Previous Page Table of Contents Next Page

Module 3 - Doing the community profile

It is unlikely that any investigation of household livelihood strategies and local institutions will ever have enough time and resources to look at all the households and institutions in a particular community. So, right at the start, investigators need to develop a sufficient understanding of the community as a whole to be able to:

decide which household livelihood strategies to investigate in more detail;

decide which local institutions might be important for household livelihood strategies and need to be investigated in more depth;

understand the context in which households and local institutions operate so that they can identify linkages.

A community profile aims to do this. In the context of an investigation that focuses on household livelihood strategies and local institutions, this profile does not need to be “definitive” - the investigating team does not need to know everything about the community where they are working. This section aims to provide investigators with some methods that are simple to apply, have been proven to be effective and will help them arrive at a sufficient understanding of the community as a whole to be able to proceed with their investigation. This does not mean that, once the community profile has been completed, investigators have no more to learn about the community as a whole. Everything they uncover during the rest of the investigation will deepen their understanding of the community and improve the richness of their community profile. But what they learn during the community profile will provide them with an entry point so that they know where to look, whom to talk to and what approach to use during the rest of their work.

1. The process for developing a community profile

The diagram that follows suggests how different investigative activities might be combined to develop a community profile. There is no single “right way” for combining these different steps, and the methods suggested for each step, into an effective community profile. Investigating teams should always adapt the techniques they use and the way they fit them together according to the priorities and objectives of their investigation and the circumstances in which they are working.

The process shown may be particularly appropriate where the team has little previous knowledge of the community and has to commence working there more or less from scratch.

Figure 7 - Suggested Process for a Community Profile

2. Starting out

The investigating team should aim to use a range of methods to progressively build up a more complete understanding of the community where they are working. The methods should be thought of not just as different ways of “getting more information” out of local people. They are tools for communication that will help local people explain to the team how they understand local conditions. The methods employed should encourage local respondents to think about their own community and their livelihoods from different points of view, and to present their thoughts and perceptions in a way that the investigating team can record. An initial checklist of key issues, such as the one shown below, is a good starting point for the community profile. This should simply review the key issues and the questions that the investigators are interested in, and can be used right from the beginning to guide the team and allow them to keep track of those issues and what they have learnt about them.



What are the principal natural resources available to the community?
Who uses them and how are they used?
Where are they located?


What are the different activities that households in the community use to support their livelihoods?

Who is involved in those livelihood activities (men/women, young/old, different social and economic groups) and how many people and households depend on them?

When do those activities take place (time of day/month/seasons) and where?


How many people and households live in the community?
What is the gender composition and age structure of the community?
What different social, economic, ethnic and cultural groups are there in the community?
How are those groups defined?
Where do those different social, economic, ethnic and cultural groups live?


What formal organizations and associations are there in the community?
What rules, regulations and customs are in place?
Who is affected by them and how?


What services are available in the community (transport, power and water supply, markets, agricultural extension, health, education, etc.)?

Who has access to these services?

How expensive are the user fees for these services?


How long has the community been in existence and how was it founded?
When did different social, economic, ethnic and cultural groups settle in the community?
How has the community changed over time and what has caused those changes?

This checklist should be constantly updated as the field work progresses and used as a source for developing more detailed checklists for individual interviews or questionnaires.

3. Field methods for the community profile

As with all the elements in the investigation described in these guidelines, creating a useful community profile will depend on using a varied set of investigative tools and then extracting and synthesizing the key learning obtained from them. Here, the particular relevance of some of these tools to the community profile is discussed. The Annex provides a list of publications and web sites with more detailed descriptions of the different tools.

Community mapping

Maps, created by local people, can provide an invaluable visual reference for discussions with them. There are numerous approaches to creating maps, with communities as a whole, with groups or with individuals.

Community mapping can be useful in several ways:

at the very start of the community profile, as an “ice-breaker”; relatively large groups of local people can be involved in creating a map of the community and each can have an opportunity to contribute;

giving the team a chance to observe the dynamics within the community to see who are local “opinion leaders”, who tends to dominate the discussion and who participates less;

letting local people play an active role, not just as “informants”, but as “teachers”, explaining to the team how they see their community, as opposed to simply answering questions posed by the team;

creating a visual focus for discussion and relating points raised by local people and the team to specific locations;

identifying transects through the community that will allow the team to observe different agro-ecological areas and natural resources, different groups within the community and different livelihood activities.

