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Application of the Positive Deviance Approach to Change Pedestrian Behaviour

Updated on July 4, 2016
First Positive Deviance projects were implemented in Vietnam
First Positive Deviance projects were implemented in Vietnam | Source

What is the Positive Deviance Approach?

Reading through sociological literature, especially the late 80’s and early 90’s one finds a lot of arguments around the concept of “positive deviance”. The concept “deviance” has been used mostly to signify a negative connotation in sociology, such as criminal behaviour. The term “positive deviance” in that sense is seen as a contradiction in terms.

In the last two decades however, the concept “Positive Deviance” has come to mean something very specific and documents about it describe its use as a tool toward behaviour change in various different contexts.

First used in this context by Marian Zeitlin in a book “Positive Deviance in Nutrition”, the term was operationalised by Jerry Sternin and his wife Monique. Development organisations such as UNICEF and USAID has promoted its use. The Sternins, together with other role players have established the Positive Deviance Initiative.

First studies focused on malnutrition, but the approach has since been used in various different projects

  • Childhood malnutrition (65 to 80% reduction in childhood malnutrition in Vietnamese communities; applied in 41 other countries)
  • Child protection (Reduction in neo-natal mortality and morbidity)
  • Girl trafficking (Reduction in girl trafficking in Indonesia)
  • Female genital mutilation (Reduction of female circumcisions in Egypt)
  • Education (50% increase in primary school student retention, Argentina communities)
  • Organisational Change (Merck Mexico)
  • Reintegration of previously abducted girl soldiers (Uganda)
  • Leadership and management strategies
  • Positive deviance among top athletes

Practical Implementation of Positive Deviance Approach

Some of the main principles of the Positive Deviance Approach are

  • The community owns the process (from discovery of successful behaviours to designing practical ways to institutionalise that behaviour)
  • All groups and individual who are part of the problem must also be part of the solution
  • Practice rather than knowledge is emphasised
  • The community creates its own benchmarks and monitors progress.
  • Facilitation of the process is built on community development practices of respect and empowerment
  • Existing networks are expanded and new ones developed

The Positive Deviance Initiative has made available various practical tools and guides that can be utilised. The most extensive is the “Basic Field Guide to the Positive Deviance Approach” in which the community process whereby the successful behaviours are identified and institutionalised are set out Step by Step.

Any person who has been involved with grassroots projects before, will understand that this is a long-term process, whereby the “entering into the community” of the researcher is not a simple course of action. The researcher needs to understand who to approach and build trust over a period of time.

Pedestrians crossing a freeway close to a pedestrian bridge
Pedestrians crossing a freeway close to a pedestrian bridge

Can this method be useful in changing road safety behaviour?

Can this method be useful in changing road safety behaviour?

According to the Positive Deviance Fieldguide, Positive deviance should be considered as a possible approach when a concrete problem meets the following criteria:

  • The problem is not only technical but also relational and requires behavioural or/and social change
  • The problem is complex,and other solutions haven’t worked
  • There are positive deviant individuals or groups in the community
  • There is sponsorship to ensure continuity
  • There is local leadership commitment

Looking at the above, unsafe walking behaviours meet the criteria for Positive Deviance as a possible application.

What are the road safety problems one needs to address at grassroots level?

It has to be said that transport and infrastructure (or rather the lack of) in many poor communities pose a major social problem for residents. As much as the road separates the residents from essential services such as schools, shops, and clinics, the road also provides opportunities, mainly for cheap or free transport to nearby towns and farms.

The implications are many trips on foot occur across a major freeway with a 120km speed restriction (but with speeds often closer to 140km/h). These trips are done by old people, young children, people pushing wheel barrows and carrying wood, commuters crossing to hail a taxi or cheaper lift on the back of a bakkie (pick-up truck).

But there are positive deviants

While many people ignore the few safety measures that exist or tend to show apathy towards supporting safety initiatives:

  • Some people do use the pedestrian bridges provided across the freeway, carrying heavy burdens up the slope and going out of their way to cross
  • Further into the community at a busy intersection, some scholars cross only at the scholar patrol
  • Some people walk only within the barriers constructed to separate pedestrians from vehicle traffic and cross at the pedestrian crossing provided
  • Some community members take an interest in getting children to school safely
  • Some community members actively lobby for safer infrastructure within their community (even as far as putting up “home-made” speed humps in a road)

In my view, it would be possible to apply the Positive Deviance Approach toward safer walking strategies. However, improving the safety behaviour of community members should not become an excuse for the authorities not to provide safe infrastructure and part of the behaviour change needed is for more community members to take and active interest in the physical improvement of their environment.


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    • B. Leekley profile image

      Brian Leekley 

      5 years ago from Bainbridge Island, Washington, USA

      Up, Useful, Interesting, and shared with followers and on Facebook, Google+, and Twitter.

      The Positive Deviance approach sounds interesting and promising. I think maybe ISAAC -- "Interfaith Strategy for Advocacy and Action in the Community" -- in Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA, where I live, takes a similar approach. ISAAC is an affiliate organization of Gamaliel Foundation.

      I wonder if the Positive Deviance approach could help shift communities towards more walking and bicycling and less use of motor vehicles to reduce global warming.


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