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Redefining Rigor: The Lean Research Working Paper

In the spring of 2014, the Lean Research steering team articulated its motivations for developing the approach, the basic principles underpinning it, and the key questions of Lean Research in a Working Paper. This paper remains a work-in-progress, and it is freely available for feedback and use. 

You can read the opening paragraphs below, and you may download the full paper for free here. References and footnotes for the excerpt below can be found in the full paper. You may cite the paper as Paula Armstrong, Rachel Gordon, Elizabeth Hoffecker, Roxanne Krystalli, Kendra Leith, Bryan Stinchfield, and Kim Wilson, “Lean Research: Defining Rigor,” Working Paper, MIT D-Lab-The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, March 2015.

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Here you come to ask us the same silly questions that you go sell to aid sponsors. Now when the aid comes you keep it for yourself. I don’t want to answer any question. Go take the answers for the ones we provided last year.

Root Capital, a nonprofit social investment fund, encountered this objection from a Burkinabe mango farmer in 2011 and, in response, developed a client-centric evaluation approach. Yet this is not an isolated remark: other academic, nonprofit, and public-sector researchers carrying out social science field work with populations facing poverty, displacement, and other forms of vulnerability have been accused by research subjects of “stealing stories” and extracting large amounts of data without offering local communities and stakeholders anything in return. “Why,” one East Timorese teenager asked Columbia University’s Michael Wessells in Research Settings: A View From Below, “should we talk with people who come here and ask many questions but do nothing to help us?”

While most field research in developing countries is undertaken with the goal of eventually helping improve the lives of marginalized people, research with human subjects can be disrespectful, irrelevant and inefficient. In addition to potentially harming the welfare of subjects or simply being extractive, research that fails to acknowledge its own status as a development activity and the power imbalances between researchers and subjects runs the risk of generating inaccurate findings.

Even studies that avoid such pitfalls are frequently irrelevant or inaccessible to practitioners and policy-makers. Finally, some research is not right-sized: survey and interview protocols can include hundreds of questions and take hours to administer. These concerns undermine the potential for research to contribute to both positive developmental outcomes for subjects and sound decision-making in the international development space.

Lean Research has been developed by researchers, practitioners, and donors at leading development institutions who agree that the research process should generate beneficial outcomes for those involved – and most importantly, for research subjects. Drawing from human-centered approaches to development and design, Lean Research places the experience of the human research subject at the center of research design and implementation. Lean Research asks: if we are researching people in order to improve some aspect of their life, should not our research process also align with that objective? What would it look like to conduct human-centered field research in a way that minimizes negative burden and waste while maximizing meaning and value for all stakeholders in the research process?

The full paper is freely available for download here.

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