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Rapid Assessment

Applied researchers don’t always have the luxury of doing long-term participant observation fieldwork. In fact, applied work—like needs assessment in nutrition, education, and agricultural development—often has to be done in a few weeks. This doesn’t leave much time for building rapport, and applied anthropologists have developed rapid ethnographic assessment procedures, including participatory rapid assessment. These methods are now used by anthropologists in long-term fieldwork.

In participatory mapping, for example, people draw maps of their villages and locate key places on the maps. Robert Chambers, a pioneer in PRA, spent 2 full days in 1974 trying to map the wells in an Indian village. Fifteen years later, he tells us, in 1989, one of his colleagues asked people in another Indian village to map their wells. The job was done in 25 minutes and the villagers noted which wells had water and which were dry (Chambers 2006). In participatory transects, a technique that Chambers borrowed from wildlife biology, you walk through an area systematically, with key informants, observing and asking for explanations of everything you see along the transect. Chambers also engages people in group discussions of key events in a village’s history and asks them to identify clusters of households according to wealth. In other words, as an applied anthropologist, Chambers is called on to do rapid assessment of rural village needs, and he takes the people fully into his confidence as research partners. This method is just as effective in organizations as in small villages.

Applied medical anthropologists also use rapid assessment methods. The focused ethnographic study method, or FES, was developed by Sandy Gove (a physician) and Gretel Pelto (an anthropologist) for the World Health Organization to study acute respiratory illness (ARI) in children. The FES manual gives detailed instructions to fieldworkers for running a rapid ethnographic study of ARI in a community (Gove and Pelto 1994; WHO 1993).

Many ARI episodes turn out to be what physicians call pneumonia, but that is not necessarily what mothers call the illness. Researchers ask mothers to talk about recent ARI events in their households. Mothers also free list the symptoms, causes, and cures for ARI and do pile sorts of illnesses to reveal the folk taxonomy of illness and where ARI fits into that taxonomy. There is also a matching exercise, in which mothers pair locally defined symptoms (fever, sore throat, headache . . .) with locally defined causes (bad water, evil eye, germs . . .), cures (give rice water, rub the belly, take child to the doctor . . .), and illnesses.

The FES method also uses vignettes, or scenarios, much like those developed by Peter Rossi for the factorial survey (see chapter 9). Mothers are presented with cases in which variables are changed systematically (‘‘Your child wakes up with [mild] [strong] fever. He complains that he has [a headache] [stomach ache],’’ and so on) and are asked to talk about how they would handle the case.

All this evidence—the free narratives, the pile sorts, the vignettes, etc.—is used in understanding the emic part of ARI, the local explanatory model for the illness.

Researchers also identify etic factors that make it easy or hard for mothers to get medical care for children who have pneumonia. These are things like the distance to a clinic, availability of transportation, number of young children at home, availability to mothers of people with whom they can leave their children for a while, and so on.

The key to high-quality, quick ethnography, according to Handwerker (2001), is to go into a study with a clear question and to limit your study to five focus variables. If the research is exploratory, you just have to make a reasonable guess as to what variables might be important and hope for the best. Most rapid assessment studies, however, are applied research, which usually means that you can take advantage of earlier, long-term studies to narrow your focus.

For example, Edwins Laban Moogi Gwako (1997) spent over a year testing the effects of eight independent variables on Maragoli women’s agricultural productivity in western Kenya. At the end of his doctoral research, he found that just two variables—women’s land tenure security and the total value of their household wealth—accounted for 46% of the variance in productivity of plots worked by women. None of the other variables— household size, a woman’s age, whether a woman’s husband lived at home, and so on— had any effect on the dependent variable.

If you were doing a rapid assessment of women’s agricultural productivity elsewhere in east Africa, you would take advantage of Laban Moogi Gwako’s work and limit the variables you tested to perhaps four or five—the two that he found were important and perhaps two or three others. You can study this same problem for a lifetime, and the more time you spend, the more you’ll understand the subtleties and complexities of the problem. But the point here is that if you have a clear question and a few, clearly defined variables, you can produce quality work in a lot less time than you might imagine (Further Reading: rapid ethnographic assessment).

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