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Qualitative Methods in Monitoring and Evaluation: Card Sorting: A Participatory Tool for Qualitative Data Collection

Card sorting, one of the many participatory tools that evaluators use to gather data, helps us to see how a population sorts through and categorizes cards or oftentimes actual physical items. Since we do not set the parameters for how something is sorted, such an activity helps us to see the emic classifications as defined by members of the sample population. IFAD (undated) tells us that we use sorting to gauge people’s opinions. Sorting might help us gather qualitative data on who has access to resources, who is employed, who is in school by age, gender, socio-economic status, or what people think about different technologies or different service providers, for example.

Sometimes we engage in sorting exercises with individuals, to get their emic perspectives on categories. This helps us to flesh out different opinions and even knowledge levels. It might also help us to develop culturally appropriate definitions, or create cultural domains (Coxon, 1999). Creating cultural domains can be helpful for us as we set and operationalize the indicators for measurement and evaluation.

We also use sorting on a group level, to facilitate discussion around a topic. Listening to the discussion as a group talks about categories can help us to understand emic perceptions and different opinions amongst participants.

Using Card Sorting Exercises
How people categorize as individuals relates to their own internal cultures and experiences. This can give project planners, managers, and evaluators insight into emic perspectives and realities. For example, an American might think of a hippopotamus as a zoo animal, an animal from Africa, or an animal that should be protected. Someone from certain communities in Africa might see a hippopotamus as a food source or a threat to crops. These would all be very different classifications, depending on our own interpretations of the animal “hippopotamus.”

I once worked on a wildlife project where we engaged residents living near a game park to sort through pictures of the animals commonly found in the park. Not surprisingly, respondents’ categories included food source, pest, or predator (to many, predator meant an animal that would leave the park gates and come into populated areas, possibly killing people). This exercise helped project planners to understand better how people viewed wildlife, and how the government should integrate wildlife management into its outreach services.

Sorting can also be helpful on an individual level, to flesh out different opinions and even knowledge levels. For example, you might use a sorting exercise in a pest management project, where individual respondents are asked to sort a tray of dead insects into those that are “good” and “bad” to crop production. This would help to pinpoint if respondents are able to identify the pests threatening crop production in the village. Many non-governmental organizations use similar sorting activities to help identify local knowledge of disease-carrying mosquitoes or helpful medicinal plants, for example.

When we put together a sorting exercise, we need to ensure that our sorting exercise itself is based on emic parameters. We need to make sure the things we are asking our respondents to sort are culturally appropriate. Everyone in the population needs to understand and perhaps be able to identify the items they are asked to sort, or the exercise may not be useful for data collection.

When used as part of a wider evaluation design, sorting exercises can provide insight into local perceptions that is useful for project planners, managers, and evaluators as they monitor and evaluate projects.

Read more about qualitative tools for monitoring and evaluation.

Coxon, APM, Sorting Data, Thousand Oaks: SAGE, 1999.

International Fund for Agricultural Development, Methods for Monitoring and Evaluation, Rome: IFAD, undated.

About the Author
Dr. Beverly Peters has more than twenty years of experience teaching, conducting qualitative research, and managing community development, microcredit, infrastructure, and democratization projects in several countries in Africa. As a consultant, Dr. Peters worked on EU and USAID funded infrastructure, education, and microcredit projects in South Africa and Mozambique. She also conceptualized and developed the proposal for Darfur Peace and Development Organization’s women’s crisis center, a center that provides physical and economic assistance to women survivors of violence in the IDP camps in Darfur. Dr. Peters has a Ph.D. from the University of Pittsburgh. Learn more about Dr. Peters.

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