Working Paper

Poverty Research: Methodologies, Mindsets and Multidimensionality

Published on 1 January 2007

After defining key words and listing biases and limitations, this paper seeks to explore linkages between methodologies, mindsets, concepts and perceptions in research on poverty. Risking caricature, three streams, syndromes or paradigms are described: first, reductionist – standardised, non-contextual and quantitative, associated with questionnaire surveys, income-poverty, poverty lines and economic analysis; second, particularistic – idiosyncratic, qualitative and contextual, associated with participant observation, ideas about poverty in cultures and communities and anthropological analysis; and third, participatory – pluralist, interactive and multidimensional, associated with facilitation of poor people’s own analysis, and pioneered by a growing number of innovators.

Three approaches to the multidimensionality of poverty have been multidisciplinary teams, composite indicators, and mixed methods. Complementing these, participatory methodologies go further into new ground. In the past decade and a half they have exploded with creative diversity, not least with participatory poverty assessments, methodological innovations for research, face-to-face experiential learning, and local people’s own research. The contrasting mindsets of economics, anthropology and participatory pluralism are reflected in and reinforced by their different forms of representation. The multidimensional nature and linkages of poverty and illbeing can be represented by nets and webs.

Participatory methodologies repeatedly surprise, and reveal and illuminate relatively neglected dimensions of poverty and illbeing like seasonality, the places of the poor, the importance of the body, and how these and others interlock. With participatorypluralism, methods can be invented and evolved to fit specific topics. Lessons learnt include the need for enough time for trials and piloting; the critical importance of selection, training and mentoring of facilitators; and how behaviour, attitudes, ethics and quality are linked. Participatory pluralism is part of a quiet methodological revolution that has passed largely unnoticed in disciplinary mainstreams. It is blocked by embedded professional


Robert Chambers

Research Associate

Publication details

published by
Chambers, R.
IDS Working Paper, issue 293
1 85864 668 5


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