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Monday, June 23, 2008

What We Can Learn From Deviants

I just met with Jerry and Monique Sternin, who run a neat project called the Positive Deviance Initiative at Tufts University. The basic idea behind "positive deviance" is that solutions to community problems can't be trucked in from the outside, but rather already exist within the community and can be uncovered by finding those who do things differently—and better—than the norm. By finding these positive deviants, the initiative is helping to solve problems worldwide (malnutrition, poverty, HIV and AIDS, and girl trafficking among them), and here in the United States, it's working to tackle MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), a lethal hospital infection that kills thousands each year. Reducing MRSA infections requires more than a technical solution, says Monique; everyone in the hospital community needs to work together, including doctors, interns, maintenance staff, and those involved in pastoral care. Using their inquiry-based approach (rather than handing down mandates), the Sternins found one nurse who reduced infections by washing her patients' hands using a small hand gel flask she wore on her belt. Another hospital realized shared Bibles might be spreading the infection, and thought switching over to disposable Bible covers might help. "Nothing in life exists outside of culture" says Jerry, adding that answers to a problem in one setting might not work in another. If solutions aren't based on the value system, traditions, taboos, and strengths of a community, he says, they'll always fall short.
I'll be doing some writing on positive deviance in the coming weeks, so stay tuned for more on the initiative and the science of finding solutions to some of the world's most intractable problems. —Heather Wax