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O.K, The Data's Lousy, But It's All We've Got (Being a Critique of Conventional Methods)

Gerard Gill

Report/paper, 19 pages

Almost ten years ago Chambers’ damning indictment of 'survey slavery' did enormous service in focusing attention on this form of addiction and encouraging the subsequent development of participatory learning methods (Chambers 1983). However, although our previous unswerving allegiance to large-scale customized surveys has at last been seriously challenged, and although as a result these have lost considerable ground in Third World rural research, participatory methods are still a very long way from the point where they may be regarded as 'conventional'. The quotation used as a title for this monograph is taken from an international economic expert recently speaking off the record. The implication that official statistics are the only means through which one can learn about the rural poor and their interaction with the environments they inhabit (the topic under discussion when the statement was made) is one that would be challenged by those convinced of the logic and power of the participatory approach. However to address this particular issue in the present forum would be preaching to the converted. What will be done instead is first to illustrate just how lousy the data actually are and, more importantly, what fundamental mistakes can be made when policy decisions are based on their analysis. The second objective is to take a rather close look at the questionnaire and to suggest that its employment in rural areas of developing countries is quite inappropriate, and is a primary reason for the pestiferous nature of the data it purports to generate.

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