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close this bookRecording and Using Indigenous Knowledge: A Manual (IIRR, 1996, 211 p.)
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View the documentIdentifying indigenous specialists

Identifying indigenous specialists


A method employing informal questioning and diagramming to identify individuals with specific know-how.


To identify indigenous specialists. Indigenous specialists are community members who have special skills or expertise in one or more subject areas or who practice a profession (e.g., healers). The method can be adapted to identify other types of individuals—such as decision makers, innovators, political opinion leaders, etc.

Materials Notebook

- Pen
- Manila paper
- Marking pen

Possible Approach

1 Define the topic you want to investigate (such as farming or health). Be as clear as possible about its focus and scope.

2 Identify the type of people who can help. It might be useful to start with people who are involved in activities relating to the topic. For instance, if the topic is farming, you should ask people who do farm work (both men and women). If the topic is cooking, ask family members who do the cooking.

3 Select a sample of up to 20 such people. The number of people will depend on the topic. For highly specialized topics (such as irrigation tunnel building), you will probably need only a small number of people in the initial sample, since only a few people are likely to be knowledgeable about these subjects.

4 Ask each person to name the people in the village who know the moat about the topic. Ask each respondent to name up to four people.

5 Write down the names of these people and where you can find them.

6 Visit each person named. Ask them to name the people who they think know the most about the topic. Add the new names to the chart and visit these new people.

7 If necessary, repeat steps 4 through 6 until no new people are named.

8 Draw a diagram showing all the people named. Draw each person as a circle with the name underneath.

9 Draw arrows from each circle pointing to the circles of the individuals each has named. Count and record the number of arrows pointing toward each circle.

10 The individuals attracting the highest number of arrows are the indigenous specialists for that topic.


- This method quickly generates a list of individuals with specific skills or characteristics.

- These individuals can supply valuable information about their particular area of expertise. (See other methods in this manual which rely on indigenous specialists or key informants.)

Dos and don'ts

- Do repeat the process for other topics as required. A specialist one topic (such as farming) is not necessarily the most knowledgeable person on another subject (such as cooking).

- Don't rely on indigenous specialists for information outside their area of expertise.

- Do make sure that you include a fairly wide range of people in the initial sample. Include men, women, rich, poor, high- and low-caste.


By changing the wording of the question, you can use a similar approach to identify other types of people or relationships. For instance:

- "If you need some advice, who do you go to?"—This helps to identify opinion leaders.
- "Who do you most often talk to in the village?" This helps to identify social networks.
- "Is there anyone in the village who you disagree with on (topic X) ?"

This helps to identify a range of opinions.


AIthough certain people may have a reputation for their skills they are not necessarily the best informants. The success on which their reputation is built might reflect their reduced need to make compromises rather than their skills—often wealthier people who have more land and access to higher inputs and therefore are less dependent on indigenous knowledge (adapted from Fairhead in HED 1991).