The Quiet Revolution of Participatory Numbers…

Jane StevensJane_Stevens200

The very mention of statistics used to leave my mouth slightly dry and dredge up memories of unfathomable, confused hours in long-ago college lecture halls willing it all to be over. Mention participatory statistics however and the whole picture changes! Last week I heard more about this innovative approach to generating knowledge using numbers, at an IDS seminar given by Jeremy Holland, editor of the recently published book Who Counts: the power of participatory statistics.

It turns out that this quiet marriage of the qualitative and quantitative has been gently blossoming since the early 1990s, but is only now being considered by the mainstreams of research, monitoring and evaluation. Participatory research has long been established as a credible process that challenges ‘top-down’ approaches to knowledge generation.  By repositioning ownership and control it respects local knowledge and facilitates local ownership whilst also enabling collective reflection and action. The generation of participatory statistics has increasingly been woven into these processes to create what Jeremy describes as a win-win outcome for development. He emphasised how empowering it is for local people to engage in the generation of quantitative data which has traditionally been highly extractive and externally controlled. At the same time this way of working produces reliable, cost-effective statistics rooted in reality for aid and development agencies and donors.

In addition it underpins and validates qualitative insights. We heard an example whereby an over-enthusiastic researcher in a community, looking for an exaggerated outcome to reinforce their own preferences, was kept grounded by the accompanying participatory statistical data.  In this way participatory statistics can ‘rein us in’, and complement, qualify and add to the validity and credibility of qualitative research.

So, what participatory tools can we use to generate statistics?
Many existing methodologies lend themselves to this process: participatory mapping and modelling; proportional piling; card writing, marking, sorting, ordering and positioning; matrix ranking and scoring; pairwise ranking; linkage diagramming and pocket voting. All these, and more, can be combined to provide valuable ways of counting, calculating, measuring, estimating and comparing. Together they can provide rich sets of data, based on local knowledge, community-owned and accessible by all.

And unsurprisingly, where processes are genuine, there are other benefits. The actual process can be as important as the outcomes. In the seminar Jeremy told us how police and youth had come together in Kingston, Jamaica, to analyse the frequency and cyclical nature of violence in their ghetto communities. The process of working together on participatory statistics engendered a greater respect of each other and the shared understanding of positions and issues. Power issues are challenged too, as the question of who counts, who analyses, who interprets and whose narrative matters is addressed.

Work with and on participatory statistics certainly needs to be nuanced: methodologies need to be contextual, and adapt and evolve to suit circumstances. Importantly this way of working offers a world where those in power are more in touch with grass roots realities via locally generated statistics. And, from the context in which I work, one particular benefit stood out in the seminar discussions – participatory statistics can be used to measure qualitative change. This allows aid agencies and donors to embed reflective learning practice into accountability programmes whilst coming up with accurate and credible statistical data. Donor’s goalposts have shifted in recent years and they are increasingly demanding reporting against quantifiable achievements. Could participatory statistics provide a way to satisfy them, whilst not compromising on the complexity of processes and ideals that lead to the transformative social change we all wish to see?

Watch the video-recording of the seminar:

Jane Stevens works as communications officer in the Participation, Power and Social Chang Team at IDS. This blog draws on notes taken at the Seminar and the introduction of the book Who Counts.

Read a previous blog piece by Jane Stevens:

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