Once a basic map of the community has been prepared, it can be elaborated on in various ways.

Observation/transect walk

Once the team has obtained a general picture of the community from the mapping exercise, the team needs to verify the information that has been presented in the map and observe the resources, livelihood activities and the distribution of the various groups that have been identified. This can be done by choosing transects through the community, based on the community map, that will allow the team to observe these different aspects. Team members can then ask local people to accompany them while they walk along these transects so that they can ask questions and allow local people to explain to them what they are seeing.

These transect walks are particularly useful for:

verifying the information given during the community mapping exercise;

directly observing the different resources and livelihood activities that people have referred to during the mapping exercise;

obtaining a more detailed understanding of the resources and livelihood activities by asking probing questions about the people involved (who?), the way resources are used and activities carried out (how?), the seasonality and timing (when?) and location (where?) of resource use and the reasons behind particular patterns of use (why?);

identifying particular groups of households associated with particular livelihood activities and resources and noting where they live and where they can be contacted.

Interview techniques

Once the community mapping exercise and the transect walks have helped the investigating team to familiarize itself with the community, the resources and the different groupings within the community, the team needs to deepen its understanding of how the community is structured, how those resources are used and how groups within the community differ from one another. A range of interview techniques can be used to do this, supported by visual techniques for facilitating those interviews. These include:

Semi-structured interviews -where the team interviews individuals, small groups or households using a checklist of issues or topics (not a questionnaire) to guide their discussions. The semi-structured format allows for a freer exchange of information between the investigating team and the informants. Investigators can have a “discussion” with informants rather than an “interview”, creating more room for informants to raise issues that they feel are important.

Focus group interviews - where the team organizes a discussion or interview with a particular group of respondents that have a common interest in or understanding of issues that the investigating team wants to discuss.

Key informant interviews - where the team identifies individuals who, because of their position or experience, are likely to have particularly broad or in-depth knowledge about the community or a particular aspect of the community.

Most of the visual tools recommended for the community profile, such as maps, ranking, seasonal calendars, timelines and Venn diagrams, can be used as means of facilitating all these types of interviews and making those interviews more productive.

Ranking exercises

Ranking exercises are a highly flexible tool for analyzing, prioritizing and presenting information. Once investigators are accustomed to using them, ranking exercises can become extremely powerful means of representing relatively complicated sets of data in a way that is clear to both the investigating team and to local participants.

Ranking exercises are based on a comparison of various factors connected with:

Resource use - such as the people involved, the relative importance or abundance of different resources or the benefits derived from different patterns of resource use;

Livelihood activities - such as the people involved, their relative importance, relative benefits, the relative costs of different activities, the roles of people and institutions in those activities and people’s levels of dependence on different activities;

Development priorities - such as the types of constraints/opportunities, ranked by priority, starting with those that are locally considered most important to improve one or another livelihood activity.

The results of ranking exercises carried out with local people can be used as a direct representation of an analysis. The results provide an easy-to-understand record of discussions held with local people on different topics.

Seasonal calendars

The seasonality of livelihood activities and resource use will often play an important role in the way that household livelihoods and local institutions interact. For example, recurring seasonal food shortages among particular groups of people may be the main reason that they rely on local networks of patronage or relationships with moneylenders. Seasonal factors need to be looked at in detail at the household level when the team is investigating household livelihood strategies, but a general picture of seasonal patterns of activity is also important during the community profile. Information from discussions of the community map and from the transect walks will often provide a general understanding of these patterns, but they can be verified and clarified by developing seasonal calendars together with key informants or small groups. Seasonal calendars are a visual tool that provides a focus for these discussions of seasonal variations and represents them clearly.

During the community profile, seasonal calendars will be used primarily to:

represent and analyze, together with respondents, the seasonal patterns of the main livelihood activities in the community;

represent and analyze the seasonal patterns of resource use;

identify patterns of vulnerability due to seasonal factors, who is affected by those patterns and what their responses and strategies are to deal with them.


To understand the history of the community, timelines can be developed as a visual focus for discussion of the past and as a means of identifying key events that can provide essential reference points for people when they are discussing the history of the community. This may be especially important when local ways of measuring time are different from those commonly used by the team.

