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DEV's Laura Camfield has co-edited a book titled: Mixed Methods Research on Poverty and Vulnerability. Neil Dawson describes its timely contribution

Mixed Methods Research in Poverty and Vulnerability. Sharing ideas and learning lessons

 

Declaring war on poverty, in all forms, everywhere

The ways in which we define, assess and attempt to combat poverty are still subjects of debate, and are in need of refinement to successfully eradicate poverty. Ongoing disagreement about definitions of and targets for child poverty in the UK has highlighted just how limited political understanding can be regarding what constitutes poverty and what should be done about it. These issues are now under the global spotlight with the inception of the dauntingly ambitious sustainable development goals (SDGs), which target the eradication of all forms of poverty, everywhere in the next 15 years.

 

Just when it is needed, help is at hand  

A new book highlighting the contribution of mixed methods (combining qualitative and quantitative research) to address issues of poverty and vulnerability therefore provides a very timely contribution for researchers, practitioners and policymakers as to how we understand and seek to alleviate these complex problems. Edited by Keetie Roelen from the Institute for Development Studies and Laura Camfield from UEA’s School of International Development Anglia, the book (to be launched on 14th October) contains nine contributions which clearly and accessibly share experiences from mixed methods studies in Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Chad, Colombia, Ethiopia, Malawi, Rwanda and the UK.

 

Keep it simple or tackle complexity head on?

Experimentation with different combinations of qualitative and quantitative research has led to refinement and advancement of mixed methods research. The advantages of such approaches in addressing the complexities of poverty are clearly presented in the book. For example it is pointed out that people’s trajectories, in income or wellbeing, and their pathways out of poverty are almost always non-linear. People’s lives are impacted by many factors and in various ways, through income, health, their relationships and levels of freedom. And all of these strands of a person’s life are interlinked. These intricacies make assessing the causes of change very difficult to determine statistically:  deliberately reducing complexity into a closed model with a few selected variables (as commonly-used poverty measures often do) serves only to obscure important facets of both the problems and potential solutions. Several examples are provided where positive policy impacts claimed through simplistic development targets are dramatically removed from the lived experiences of the subjects of those policies. In my own contribution I explain such a contradiction in Rwanda, one of the forerunners in Sub-Saharan Africa for meeting MDGs, but where mixed methods research adapted to the local context reveals that ‘development’ appears to have occurred to the detriment of some of the very people who are deemed to have become less poor. In order to reconcile such contradictions and avoid such oversight McGregor, Camfield and Coulthard argue that wellbeing, involving subjective lived experiences and relationships as well as material quality of life has great value as a measure of development. And to accommodate this different way of thinking about poverty, Copestake and Remnant suggest in their chapter that ‘credible causation’ may be a more useful aim of impact evaluation than statistical certainty.

But rather than simply advocating for more use of mixed methods, the book provides numerous examples from a variety of contexts detailing precisely how different methods have been combined and integrated (all too often different methods form different ‘work packages’ as part of research projects, with strategies of integration being an afterthought!) The authors detail innovative, state-of-the-art approaches taken to poverty measurement and impact evaluation.

Picture: Two young Rwandans who may hope to gain from the latest global push to eradicate poverty

Why best practice hasn’t become common practice

Although the added value of mixed methods research for human development is now widely acknowledged among governments, donors and international NGOs, their practical use has lagged behind. The chapters in this volume specifically address the challenges which serve to exclude mixed methods from mainstream use, specifically: issues relating to the credibility of research, particularly perceptions of how valid and generalisable the results of more qualitative research are, and maximising the potential usability of mixed methods research for policy purposes. The reflection on the translation of research results to policy implications add an extra dimension to the various case studies. For example Copestake and Remnant describe protocols designed for mixed method impact evaluations, specifically targeting practical and cost-effective implementation by budget-restricted NGOs.

This collection of works adds considerably to the momentum behind mixed methods in development research. Their application is relevant to fields of economics, social policies, environmental problems, migration, urban and rural contexts. Indeed each of these fields and more are included within the newly-hatched SDGs: 17 wishes and 169 goals which set the bar stratospherically high without actually providing a guide for how to get there. If their relatively simple predecessors the Millennium Development Goals (though certainly inspiring progress) were hindered by difficulties in assessment, the complexity involved in tracking and pursuing the interrelated SDGs is an overwhelming challenge. It will be fascinating to see the contribution which mixed methods research plays in trying to define, measure and achieve these worthy targets over the next 15 years.

Neil Dawson