. (Source: Durham et al., 2014, p. 39)

Approach 4. Building a mind map

This involves identifying the major groups of stakeholders who are placed at the centre of the map. Each group is then divided into subgroups, which are mapped progressing outwards, with greater degrees of specificity. This is illustrated in the example below.

Example of a mind map of stakeholders for an environmental problem (Source: Durham et al., 2014, p. 45)

Next steps

The critical next step is to select―from all the stakeholders who have been identified―which stakeholders to invite to participate in the research. This is covered in the next blog post.

Furthermore, even a comprehensive attempt to identify stakeholders may miss some who turn out to be crucial. It can therefore be helpful to revisit the stakeholder identification process during the course of a research project, especially if research priorities have changed. The project also needs to be flexible enough in its processes and budget to allow additional stakeholders to be included.

Anything to add?

Particularly welcome are additional processes for identifying stakeholders and lessons from experience.

If you are new to stakeholder engagement, is there anything else on identifying stakeholders that would be useful?

Sources and references:

The main source is the work on stakeholder engagement by Durham and colleagues, from which the four approaches are derived. The first three have been modified. These authors, in turn, drew on the work of others, which is cited in the reference below.

Durham E., Baker H., Smith M., Moore E. and Morgan V. (2014). BiodivERsA Stakeholder Engagement Handbook. ERA-NET BiodivERsA: Paris, France. (Online – open access):

Biography: Gabriele Bammer PhD is Professor of Integration and Implementation Sciences (i2S) at the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health at The Australian National University in Canberra. She is also a member of blog partner PopulationHealthXchange.

The Stakeholder Engagement Primer comprises the following blog posts:


  1. a. Why a primer? b. Defining stakeholders (October 14, 2021)

This blog post:

  1. Identifying stakeholders (October 21, 2021)

Still to come:

  1. Selecting stakeholders (October 28, 2021)
  2. Options for engagement (November 4, 2021)
  3. Choosing engagement options (November 11, 2021)
  4. Making engagement effective (November 18, 2021)
  5. Listening and dialogue (November 25, 2021)
  6. Generating ideas and reaching agreement (December 2, 2021)
  7. Evaluating engagement (December 9, 2021)
  8. Advanced skills (December 16, 2021)

17 thoughts on “Stakeholder engagement primer: 2. Identifying stakeholders”

  1. Good day! This work is a great resource for interdisciplinary work being done. Thank you Gabriele for this post. It is very helpful.

    I believe that the language we choose in innovative work, such as this, is of critical importance. Is there perhaps some unconscious bias implicit in the terms ‘selection’ and ‘stakeholder’ that may bring forth ideas of exclusivity? While I agree that the processes of identification (and selection) are important, I do wonder about the term ‘selection’, in general, as being seen as exclusionary. For example, as opposed to selection, perhaps the terms ‘self-selection’; ‘self-identification’; or even ‘self-directed participant or participation’ may serve this framework more effectively. At the same time, this relates to another term that I have had on my mind recently. I wonder about the etymology of ‘stakeholder’ in the interdisciplinary context. A term that is being used more frequently in business and politics, ‘stakeholder’ seems to behold or to imply ‘power over’ dynamics, or to have connotations of pursuits other than for interdisciplinary research and knowledge creation for complex problem-solving. This unintentional framing of participant engagement may be seen or felt as being exclusionary or hierarchical with ulterior motives in play (intentionally selecting only those with similar ways of knowing, for instance), a top-down approach as opposed to a bottom-up process for forming groups of interest in the topic being explored.

    In parallel forms of interdisciplinary research, for example, such as community-based participatory research (CBPR), and contexts of interdisciplinary teaching and learning (e.g. interdisciplinary teaching and learning communities), terms such as ‘inviting interdisciplinary members’; ‘community engagement’; interdisciplinary community’, ‘collaborative community member’; ‘interdisciplinary team member’ are more frequently used in these inclusive forms of research, teaching, and learning. Perhaps ‘participant engagement’ or ‘community engagement’ might be more appropriate in the context of interdisciplinarity. I am interested in how others view the language we choose to use, and thoughts on the use of these terms.

    • Many thanks for raising these points about language. Selection, which is dealt with in Primer #3 ( is probably most appropriate when researchers decide who to invite to join the research. This really is a process of selection or choosing. Research may be organised in other ways, where other verbs would be more appropriate. What is probably most important is that the verb accurately reflects the process.

