Who counts? the quiet revolution of participation and numbers

Chambers, R.
Publication year: 

Participatory approaches and methods can generate quantitative as well as qualitative data. Mainly since the early 1990s, a quiet tide of innovation has developed a rich range of participatory ways, many of them visual and tangible, by which local people themselves produce numbers. The approaches and methods have variously entailed counting, mapping, measuring, estimating, valuing and scoring, and scaling, together with comparing and combinations of these, and have had many applications.

The methodological pioneers in going to scale in the 1990s rarely recognised the significance of what they had been doing. The pioneers of the 2000s have shown ingenuity, skill, patience and courage, sometimes in the face of opposition driven by conventional reflexes. Participatory numbers have been taken to scale most notably through participatory surveys with visuals and tangibles, through aggregation from focus groups and through wealth and wellbeing ranking. There have been breakthroughs in producing national statistics, and also on subjects and with insights inaccessible through questionnaires.

Statistical principles can be applied to participatory numbers. Ways have been found of overcoming the vexing problem of commensurability between communities. As with all ways of finding out, there are trade-offs, in this context notably between participatory open-endedness and standardisation for comparability.

The question 'who counts' - raises issues of ownership and power. Participatory Monitoring and Evaluation (PM and E) has taken many forms, with varied degrees of ownership and empowerment. Whether participatory statistics empower local people is sensitive to official attitudes and acceptance and whether these lead to changes in policy and practice that make a real difference.  Questions are raised of the mix and balance of extraction and empowerment, and whether and how the quiet revolution of participatory approaches and methods can get the best of both qualitative and quantitative worlds.

Source publication information
IDS working paper no. 296
43 p.
IDS, University of Sussex, Brighton, BN1 9RE, UK
Brighton, UK
Publisher reference: 
Institute of Development Studies