The analysis of past events, such as conflicts, periods of drought or natural disaster, or changes in the natural, social, political or economic environment, and the ways in which households and institutions have dealt with them, may be particularly helpful for the team. Timelines developed with local people can be used directly to illustrate these changes and provide a frame of reference for discussions of community history.

Venn diagrams

Venn diagrams can be used during the community profile for identifying key institutions within the community and the relationships between those institutions.

They provide a straightforward means of clarifying:

what institutions are present in the community;
how they relate to one another;
how their memberships overlap;
what their main objectives and activities are;
how important different institutions are for the different groups/persons drawing the diagram(s).

As the use of Venn diagrams involves discussing institutions explicitly, they are better adapted to the analysis of more formal, visible institutions like cooperatives, associations or activity-based groups. They can also be used to look at groupings within the community, such as ethnic, social or economic, religious or cultural groupings, that may be particularly relevant for understanding institutional relationships. They may be less appropriate to discussing “invisible” or normative institutions such as land tenure or informal codes of conduct unless these are related to specific groups of people.

Venn diagrams developed with local people can be used to introduce institutions to be selected for more detailed analysis in the Institutional Profiles discussed in Module 5 - Understanding local institutions.

4. Outputs of the community profile

The outputs of the community profile are particularly important as they will usually create a “framework” for the rest of the investigation. Teams are unlikely to have the time to carry out an in-depth community appraisal, but they must make the effort to thoroughly understand who is in the community and what they do, as this will enable them to decide how they are going to look at livelihoods and institutions.


As in the rest of the investigation, reporting should be carried out as an ongoing process. When the team meets to review its findings and discuss the directions of the investigation, key information and learning should always be extracted and recorded so that, at the end of the community profile, the reporting process should consist of simply “putting together” what has already been discussed during the course of the field work.

Keeping track of information and learning

Even a brief community profile using the methods described above can generate considerable amounts of information, and one of the main challenges for an investigating team is keeping track of all that information and the different methods that have been used to collect it. If the team is going to analyze its findings as the investigation progresses, it needs to be able to quickly see what areas have already been covered, what learning has been generated and how that learning can be illustrated.

Tables like the one that follow can be very useful in keeping track of all this and helping the team to focus on the key issues. It will also ensure that the outputs of the community profile systematically include all the key issues that the team has identified for investigation. Different tables can be used to review and record key information about different topics of investigation, and can be used as “memory checks” later on during the investigation.

For example, the first table uses, as a starting point, the different social and professional groups that might be identified during the community profile and records the key livelihood elements identified during interviews with people from those groups, along with the team members, the methods, the visualization techniques and the type of informant who provided the information. This helps the team keep track of the different sets of livelihood strategies identified and who is involved. The second table records the different institutions identified, which groups of people are involved in those institutions, and how information about them has been obtained and from whom.

Table 6 - Review of Learning from Community Profile - Social and Professional Groups, Baraley Village

Social or professional groups in the community

Main livelihood elements of households

Team members

Field methods used

Visualisation tools used

Type of respondents

Identify distinct groups in the community by their social or professional characteristics

List the distinguishing features of these households’ livelihood strategies, including key variants

Identify the members of the investigating team who collected the information relative to this particular group

Record the different field methods used to identify this strategy

Record the different visualization tools used during the interviews that can be used to illustrate the learning

Identify who the information was collected from

For example

Seasonal swamp- fisher households

Dry season fishing in swamp areas - men;
dry season fish trading - men/women;
agricultural labour (harvest) - men/women;
wet season cultivation of marginal lowland - men/women;
collection of swamp grass and cane - men;
mat production - women.

Ravi and Musa

Focus group interview

Resource use map
Seasonal calendar

Group - male/female

Recent immigrant households

Agricultural labour - men/women;
petty commerce - women;
rural transport - men;
vegetable cultivation - men/women;
remittances from home province - men/women.

Diane and Musa Key informant interview Seasonal calendar Individual - female

Investigators might choose to use other ways of ordering these tables, depending on the information that the early stages of their community profile generate. For example, if a detailed wealth map of the community has been produced, different wealth groups in the community might be placed in the left-hand column and the rest of the information ordered in that way.

