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Anti-Poverty Community Organizing and Learning (APCOL)
 

Combining Case Study and Survey Methods in Anti-poverty Research


by D. W. Livingstone

Many researchers tend to think the chances of effectively mixing case study and survey methods are as likely as mixing oil and water. Survey methods rely on counting responses and computing patterns; case studies interpret the meaning of participants’ stories rather than counting them. Sample surveys of relatively large numbers of people can generate summary statistics about the general population of areas ranging from local neighbourhoods to countries. In-depth case studies typically focus on small numbers of people in particular settings and bring forth stories about personal experiences. Most of the research on poverty issues falls on one side or the other: either statistical indicators of poverty or personal testimony about living conditions.

The APCOL project has been designed to try to combine case study and survey methods from the outset in order to provide both statistics and stories helpful for overcoming poverty. Our case studies of different campaigns are beginning to show how activists learn to bring about changes in their neighbourhoods. The questionnaire survey of the populations of these neighbourhoods will provide profiles of the general social conditions in these neighbourhoods that are the immediate context for activists’ campaigns.

The challenges of combining qualitative case study and quantitative survey methods in poverty research definitely should not be underestimated (e.g. Kanbur, 2003; Ravallion, 2003; White, 2002). But a basic assumption of the APCOL project is that by using a participatory action research approach we should have the best chance to combine the strengths of both methods. That is, by involving community members as co-researchers in both the case study and survey designs, the project can maximize understanding the situations of both the general populations and anti-poverty activists, as well as to have the generated knowledge used effectively in these communities. Prior experience of the research team indicates that a participatory action research approach can be an effective way to ensure that survey and case study research both contribute to positive change processes (e.g. Martin 1995, Livingstone and Sawchuk 2004).

In the initial design stage of the APCOL project, reviews of prior literature and consultation with city-level community partners identified four major priority areas of basic needs (Health, Nutrition, or Food Security; Housing or Safe Shelter; Opportunity for Fair Education; and Access to Jobs and Living Wages). Then anti-poverty groups giving priority to each of these areas were identified across the city and the APCOL team began to work closely with them to develop both the case study and survey designs.


Case Studies

The case study component involves eight case studies in community-based anti-poverty organizing initiatives, two case studies representing each of the four basic needs for anti-poverty action identified above. The case studies will be conducted in sequence over the five year life of the project. In each case, the specific design will be developed with the local anti-poverty organization. These studies will include in-depth semi-structured interviews and focus group dialogues centred on themes related to the basic need that is the priority of the local neighbourhood campaign.

The case studies will be carried out by teams of academics, graduate students and well-trained, equipped and paid community members. Using these qualitative case study data on all of the identified issues, descriptive and analytic accounts of organizing and learning activities will be prepared and shared. The semi-structured interviews will also provide some quantitative measures to link to survey data as well as more specific emergent themes. Each case study is co-led by a local community representative and an academic researcher.


APCOL Survey

Sample surveys of poor neighbourhoods remain a rarity in studies of community organizing to date. A notable exception is a survey of the attitudes and conditions of Brazilian youths in a poor urban neighbourhood, conducted by a research team of local academics, NGOs, community representatives , and with youths from the neighbourhoods as interviewers (Verner and Alda 2004). But the APCOL Survey may be the first one in which the survey results will be produced with assistance of neighbourhood researchers and combined with case study findings to aid in further anti-poverty campaigns.

In the first year of the project, APCOL researchers and community case study partners have cooperatively developed the survey questionnaire. Pilot studies have identified specific generative themes based on discussions in the neighbourhoods.
The main purpose of this questionnaire is to gather information regarding anti-poverty issues as well how and what people learn from participating in anti-poverty campaigns and related activities.

The survey questionnaire addresses actual conditions and attitudes towards the four basic needs, community involvement and anti-poverty organizing; formal and informal learning in anti-poverty community organizing and basic demographic information.

The APCOL Survey will be conducted in 2010-11 and again in 2013-14 in the same general neighbourhoods as the case studies in eight of the poorest neighbourhoods in GTA (United Way 2004). In each neighbourhood, purposive samples will include both current and past participants in anti-poverty campaigns as well as non-participants. The surveys will also be conducted by teams of academics, graduate students and community organization members themselves.

The resulting data on material conditions and attitudes will establish benchmarks and allow estimation of changes in poverty conditions as well as community-based anti-poverty organizing and popular education/informal learning activity over this four year period. The data will be used to produce general and comparative profiles of anti-poverty organizing and related learning in these low-income neighbourhoods of Toronto.

At minimum, the APCOL data will provide unique information about organizing processes and learning practices in anti-poverty movements. If these stories and statistics about community organizing and learning in anti-poverty movements can be combined effectively, and shared widely among these movements, we believe these resources can contribute very positively to actions to reduce basic dimensions of poverty.

References cited in this article are listed in Further Readings (Fall 2010).

D.W. Livingstone is Canada Research Chair in Lifelong Learning and Work and professor emeritus in OISE/UT’s Department of Sociology and Equity Studies. His recent books include Education and Jobs: Exploring the Gaps (2009), Lifelong Learning in Paid and Unpaid Work (2010) and Manufacturing Meltdown: Reshaping Steel Work (forthcoming in 2011).

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