You know, qualitative social scientists of various stripes have long complained of their marginalization in development.  Examples abound of anthropologists, geographers, and sociologists complaining about the influence of the quantitatively-driven economists (and to a lesser extent, some political scientists) over development theory and policy.  While I am not much for whining, these complaints are often on the mark – quantitative data (of the sort employed by economists, and currently all the rage in political science) tends to carry the day over qualitative data, and the nuanced lessons of ethnographic research are dismissed as unimplementable, ideosyncratic/place-specific, without general value, etc.  This is not to say that I have an issue with quantitative data – I believe we should employ the right tool for the job at hand.  Sadly, most people only have either qualitative or quantitative skills, making the selection of appropriate tools pretty difficult . . .

But what is interesting, of late, is what appears to be a turn toward the lessons of the qualitative social sciences in development . . . only without actually referencing or reading those qualitative literatures.  Indeed, the former quantitative masters of the development universe are now starting to figure out and explore . . . the very things that the qualitative community has known for decades. What is really frustrating and galling is that these “new” studies are being lauded as groundbreaking and getting great play in the development world, despite the fact they are reinventing the qualitative wheel, and without much of the nuance of the current qualitative literature and its several decades of nuance.

What brings me to today’s post is the new piece on hunger in Foreign Policy by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo.  On one hand, this is great news – good to see development rising to the fore in an outlet like Foreign Policy.  I also largely agree with their conclusions – that the poverty trap/governance debate in development is oversimplified, that food security outcomes are not explicable through a single theory, etc.  On the other hand, from the perspective of a qualitative researcher looking at development, there is nothing new in this article.  Indeed, the implicit premise of the article is galling: When they argue that to address poverty, “In practical terms, that meant we’d have to start understanding how the poor really live their lives,” the implication is that nobody has been doing this.  But what of the tens of thousands of anthropologists, geographers and sociologists (as well as representatives of other cool, hybridized fields like new cultural historians and ethnoarchaeologists).  Hell, what of the Peace Corps?

Whether intentional or not, this article wipes the qualitative research slate clean, allowing the authors to present their work in a methodological and intellectual vacuum.  This is the first of my problems with this article – not so much with its findings, but with its appearance of method.  While I am sure that there is more to their research than presented in the article, the way their piece is structured, the case studies look like evidence/data for a new framing of food security.  They are not – they are illustrations of the larger conceptual points that Banerjee and Duflo are making.  I am sure that Banerjee and Duflo know this, but the reader does not – instead, most readers will think this represents some sort of qualitative research, or a mixed method approach that takes “hard numbers” and mixes it in with the loose suppositions that Banerjee and Duflo offer by way of explanation for the “surprising” outcomes they present.  But loose supposition is not qualitative research – at best, it is journalism. Bad journalism. My work, and the work of many, many colleagues, is based on rigorous methods of observation and analysis that produce validatable data on social phenomena.  The work that led to Delivering Development and many of my refereed publications took nearly two years of on-the-ground observation and interviewing, including follow-ups, focus groups and even the use of archaeology and remotely-sensed data on land use to cross-check and validate both my data and my analyses.

The result of all that work was a deep humility in the face of the challenges that those living in places like Coastal Ghana or Southern Malawi manage on a day-to-day basis . . . and deep humility when addressing the idea of explanation.  This is an experience I share with countless colleagues who have spent a lot of time on the ground in communities, ministries and aid organizations, a coming to grips with the fact that massively generalizable solutions simply don’t exist in the way we want them to, and that singular interventions will never address the challenges facing those living in the Global South.

So, I find it frustrating when Banerjee and Duflo present this observation as in any way unique:

What we’ve found is that the story of hunger, and of poverty more broadly, is far more complex than any one statistic or grand theory; it is a world where those without enough to eat may save up to buy a TV instead, where more money doesn’t necessarily translate into more food, and where making rice cheaper can sometimes even lead people to buy less rice.

For anyone working in food security – that is, anyone who has been reading the literature coming out of anthropology, geography, sociology, and even some areas of ag econ, this is not a revelation – this is standard knowledge.  A few years ago I spent a lot of time and ink on an article in Food Policy that tried to loosely frame a schematic of local decision-making that leads to food security outcomes – an effort to systematize an approach to the highly complex sets of processes and decisions that produce hunger in particular places because there is really no way to get a single, generalized statistic or finding that will explain hunger outcomes everywhere.

In other words: We know.  So what do you have to tell us?

The answer, unfortunately, is not very much . . . because in the end they don’t really dive into the social processes that lead to the sorts of decisions that they see as interesting or counterintuitive.  This is where the heat is in development research – there are a few of us working down at this level, trying to come up with new framings of social process that move us past a reliance solely on the blunt tool of economistic rationality (which can help explain some behaviors and decisions) toward a more nuanced framing of how those rationalities are constructed by, and mobilize, much larger social processes like gender identification.  The theories in which we are dealing are very complex, but they do work (at least I think my work with governmentality is working – but the reviewers at Development and Change might not agree).

And maybe, just maybe, there is an opening to get this sort of work out into the mainstream, to get it applied – we’re going to try to do this at work, pulling together resources and interests across two Bureaus and three offices to see if a reframing of livelihoods around Foucault’s idea of governmentality can, in fact, get us better resolution on livelihoods and food security outcomes than current livelihoods models (which mostly assume that decisionmaking is driven by an effort to maximize material returns on investment and effort). Perhaps I rest too much faith on the idea of evidence, but if we can implement this idea and demonstrate that it works better, perhaps we will have a lever with which to push oversimplified economistic assumptions out of the way, while still doing justice to the complexity of social process and explanation in development.