      Stakeholders is an interesting term, as it started life meaning the opposite to its common meaning now. In a wager for example, the stakeholder was the neutral person who held the stake until the outcome of the wager was determined. There’s a useful discussion in ‘Non-certified experts, stakeholders, practitioners… What participants are called defines transdisciplinarity’ by Antonietta Di Giulio and Rico Defila I wonder if others also see stakeholder as exclusionary, as I don’t see it that way. It’s probably the most widely used general term and apart from “non-certified experts” I can’t find another term that encompasses the full range of people who have something to offer the research.

      Like Colleen, very interested in what others think.

      • Instead of the term ‘stakeholders’, what about the terms: ‘research partners’, ‘collaborative working group members’, or ‘co-researchers’? Do these terms connote more equity (equal or parallel partnerships) within the context of interdisciplinary research, teaching, and learning?

          • Thank you Gabriele for engaging in this conversation to consider expanding language options. Further thoughts I had on the use of language are that having options to choose appropriate language for each case would be a helpful approach to include post-modern research inquiries. I believe this is necessary for inclusion of the many forms of interdisciplinary research being conducted. For instance, in my work, I would prefer alternative terms that clearly indicate to my co-researchers or research partners more of a parallel voice (ie. voice of students as being equal to the voices of teachers, school administrators, and government officials in the context of educational reform) to increase trust and build relationships and remove any perceived power dynamics or power imbalances that may be involved in the work. For me, it is important to elevate the unheard voices and less shared perspectives of those on the margins, in particular.

            Also, ‘recruitment’ is perhaps a word to consider as being more inclusive in some instances to the overall process of ‘identifying, attracting, screening, shortlisting, and interviewing candidates, selecting, and onboarding’ co-researchers, research partners, or research collaborators, in the case of a framework for interdisciplinary research. It is my perspective that these language options would be more workable for community-based research platforms. Thank you for the opportunity to share my thoughts. Looking forward to seeing Primer #4. Enjoy your day!

            • Philosophically speaking, terminology and language are important (see also Habermas, theory of communicative action). Language can be a hinderance or it can help to frame a research project.

              Posed differently: the language of ‘ecosystem’ (which is inclusive and holistic) seems to be incongruent with the language of ‘stakeholders’, that is entangled with other meanings that may implicate power imbalances or unintentional perceived hierarchies. More equitable terms reflect and connote inclusivity, whereas ‘stakeholders’ can imply other meanings. Expanding options for language choice for interdisciplinary researchers seems to be more congruent with the constructs of ecosystem and interdisciplinarity, with implications for both the research team and the research process.

              Based on the concepts of flexibility, fluidity, and agility, which are embedded within the meaning and understanding of interdisciplinarity and interdisciplinary research, perhaps there is a potential spectrum of language that may be used that is dependent on the nature, structure, and intent of the research question or complex research problem. In social and educational research, for example, power is a huge ethical issue of concern, and the researcher must at all times be aware and in-tune with actual and perceived power dynamics. If collaboration is key in interdisciplinary research, empowering the research community to effect their own change, both personal transformation and community impact are often the intent or purpose of the research itself.

              I think that the language chosen by the research group is important because it reflects the position of the researchers in terms of collaborative efforts that eventually frames the research process. Choosing the language we use is an important part of interdisciplinary research throughout the entire process, from conception to action (implementation of findings).

              Would like to hear from others on this discussion. Do you agree that careful selection of language is important in planning, framing, and carrying out interdisciplinary research? How might the language we use create expectations (for disciplinary and/or interdisciplinary outcomes) or expand potentialities in our work while we create a culture of reciprocity?

              • Further rationale for this lens of inclusive language relates to Frodeman’s (2014) ideas of character Vs. method, where he explained that:

                “Skill at interdisciplinary work thus becomes a matter of character rather than methodology … interdisciplinary work requires the development of a set of virtues to a particularly heightened degree. These include the openness to new perspectives, a willingness to admit the inadequacies of one’s own point of view, to be wrong and to play the fool, and generosity in interpreting the position and motives of others. Rhetorical skill [such as the art of speaking and writing effectively] plays as much of a role as logic, as we adjust our diction as well as our standards to the exigencies [a state or character or need that is intrinsic to the circumstance] of the moment … adjustments that issue a successful outcome – or not” (Frodeman, 2014, p. 48).

