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Finding Positive Deviants

Identifying Positive Deviants: those women and girls whose unique, perhaps nontraditional practices or behaviors enable her to overcome safety challenges more successfully than her neighbors who have access to the same resources and share the same risk factors. Guidebook and interview prompts attached below in case they're useful to anyone conducting interviews!

Photo of Jamie Beck Alexander
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The Positive Deviance approach ( is based on the premise that many solutions to community problems already exist within the community and just need to be discovered, tweaked, and disseminated. Because behaviors change slowly, most times the solutions discovered within a community are more sustainable than those brought into the community from the outside.

The Positive Deviance process taps into local wisdom and takes an “asset-based” approach based on the belief that in every community there are certain individuals (“Positive Deviants”) whose special, or uncommon, practices and behaviors enable them to find better ways to address issues than their neighbors who share the same resources and face the same risks. 

In every community, be it the urban areas in the US, Manila, Addis Ababa, Cairo, or impoverished rural villages in Myanmar or Nicaragua, there are Positive Deviants. These Positive Deviants all demonstrate certain behaviors and practices which have enabled them to overcome formidable barriers and can be used to examine how some individual women use certain perhaps nontraditional practices to keep themselves safe.

Here’s how the positive deviance approach is different:

* People from outside of the community don’t bring in ideas to change a community’s culture. Instead, they ask the community to look for its own members who are having success. Those local ideas, by definition, are affordable and locally acceptable — at least to some people in the community. Since they spring from a community’s DNA, the community is less likely to feel threatened by these ideas and more likely to adopt them.

* The focus is not a community’s problems, but its strengths.

* People from outside the community don’t design a communication or training strategy to teach the idea. Outsiders can bring people in the community into one room, but local people design a way to spread the new behaviors.

* Local leaders are not the ones who come up with solutions. That is the job of everyone on the front line dealing with the problem. The leaders’ job is to facilitate the process of finding and spreading these solutions.

A detailed handbook is available here - this is geared toward malnutrition, but the probing questions and guides can be easily adapted to women's safety. I'm interested in seeing whether this is useful for anyone conducting interviews in the field!


Join the conversation:

Photo of Nathan Maton

Nice post Jamie, couldn't agree more. I think what's really interesting is how to catalyze further movement to those seeds of ideas that emerge to give them the momentum to blossom.

Photo of Jamie Beck Alexander

I totally agree Nathan! One example of positive deviance that really inspired me was around malnutrition in a small community in Vietnam. While virtually all children under 5 in the community were malnourished, the child of one family was at average weight and much healthier than the others. There was nothing noticeably different about the family: they lived in the same sort of dwelling as the rest of the community, and had the same level of scarce resources available to them. So why was this child well-nourished while the rest were not? After studying the family over several weeks, a community leader realized that the mother of this healthy child was feeding her child seeds from their field that weren't traditionally thought of as food. It turned out that these seeds were very high in protein and other nutrients that were critical to the child's growth. The community leader let people know about it and within a year virtually all the children were brought up to average weight. I love the idea of these kinds of locally-driven solutions that might just need a nudge to blossom!

Photo of Tasha Russman

Jamie and Nathan, I totally agree. I wonder, then, if it would make sense to apply this methodology to the practices and situations surrounding respectful men, or safe and empowered women, or both?

When living in Hyderabad, I spent a lot of time around males, and was equally astounded by the uber-respectful men as I was by the uber-disrespectful ones, both in their practice and underlying values. Aside from the usual suspects (religion, socioeconomic status, education...), I wonder what else could contribute to the men that act as women's allies?

Photo of Anne-Laure Fayard

Thanks Jamie! The child in Vietnam was a very interesting story. I wonder why this mother decided to try to feed her kid with seeds that usually were not eaten. More importantly, it's interesting that the community leader noticed and decided to champion her. I can imagine cases where non-traditional behaviors are at first rejected. To Nate's point: how to make sure that these behaviors and practices are nurtured and can blossom.

Photo of Nathan Maton

Really interesting story Jamie. and well put Anne-Laure. Good food for thought when we get to the ideas phase.

Photo of Jamie Beck Alexander

Hi Tasha! Great point that the positive deviance approach is just as valuable in looking at the practices of uber-respectful (and not respectful) men as it is for the practices women employ to help keep themselves safe. I really like your idea to look at the issue from all angles.

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