The key point is to create a systematic basis for identifying the different household livelihood strategies and the institutions that are present in the community, and keep a record of the information that is being gathered about them. Later, once the investigation focuses in more detail on each of these key areas, information recorded in these tables can be transferred into similar tables developed for the household livelihood profiles and institutional profiles.

Complete recording of the methods used, respondents involved and the members of the investigating team who gathered different information will also help in the process of setting up a mechanism for continuous learning. It will help to monitor whether different points of view of the analysis have been taken into account to ensure a more complete and accurate picture of the situation. A mixed team composition, different sources of information and a mix of different methods help to cross-check the results.

Table 7 - Review of Learning from Community Profile - Principal Local Institutions, Baraley Village

Principal local institutions identified

Role, activities, area of influence of institutions

People/ groups affected by institutions

Team members

Field methods used

Visualization tools used

Type of respondents

Identify different institutions mentioned during course of community profile

Identify the role and activities of different institutions and the general area that they are concerned with or the influence they have

Identify any particular groups that are affected by or concerned with these institutions, including their members

Identify the members of the investigating team who collected the information relative to this particular group

Record the different field methods used to identify this strategy

Record the different visualization tools used during the interviews that can be used to illustrate the learning

Identify who the information was collected from

For example

Youth club

Organizes sports activities for village youth;
organizes village “clean- up” campaigns;
n experimental fish farming in local village pond.

Young people in the village - male and female;
whole village (through “clean-ups”);
experimental fish farmers;
young people from other villages (through exchange visits).

Ravi and Musa

Focus group interview

Seasonal calendar;
ranking exercise(comparing involvement of men/women, adults and youth in different village activities)

Group - male/female

Malaney - traditional land tenure arrangement

Controls access to best quality agricultural land;
ensures land use remains within families of limited group of landowners.

Estanio - original inhabitants of area;
abaduk - more recent settlers (i.e. most people in the community).

Daniel and Ravi

Key informant interview

Resource use map(showing land distribution and use);
timeline (illustrating history of settlement).

Individual - male (estanio community leader)

Ravi and Diane

Focus group interview

Resource use map;
Venn diagram.

Group - male (abaduk agricultural labourers)


A particularly important element in a “participatory” investigation is the validation of the investigators’ findings by local people themselves. Validation can be carried out either through community meetings, involving as broad a cross-section of the community as possible, or in smaller, focus group discussions.

The validation process provides the team with an opportunity to compare their interpretation of the information collected with local people’s understanding. This can be valuable both as a means of validating the information itself and as a way of understanding how local people’s viewpoints and interpretation might differ from that of “outsiders” such as the team members. Perhaps most importantly, the validation process plays an important role in ensuring that local people acquire a sense of ownership of the investigation and its findings. This can be particularly important in ensuring that local people continue to work with the team, and with any project activities that might follow, helping them, and project staff, to continue learning about the community and providing feedback on changes and the impacts of project activities.

By the end of the community profile, the investigating team should have a clear picture of:

the major patterns of resource use in the community, illustrated by maps;

the settlement patterns in the community and some information about the different livelihood patterns of different groups of people, illustrated by maps;

the major livelihood patterns in the community and which groups of households are engaged in those livelihood patterns, illustrated by ranking and seasonal calendars;

the main “visible” institutions present in the community and where they are located;

a historical profile of the community, different groups within the community and resources and resource-use, illustrated by timelines.

It is likely that, during the course of the community profile, the investigating team will learn much about other issues that will become more important in the subsequent parts of the investigation, such as:

some of the most important rules and regulations in the community and the livelihood activities that they influence;

the centres of decision-making within the community and the areas of influence that they affect.

This learning may provide important indications for the team regarding how to proceed with the rest of the investigation, but considerably more detailed work will be required in order to fully understand these aspects of the community.

The subsequent sections of these guidelines will focus on ways of developing a more detailed understanding of household livelihood strategies and local institutions.

The Malatuk Story - doing the community profile

The team reviews the results of the short reconnaissance visit and makes final preparations for the first part of its work in the field - preparing a community profile for each of the communities identified. The team members have developed a checklist of “issues” that they want to discuss at the community level, and with the help of the FAO Guidelines, they identify different methods they can use during the community profile. Based on this, they come up with a basic programme of what they will do in each community, but they realize that they may have to adapt and change that programme based on what they find in the field.

