The 1990s saw a remarkable change in the rhetoric of international donor and lender agencies. The “magic of the market” paradigm of the previous decade gave way to a “balanced” strategy in which the state had a crucial role to play. The primacy of economic growth gave way to an emphasis on “poverty reduction”, with poverty being defined not simply in income terms but as a “multidimensional” construct, also covering low levels of education and health, vulnerability and powerlessness. To address this broad agenda, agencies turned to experts on “social development”, often providing a welcome boost to their own previously somewhat marginalised social development teams.

This concern with social issues and social context lead to a greatly expanded demand for new methodologies and methods which could provide improved “knowledge” and “understanding” of social processes. A battery of “toolkits”, “manuals” and “sourcebooks” were produced, each of which promised not only to meet this demand but to do so quickly, efficiently and often in partnership with local people. This Working Paper reviews some of the main methodological approaches to emerge from this period, reflecting on both their ambitious objectives and somewhat more prosaic limitations.