Positive Deviance is based on the observation that in every community there are certain individuals or groups whose uncommon behaviour and strategies enable them to find better solutions to problems than their peers. Positive Deviance aims to identify these behaviours and allow the rest of the community to learn from them.
The Positive Deviance method is based on the belief that in every community that suffers from deep rooted problems, there are some (the ‘deviants’) who are innovative in dealing with the issue. Despite having access to the same resources, the positive deviants have developed ways of dealing with problems that through a process of learning can be shared by the whole community.
The process typically involves:
• Recognition: Community members must first come together and recognise the issues that need to be addressed.
• Definition: Having recognised the problem, community members must gather information to assess its scale and to identify the different solutions adopted by members of the community. People who are adopting unusual behaviours which create positive outcomes are identified as the positive deviants.
• Positive Deviance Inquiry: This stage involves observing the deviants with a focus on their behaviour, actions and attitudes in dealing with the problem. Rather than turning the deviant into a local celebrity, the inquiry is intended to empower ordinary community members. This is achieved by recognising that if a neighbour, no different in status or resources from oneself can tackle the problem, then so too can any other community member.
• Acting into a new way of thinking: Having identified the strategies of the deviants, the community chooses an approach to the problem to adopt. Activities are then designed to help spread the information or skills required amongst community members. This stage is not intended to merely teach best practices; it is supposed to foster a new mentality by ’acting into a new of thinking‘ through the use of the designed activities.
• The outcome: The success of the designed activities in changing the communities approach to the problem will be assessed over time. This can be done through conventional methods (statistics) or through those specifically tailored to a community or the problem. The point here is to measure the progress made towards the previously outlined goals and to maintain the drive behind the activities.
Adapted from Sternin & Sternin (2010).
• Positive Deviance relies on a community-wide effort to tackle problems or at least those who are immediately involved with or affected by the issue.
• The cooperation of deviant individuals or groups is also fundamental to success. The number of participants can depend on the size of the community but 100 people is usually a minimum.
• Positive Deviance is usually a community-led initiative and so can be done cheaply but only with the dedication of a lot of people.
• If local authorities, police or health services are leading the project then organisational and administrative costs need to be factored in.
Approximate time expense
• The time expense of community members who initiated the project will be high.
• The length of the project will vary depending on the issue at hand. The first use of Positive Deviance in Vietnam was concerned with malnutrition of children and lasted two years. Since many deep rooted community problems are social in nature (domestic violence, anti-social behaviour, etc.), measuring progress could also take years.
• Highly participative
• Provides local solutions to local problems
• Solutions are achieved through existing resources (the positive deviants)
• Develops the skills and capacity of participants in dealing with common problems
• Based on premise that deviants exist
• Relies on deviant cooperation
• Old habits and responses to problems may be difficult to overcome
Positive Deviance was developed by US academics Monique Sternin and Jerry Sternin whilst working as aid workers in Vietnam. Their focus was on malnutrition and they noticed that even the poorest communities included some healthier children. The ‘positive deviants’ in this instance were those families who were feeding sea food, high in nutrients, to their children that other community members considered unhealthy. At the end of the two-year pilot which involved cookery classes for the non-deviant mothers, malnutrition fell by 85%.
Contains adapted content from: Pascale, Richard, Jerry Sternin and Monique Sternin. (2010) The power of Positive Deviance: How Unlikely Innovators Solve the World’s Toughest Problems. Harvard Business Press.
Image by jill_murray.
Build skills and capacity of participants
Gather individual pre-existing opinions
Number of participants
A Group which broadly reflects the Demographic make up of a certain community or population
Statistically representative sample of a population
Level of awareness and interest
participants need information and cannot articulate their interests
participants know about some aspects/can roughly articulate some interest
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... face to face processes
Level of involvement