From the statistical data they already have, they assemble whatever is relevant to the communities they have selected. They decide, right from the start, that they will stay overnight in the communities both during the community profile and the rest of the fieldwork. During the reconnaissance, they have identified places where they can sleep and meet for discussions - a village hall in Baraley and a schoolhouse in Yaratuk.

For each community, the approach they use to start off the community profile has to be slightly different. They send a message informing the heads of the communities when they will be arriving. For Baraley, they also ask if the headman can organize a village meeting during the first afternoon where they can start off their discussions with the community as a whole. The team debates this decision at some length, as Daniel and Diane feel it is a good first move but Ravi is skeptical about how useful it will be. From experience, he knows that certain people invariably dominate “village” meetings. But they eventually agree that it could be a useful way of getting to know the community, even if the information they get out of it will need to be treated with caution. Since the work in Cosuma and Yaratuk will cover two different “villages”, and the “communities” concerned are smaller and more numerous, they decide that a single village meeting would not be practicable and that they will organize separate meetings in each of the smaller communities once they are in the field.

In both locations, these meetings start off, after the formal introductions, with a short explanation of why the team is there and then a community mapping exercise. The team members introduce the exercise by explaining that they think the maps they have seen may be out of date and they need to know where everyone in the village lives so that they can try to visit as many people as possible during their stay in the community.

In Baraley, this initial exercise involves a large cross-section of the community, including women and children, and generates a significant amount of enthusiasm. In Cosuma and Yaratuk, the mapping exercise has to be done four times in the two villages covered. The different “communities” involved include a hamlet of marine fishers, two mixed communities of farmers and traders immediately inland and a small community living in an adjacent swamp area.

The exercise in Baraley starts inside the village hall but then shifts outside to a courtyard where there is more space and more people can participate. The result is a detailed map of the community drawn in the sand, with each household in the village represented. The main livelihood activities of each household are represented and, during discussion while the map is being drawn, a number of “secondary” activities are identified that are more or less important for different households. The end picture gives the team an excellent basis for identifying different groups in the community according to their length of residence, their family connections and their livelihood activities. The results in Cosuma and Yaratuk, at first sight, seem more limited, but this is largely because each of the individual communities is smaller and more homogeneous, and the differences between households within each community seem to be more limited. In two of the communities, the team has to overcome considerable reticence among local people, and, except in the fishing community, participation by women in the mapping exercise is very limited.

Based on the maps of the community developed during these exercises, the team identifies a few transect walks through each community that will allow it to observe different types of resources and activities, as well as meet and talk to a cross-section of local people. The team members ask to be accompanied on these walks by individuals and small groups who can explain to them what they are seeing. They are particularly eager to see how far what has been described in the community mapping corresponds to what they find on the ground. During these walks in Cosuma and Yaratuk, they identify small groups of households that were not mentioned at all during the community mapping because they are not considered “part of the community” - in both places, these seem to be very poor, low-status migrant groups. The team makes a note of the need to find out more about these groups.

In the evening, in each working area the team goes back over the community maps with small groups of informants and gets them to rank relative levels of “well-being” for each household, using a few key indicators that local people have suggested themselves. These include ownership of livestock and land, house size and type, and the numbers of migrant workers sending remittances. They are careful to identify informants from a range of socio-economic groups. In a few cases, they split up to do the same ranking exercise with several different groups of informants from the same community so that they can crosscheck the results.

After these ranking exercises, the team reviews the information assembled and makes a provisional list of what appear to be the main activities in people’s livelihoods in each community. The team then lists the main variations in livelihood strategies as well as the various types of institution, organization, regulations and arrangements that have been mentioned so far. Based on this, the team members review and update their checklist of key issues to guide them in their interviews the next day. They also prepare a table where they can keep track of the information they collect about each of these groups and about each of the institutions mentioned, leaving room to update these tables as they identify new groups and institutions.

Next, they use their copies of the community maps, which now include a ranking of relative well-being for each household, to identify a range of households covering different economic and social groups and different types of livelihoods. They decide not to worry about visiting a proper “sample” of households at this point but simply to choose a few households that seem to have distinctly different characteristics.

