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Social Research






Practical, Applied and Purposeful

by Phil Bartle, PhD

Training Handout

Applied social research in aid of empowerment


This document is aimed at the community mobilizer and her or his manager.

Social science research methods in the pure sciences such as Sociology and Anthropology are similar to but different from the methods of applied scientific research used by the mobilizer or management trainer. Keeping the social perspective is essential to both kinds, and the results of pure research can be valuable to the applied scientist.

The mobilizer in the field, however, needs to employ methods appropriate to her or his aims and objectives, the empowerment of communities and the capacity development of organizations.

Applied Social Science:

It is useful to divide sciences between pure and applied. Pure science seeks to see how things work. Applied science seeks to make some practical use out of knowledge. While chemistry is a pure science, chemical engineering is an applied science. The empowerment of communities and the development of capacity within organizations are two examples of applied social sciences.

While mobilization, empowerment, capacity development and management training are all applied social science, they are not the same thing as social engineering.

The distinction between pure and applied affects how scientific research is conducted.

Within pure science research, Anthropology commonly employs participant observation. In that method, the anthropologist goes to live with a community where the culture is different from that of her or his birth, learns language and customs, and reports on the culture of that exotic society. Participant observation (as in Anthropology) is time consuming. It would not be a practical method of research for the mobilizer who has limited time to obtain results in a community.

Sociology, in contrast, commonly relies on quantitative interview surveys. A quantitative social survey (as in Sociology) is formal and perhaps a bit stiff. That formality often will affect how informants answer questions. A survey emphasizes opinions of the respondents. A survey does not lend itself to discovering how a community, or any social institution, operates on the ground.

These are only a few common examples. In general, the methods of research in the pure sciences are not appropriate or easily applicable to applied science (ie mobilization, management, empowerment). The results of pure science research, however, can be valuable to the mobilizer. It doesn't hurt to read pure social science research publications to see the findings and study the methods used. That is a good recommendation for the mobilizer.

For the mobilizer to find out about a specific community enough to assist in empowering it, in contrast, the mobilizer may have to use other approaches.

Purpose of the Research:

The purpose of research there (in pure science) is to see how things work. The purpose here (in applied science) is to help make empowerment interventions more effective. Finding out how things work may be a by-product.

The goal of the mobilizer is to increase the power and capacity of a low income community. The usual method is to encourage, stimulate and guide the community to engage in action such as self help projects aiming at objectives defined by the community members as having the highest priorities.

To be effective and successful, the mobilizer needs to know how the community is set up ─ what changes it is going through and what structures or patterns currently apply. The mobilizer needs to know how the community will respond to different kinds of interventions. She or he needs to know how likely the community will be able to unify and choose an activity that will attract all members to get behind it. The mobilizer needs to know about the economy, the political processes, the technology, the interaction patterns, the values and the beliefs of the community members, in short, its culture.

Information on all these things will help the mobilizer to be effective in choosing strategies for intervention to stimulate the community to develop itself. The manager of a programme for empowering several communities equally needs the social information produced by the mobilizers in the field. This information should not remain with the mobilizer, but records should be copied to a manager of a wider process or programme.

General Approach to the Method:

The mobilizer needs to find out all these things about a community without doing so in a way that will hinder her or his ability to stimulate the community to act.

You, the mobilizer, do not have the time to spend a year or more in participatory observation like an anthropologist. A mobilizer can not usually organize a formal survey, lacking staff and other resources and because conducting such a formal survey will affect the views and behaviour of the residents.

Social research by you, the mobilizer, should be informal and not noticeable (in ways which put people ill at ease).

Although observations should be casual and without formal note taking on the spot, the mobilizer then needs to spend time every night, away from residents, making extensive notes of various kinds about what was observed and analysed during each day. When doing such social research, the mobilizer can not be too insistent on precision. Fortunately, precision is not an urgent need; approximate trends and patterns can help the mobilizer design a strategy appropriate to the community, and can help the manager design a strategy appropriate to the district.

Take Time to Write:

Set aside at least an hour or more every day, to be by yourself undisturbed, to write your observations and analysis of the community in which you work. Keep a journal, including more than just events of the day, but also your observations, reactions, responses, thoughts, and considerations of what you see and hear and do.

Your writing is an essential part of doing social research in the community. Do not omit it. Writing Helps.

Writing helps to organize your thoughts. Since community is a sociological construct, and you can never see the whole thing, writing helps you to construct a picture of your community. You need to analyse the things you observe, and writing helps you to make your analysis. It contributes to your seeing the community as a whole thing, over and above the individuals that you meet daily.

Rewrite, too.

Need Social Perspective:

To conduct your research, as well as to be successful as a mobilizer, you need to see a community as more than a collection of individuals.

You need to understand the Social Perspective. This is a corollary to the method of making observations while you are in the community or with community members, then privately writing copious notes about your observations and analyses. You can never see a whole community at once, but you can conceive of it as a single entity (See the Elephant Story).

