In search of rigour, ethics, and relevance

One of the most damning critiques of the development industry is that it is disconnected from the people it purports to benefit. Ethnographic methods are perhaps uniquely valuable for helping to understand which problems people living in poverty really face, to design interventions to generate sustainable improvements, and to evaluate how and why change occurs. However, their time-intensive and complexity-oriented nature is frequently at odds with the imperative of development programmes to quickly produce scalable results. Consequently, numerous attempts have been made to adapt ethnography to get similar – but more accessible, applicable and cost-effective – results.

One such attempt that has grown in credibility in development recently is the Reality Check Approach (RCA). RCA is a codified method for rapid qualitative research, built on a combination of immersion-based and listening methods (Reality Check Approach, 2018a). By taking an exploratory rather than pre-determined approach, RCA is intended to uncover counter-intuitive insights and local theories of change, and to expose any unintended negative consequences of development, thereby enabling development practitioners to design interventions which are more relevant and effective than they would otherwise be.

RCA has several strengths. Using RCA can indeed uncover insights about everyday life that could not be gained through surveys, structured interviews or focus groups, and RCA findings are valuable and usually presented in a way that is both engaging and challenging. RCA has contributed importantly to development by advocating for immersion-based methods and underlining the value of qualitative data as part of the industry’s evidence base.

Nonetheless, claims of RCA’s innovativeness as a research method are overblown, as the approach builds on decades of work across numerous academic and applied disciplines. RCA hardly represents a radical approach to social science though it does, arguably, represent innovation in recent development industry practice.

Unfortunately, when evaluated in light of the extensive literature on short-term qualitative research, it becomes evident that RCA, whilst commendably pioneering the use of immersion in development, has failed to apply good research principles in two critical areas.

Firstly, RCA is insufficiently rigorous. RCA’s advocacy for an ‘atheoretical approach’ which discourages background research, focused research questions, the use of mixed methods and proper research practice in terms of note-taking and iteration, present significant challenges to the validity of findings and its relevance to development problems. Secondly, RCA pays insufficient attention to vital ethical considerations. Understanding and addressing issues of consent, power, and positionality should be a vital part of any social research.

RCA proponents rightly claim that there is a need in development for inductive research which allows theory to emerge from data, that complexity and multiplicity can be researched using appropriate methods, and that immersion and observation can generate new and valuable insights. It is time, however, to demand a higher standard of rigour and ethics in the application of qualitative social science methods to development problems. This can be achieved through applying well-established mitigating tactics to the practice of short-term immersion.

Evaluating RCA raises a wider point about the dangers of development adopting apparently innovative approaches without situating them within existing fields of research. Whilst development has much to gain from adapting existing approaches, it is important to incentivise iterative and cumulative approaches to learning which build on lessons learned rigour, ethics and accountability.

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