The following day, they visit these different households to carry out semi-structured interviews in which they discuss in more detail the differences between households, the livelihood strategies that people use and why they make particular choices about those strategies. At this stage, they use two main visual aids during their semi-structured interviews. They usually start with a seasonal calendar, on which people can lay out the different livelihood activities they are involved in through the year. Once all the activities have been laid out, they use a matrix ranking to get people to show the relative importance of different livelihood activities for income, food supply and labour. This gives them a basis for asking more probing questions about each activity and the various factors that affect those activities. Diane and Musa organize some time in each community to meet with women, either individually or in small groups, to listen to their perspective and ask the some questions.

The team members quickly learn that they have to be alert at all times, as some of the most important issues arise when they are least expecting it. For example, in Baraley, they learn about a key local institution before they have even begun their “well-being” ranking. During the discussion of how to define “well-being”, local people make the point that access to land is an important “indicator”, but the amount of land owned is less important than the type and quality of land that households have access to. Most of the best land in the area is farmed by relatives of the owners, who are almost all descendants of the first settlers in the area. The informal arrangement by which these relatives are able to use this land is called “maraney”, from the fact that most of the landowners live in the provincial capital, Mara. These landowners prefer to distribute their land to relatives, and sometimes to friends, who reciprocate through a variety of informal channels, few of which involve money. The discussion of this arrangement also highlights an important distinction within Baraley between people descendant from the “original” households in the area, who are referred to as “estanio”, and more recent settlers generally called “abaduk”. These two groups have quite different sets of access rights and are involved in different livelihood activities. Both maraney and the distinctions between estanio and abaduk clearly represent very important “local institutions” that will require more investigation. The team sets itself the task, during the rest of the community profile, of establishing the numbers of people included in and excluded from these arrangements in order to make sure that both are covered during the more detailed investigation to follow.

In the small community in Yaratuk, located in the estuary of the major river in the locality, the team members make one of their most important discoveries during their transect walk. While drawing their community map, local people show how important brackishwater ponds for aquaculture have become over the last ten years. Consequently, the team makes sure that one of the transects goes through an area where some of these ponds have been dug. While doing this transect walk, the team stops by one of these ponds to talk to the owner.

As they are talking, Ravi notices a group of people arriving by canoe at a neighbouring pond and beginning to unload clay pots from their canoe. When he asks who these people are and what they are doing, he is told that “they are just gypsies” who collect fish seed for the pond. Afterwards, Ravi goes to talk to them and discovers that they are, in fact, people displaced from nearby communities who live in boats in the mangroves and live, among other things, by collecting fish and shrimp seed for the brackishwater ponds. They are not considered part of Yaratuk and have no rights to village resources although they live within the village area. They play a very important role in supporting this new aquaculture activity in the area but are subject to very different rules and regulations compared to local people. The conditions of this very vulnerable group, known collectively as “masleyarih”, subsequently become of considerable concern to the project. This is particularly important because the environmental changes caused by aquaculture development are causing concern in the area, and aquaculture is widely perceived as benefiting wealthier people and reducing opportunities for the poor. But in this particular area, aquaculture has also created significant opportunities for some of the poorest people largely because fish seed collection takes place in coastal swamp areas that are not subject to any form of regulation or ownership. Ironically, the very activity they support - aquaculture - also poses the main threat to this situation as the coastal swamp is increasingly being brought under new forms of institutional arrangements to permit its exploitation by private entrepreneurs.

After a day spent following up these various lines of enquiry, the team reviews its information and feels that sufficient information has been collected to design the rest of the investigation. While everything is fresh, the team members decide to note down the key features of what they should do in the next phase of the study. They make a rough estimate of the number of households they will need to talk to in order to have a reasonable representation of a range of livelihood strategies that they have identified. They discuss what methods seem to have been most useful and what elements will need more precise quantification.

All the team members have been particularly impressed by the level of cooperation they have received from some of the groups. In particular, they have had several very productive focus group discussions with groups of very poor households. The opportunity to discuss issues and analyze conditions with outsiders, like the team, is obviously something these groups value. So the team decides that it will try to build upon these relationships by “validating” any findings that have been generated and encouraging them to take an active part in the next phase of the investigation.

Previous Page Top of Page Next Page