Community scoping

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1 Community scoping

Informal conversations
Observing the surroundings
Familiarising by walking
Participating in events
Capturing through images
Transect walk

One basic principle of qualitative research design is that the people being researched should be understood in their social context. This requires some means of understanding that context. This can be done in several different ways, depending on the purposes of the research. But there are at least two situations where ‘community scoping’ might play a part:

  • At the beginning of a community-based study (such as one in which ethnographic fieldwork is the main data collection method, or one in which the sample for semi-structured interviews is to be taken from one or two communities)
  • As a qualitative aspect of a household survey (where a cluster sample design leads to a relatively small number of communities, and where community characteristics are then fed into the quantitative analysis)

Some scoping activities could also be used (with suitable amendments) for people whose research case study will be an organisation.

Time: 90 minutes to 2 hours -- or more if you want to go into more detail on several PRA techniques.


By the end of this session participants should understand when and why community scoping might be carried out, how to do it, some of the pitfalls and some strategies to start the process of getting to know the basic details about a community, a village (or part of one), or an urban neighbourhood.



This session can be conducted through a mixture of didactic (presentation) and brainstorm approaches. The following areas should be discussed in separate sub-sessions, each of which might take 15-20 minutes:

1.1 What is involved in community scoping?

Brainstorm on things to be done to find out, relatively quickly, the important features of a community. (10 minutes)

1.2 When is community scoping an appropriate activity?

This is not necessarily something for all projects: when might it be useful? Discuss in whole group (15 minutes)

1.3 How should consent and access through 'gatekeepers' be negotiated?

Brainstorm about what kinds of gatekeepers are likely to be encountered in the particular settings; how to approach them to maximise access; how to avoid being identified with the interests of the gatekeepers or to be limited just to what they want you to do (15 minutes)

1.4 What participatory approaches (for example, map-making, transect walks, wealth ranking) are suitable for a scoping exercise?

Ask participants to share their experience of using participatory approaches. Try to get as complete a list as possible, and then consider the strengths and weaknesses of different kinds of method. It may be possible to carry out an exercise using one or two of these methods (for example, a ranking exercise; daily timelines) (15-30 minutes)

1.5 What are the main roles of a household census?

Brainstorm on factors to consider in deciding to carry out a census or other ways of collecting reliable data on households: the size of the community, the resources available, and the purposes of the research (what would you use a census for?) (10 minutes)

Introduce the sample census form (as a handout or as an overhead slide); explain the context. In groups of 3 or 4, discuss the strengths and weaknesses of this example (10 minutes) and report back to the full group (10 minutes)

1.6 What are the main issues in planning the process of community scoping?

Community scoping can be done as a routine task, in which case it is likely to be done poorly (with little detail or understanding of community processes). Such an approach may lead to further difficulties for researchers in that community. Brainstorm on the factors that are involved in a ‘good’ scoping exercise (10 minutes) Notes: community scoping should be seen as part of the opening of a positive relationship with members of the community; and it can be very revealing of community dynamics if the experience of scoping is documented properly.

Facilitator's Notes: The main points to get across

  • The importance of establishing egalitarian relationships at the start of the research process, such as being willing to answer personal questions as well as questions about the research – especially if the research involves the poor
  • The value of walking around and being seen by as many people as possible
  • The issues generated by getting permission from ‘gate-keepers’ as well as participants
  • The opportunities to use ‘participatory’ methods as well as semi-structured interviews to collect basic general community-level data
  • The potential of carrying out a simple census exercise

Community scoping is often an integral part of ethnographic fieldwork, which we elaborate upon in the session on Ethnographic fieldwork.

2 Resources and references

The general field of participatory rural appraisal (PRA) methods has been developed since 1990, and there is a very large literature and many resources. For the purposes of this session we are only introducing some of the techniques that have been developed: the philosophy behind the approach should also be considered, if you want to go further down this route.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation have a web-page with descriptions and examples of PRA methods, oriented towards natural resource use: see

There are several handbooks of PRA methods: one general introduction is at and more detail on transect walks and other techniques at

Cc-by-nc-sa-narrow.png Singal, N., and Jeffery, R. (2008). Qualitative Research Skills Workshop: A Facilitator's Reference Manual,, Cambridge: RECOUP (Research Consortium on Educational Outcomes and Poverty, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0. (original page)