By writing, you can think and rethink the community as a construct, and get a better understanding of the whole community develop in your mind. To understand it better, you need to take a big overview of the community as a whole, and the society as a whole. Remember that the community, as a sociological construct, is beyond individuals. The "big picture" is in your head.

The community is a functioning (sometimes dysfunctional), changing system. You need to translate individual observations into parts of that holistic view, and that is best done while you are writing your notes afterwards. Organize your observations into categories such as the six dimensions of culture. This will help you to identify aspects overlooked, and to keep a holistic view of the community as a superorganic entity. You can also organize your observations into the sixteen elements of capacity. This will help you to remain aware of the changes that your empowerment methodology needs to bring to the community.

Library Research:

Do not be afraid to obtain sociological information about the community from pure sciences, including economics, political science, geography, anthropology and sociology. Although collected so as to further scientific understanding, the information can help you reach your empowerment objectives.

Look through journal articles in sociological, anthropological and geographical academic journals, if you have access to them. University libraries and the internet are two good sources. Do not omit census data.

Research done on similar communities in the same district, in the same ethnic group, in the same area, can be useful, so long as you remember that as well as being similar to others, every community is unique. Take notes, and test out some general observations by what you see in the field.

Maps and Then Some:

In writing your notes about what you see and hear in the community, do not limit yourself to written words. From the beginning, start drawing different kinds of maps.

Start with the usual geographic maps, sketching where things are in the community as seen from the sky. Do not stop there. Start drawing other kinds of maps, moving on to maps without a geographic base. Use the six cultural dimensions as an organizing mechanism.

In the technological dimension, for example, map out the community as a living organism: what does it consume, what does it excrete? How does it act upon what it consumes before excreting them? Similarly, map out the economic dimension: where is wealth concentrated? How does wealth flow? (Distinguish between wealth and money). In the political dimension, map out the spheres of power and influence. Include traditional, inherited, elected, informal, unrecognized, and other kinds of sources of abilities to change things. How is power allocated within the community? How does it shift? Are there individuals that get their power from more than one source? Are any changing their source? What mechanisms contribute to those things changing? Do not be blindly influenced by what other people (including me) think; be creative.

Make up your own maps. Yet, share and compare your maps with other mobilizers. Train yourself to see the community as a single organism, with features that are other than just a collection of individuals, but identify the forces and elements that contribute to the community as having a life of its own over and above the lives of its residents.

Making Lists:

While it first sounds like a boring activity, making lists is a useful way to organize and review your observations, and coming to a deeper understanding of the community through a social perspective.

Start lists, even if you do not finish them the same day. Make lists on any kinds of observation that you see about the community. When you make lists, you also become conscious of things that you have not yet observed, and will pay more attention to them next time you walk through the community.

Go back to your lists later and review and revise. Share and compare your lists with other mobilizers.

Your lists can be of people who fill roles related to one of the cultural dimensions; for example, in the power (political) dimension, start making a list of all the persons who wield power and/or influence in the community.

For the economic dimension, make a list of all the commercial traders in the community. List all the ways that wealth is transferred other than by the use of money. List the ways that money is used to evaluate wealth in the community. List the valuable things that it is seen as wrong to evaluate with money.

Lists do not have to be only about people. What about a list of religious buildings (churches, mosques, synagogues, temples, revival tents, local deity buildings, fetish houses)? What about a list of all cash crops grown and sold? What about communal facilities (schools, clinics, water supplies, electricity, meeting halls, roads)?

Eventually you can make a list of all your lists. Use these lists to discover facts that you may have overlooked to collect during your informal discussions and observations in public. Compare your lists with those of other mobilizers, and discuss them with your manager.

Managers, encourage your mobilizers to make lists, and discuss ways of using them as a way of ordering social research in each community.


Mobilizer social research is not quite the same as research in the pure sciences, such as sociology and anthropology. It needs to be faster, even if not so precise, and it needs to be as unobtrusive and non-intrusive as possible. It is not the seeking of knowledge for the sake of knowledge, but is seeking information that will lead to efficient ways to empower each community.

You need to design your own research strategy, designing it for conditions of the community. Discuss it with other mobilizers in your district or in the same organization, and exchange ideas and experiences.

These are guidelines, not a recipe of how to do your work, in this document. Much of what you observe you need to rethink and analyse. Daily writing will help you to do that. See all your research as helping you to understand the community through the social perspective, and to understand more about how it is organized, what changes it is going through, and how you might best stimulate it towards increased capacity.

This document (which emphasizes the "how" of your research) complements the document, Community Research (which emphasizes the "what" of your research).


Map Making:

Map Making

© Copyright 1967, 1987, 2007 Phil Bartle
Web Design by Lourdes Sada
Last update: 2012.09.15

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