                The problem that interdisciplinarity seeks to solve is one of “politics, democracy, and technocracy. Interdisciplinarity is the bridge between academic sophists and the rest of society” (Frodeman, 2017, p.7). The understanding here is that there are limits (both political and epistemic) of expertise within the disciplines. Further, Frodeman explained that this “highlight[s] the need for a class of thinkers who are adept at questioning rather than only providing answers, at opening up conversations, and at practicing the translational and transactional skills needed to connect the disciplinary sophistry to the community” (p. 7) without succumbing to the entrenched disciplinary institutionalized cultures.

                Frodeman, R. (2014). Sustainable knowledge: a theory of interdisciplinarity. Palgrave Macmillan. doi: 10.1057/9781137303028

                Frodeman, R. (2017). The Future of Interdisciplinarity, In R. Frodeman, J.T. Klein, & R.C.S. Pacheco, The Oxford Handbook of Interdisciplinarity, Second edition. Oxford University Press.

                • Many thanks for your extensive review of the importance of language in the last three comments. I agree with you in urging researchers to carefully think about the language they use. As well as signalling what to expect from power relationships in the engagement, it is also important that the language accurately conveys what type of engagement is proposed and possible. Researchers are often caught in a bind where they may wish to equalise the power relationships with the stakeholders, but actually do not have adequate funding to allow this to happen. I start to flag some of the issues around power and control in Primer #10.

                  I also draw attention to a blog post by lived-experience researcher Diana Rose, which reminds us that although the researchers may see them as equal, the stakeholders themselves may not: Participatory research and power by Diana Rose

  2. in case folks have not seen this, here is a nice synthesis review of stakeholder engagement approaches at a 30,000 foot level. Not exactly what is being covered in this blog post, but perhaps of interest. Talley, J. L., J. Schneider, and E. Lindquist. 2016. A simplified approach to stakeholder engagement in natural resource management: the Five-Feature Framework. Ecology and Society 21(4):38.

    • Thanks Bethany. Also interested to hear what other references and frameworks people have found helpful. The Talley et al. framework focuses on:

      Clear objectives
      What is the aim of engaging or collaborating with stakeholders for this project?
      Are you able to co-design these objectives with your stakeholders, and can you use that feedback to adjust the objectives as a result?

      Systematic representation
      Who are you engaging, and why?
      How do you know this is the “right” set of stakeholders, and is it possible that relevant stakeholders have been excluded?

      Relevant methodology
      How will you engage stakeholders, and can you find examples of how others have used those methods successfully?
      Do your methods relate to your objectives and accommodate the capabilities of your identified stakeholders?

      How have you created opportunities for co-ownership in the engagement process?
      What kind of balance do you want to strike between directing the process and leaving things open to feedback or change?

      How will you know, during the process, if the engagement is working?
      What opportunities have you created for team members and stakeholders to evaluate the stakeholder process?

  3. In the upcoming publications I will explain how we have identified additional stakeholders using perspectives or hot topics in the media, science, society, collected from researchers and practitioners. It is somewhat similar to the first method of interrogation.

  4. The work of Werner Ulrich is an excellent method also of enabling the researcher to be more holistic in their understanding of stakeholders associated with a messy situation. His 12 questions while probing for much more than the stakeholders identification would I believe be a valuable addition.

    • Thanks Bruce. For those not familiar with Werner Ulrich’s work, a brief overview of critical systems heuristics is available at:, which also has references to the original work. One of the challenges of writing a primer is what to include and what to leave out. I agree that there is a case that this tool should be included. Look forward to hearing what others think – should this be included, could something that’s currently in be left out? This might be easier to answer when the primer is fully published.

  5. I like your comment regarding ‘those who hold unpopular views’ – it is so important to consider this from both the stakeholder group perspective, but also your own. Unconscious bias is ever present. How do researchers define ‘unpopular’ – in relation to what knowns and unknowns about the sample group? Things may be seemingly unpopular on surface value due to (perhaps) perceived social unacceptance, yet these views could be more widely held and not openly discussed. Getting into the depths of this requires a great deal of trust and understanding to be built.

    • Good points – thanks! Stakeholder engagement in itself should help identify and compensate for the unconscious bias in the researcher/s, which is why the processes of identification and selection are important.


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