A systematic data collection technique used to further explore a topic of interest by allowing informants to group together items according to their own system of categorization. Informants are asked to sort cards on which relevant items are written, drawn or attached. They are then asked to explain the basis on which they sorted the cards. (WV 2000)

Pile sorting is a technique aimed at studying the relations among items within a domain (which have been identified through free listing or some other method).  It is useful for discovering informants’ perceptions of the similarities and differences among items, and to look at intra-cultural variation in how informants define domains. In a pile sort, informants are asked to sort cards with names or symbols of items written on them (or actual items, such as foods or medicines), into piles or groups according to whatever criteria makes sense to them. (CARE 1998)


Proportional Piling allows people to express their perspective of quantity by piling “counters” such as stones or beans that can then be put into percentages. (WFP M&E)

This is useful for estimating quantities and proportions, especially when working with people who are not used to quantifying data. For example, to discover the proportions of a livelihood group’s annual income to come from different sources, the procedure is as follows: (WFP 2009)

  1. Collect 100 dried beans, pebbles or anything similar that are all more or less the same size.
  2. Working with a focus group drawn from a specific livelihood group, ask the informants to divide the beans into piles relative to the income received from each source.
  3. Count the number of beans in each pile; this number is equivalent to the percentage of annual income to come from that source.


Matrix Ranking and Scoring is a way to structure the perceptions and opinions of informants so that individual or group qualities can be ranked in order of importance and the reasons for this ranking is discussed. (WFP M&E)

Ranking exercises, which may be done with groups or individuals, are a way to enable people to express their preferences and priorities about a given issue.  Rank order methods require informants to rank items (i.e., from most to least) in terms of a specific characteristic, for example, illnesses in terms of severity.  The technique may generate insights about the criteria through which different individuals, groups or social actors make decisions on the kinds of issues under investigation. (CARE 1998)


This is a good way of analysing the relative importance of different factors, such as when identifying which problems people consider the most severe. For example, four major problems have been identified: lack of rain, lack of health care, poor domestic water sources, and insecurity. Each problem is inserted on a grid, with the cells along and below the diagonal blanked out, to ensure that questions are not asked twice. Each pair of factors is then considered in turn, and the responses to the following questions noted on the grid. (WFP 2009)

A participatory data collection method where informants are asked to look at two items (a pair of items) at a time and state a preference for one. Many items can be compared with each other (two at a time). Items that are preferred most are considered the items most “preferred.” For example, informants can be shown cards indicating problems that others in the community have stated are important problems. Informants can be asked their preference for a problem to be rid of (of the two problems shown). Those problems that are chosen the most (when compared to other problems) are considered priority problems for informants. (WV 2000)


Identifying groups or rankings of households according to well-being or wealth, including those considered poorest or worst off; this often leads to identification of key indicators of well-being. Wealth ranking is a very useful technique for differentiating between vulnerable groups. (IFRC 1996)

Wealth ranking has been mostly used to identify who are the wealthy and who are the poor. Some work in advance is required to get a general sense of local social and economic organization and to understand local concepts of wealth. The first step is to obtain a list of names of households either by asking questions (through ‘social mapping’) or by using official lists (census, sugar rations lists), although these must be cross checked. The names of heads of household are written on cards which are sorted by several knowledgeable informants. They are asked to place the cards in piles according to their understanding of the wealth of each household. The range of groups and criteria are agreed and written on cards and then laid into 3+ piles by key informants to show groups of similar wealth status. Piles are reviewed and checked, and differences between groups placed in different piles are reviewed. The outcome of the exercise is that socio-economic groups are placed in different piles to represent relative wealth status. (IFRC 1996)

Well-being ranking covers much broader issues than wealth-ranking, and perhaps causes less confusion than wealth ranking It covers a number of criteria to stratify households other than wealth, such as numbers and species mix of animals, material indicators, housing type, access to credit household size, composition and life cycle stage, access to food, and trees. Other non-material aspects such as kinship support are also important. (IFRC 1996)

Using several different rankings is also a method of obtaining averages, especially if they have been produced by different interest groups. What groups of people to use? Ranking can be used with small groups of people or single informants at a time. Other approaches have been to use homogeneous groups in terms of age, gender or class, and then encourage discussion between groups at a later stage; other facilitators have used mixed groups with a range of opinion. There is a trade-off between the ability of a group to discuss and modify information, and the ability of the group to inhibit or dominate members. (IFRC 1996)

One of the most important exercises in a participatory livelihoods assessment. Village elders usually identify several different categories of well-being in the community. The number of categories of households will vary depending on the village. Fewer than three categories may mean that the categories are too general to be useful for analysis. Too many categories can complicate analysis. Generally, three to five categories is a good range to aim for. Commonly, three categories will divide into a poorer group, a middle group and a wealthier group. Sometimes there is a fourth category for the very poor. A fifth category might allow for additional socio-economic differences such as a group of market traders who do not depend on farming for their livelihood. (CRS 2008)


Part 1: Documents Describing the Techniques

WFP. Emergency Food Security Assessment Handbook, Second Edition. World Food Programme. Rome, Italy. January 2009. Accessible here.

CARE. Barton, Tom (1998). Program Impact Evaluation Process, Module 2: M&E Toolbox. CARE Uganda. Accessible here.

WFP. Choosing Methods & Tools for Data Collection: Monitoring & Evaluation Guidelines. United Nations World Food Programme Office of Evaluation. Rome, Italy. Accessible here.

WV. Rapid Assessment Procedures (RAP): Addressing the Perceived Needs of Internally Displaced Persons in Gulu District, Uganda. (World Vision, 14 September 2000). Accessible here.

IFRCVulnerability and Capacity Assessment Toolbox. International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. Geneva, Switzerland. October 1996. Accessible here.

CRS. Heinrich, G., Leege, D. & Miller, C. A User’s Guide to Integral Human Development (IHD): Practical Guidance for CRS staff and partners. Catholic Relief Services & USAID. Baltimore, MD. 2008. Accessible here.

Part 2: Documents Utilizing the Techniques

CRS. Livelihoods in Malawi: A livelihoods rapid assessment using the Integral Human Development conceptual framework. Catholic Relief Services. Baltimore, MD. 2010. Accessible here.

UNHCR. An independent evaluation of UNHCR’s Community Based Reintegration Programme in Southern Sudan. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Geneva, Switzerland. May 2011. Accessible here.