Participatory Methods in Development Aid: Circle and Stones

I work in the monitoring & evaluation team in our project which means that together with my colleague we are data collectors. We collect quantitative and qualitative data in order to gauge the project performance as well as learn from our successes and failures.

From a colleague of mine, Dr. Roy Thompson, I have learned a participatory approach for collecting income data. It is called Circle and Stones.

Before I begin, I should tell you about the limitations and benefits of this approach:

  • It will not give you perfectly accurate and reliable data on somebody’s annual income. Then again, measuring somebody’s annual income accurately is a challenge everywhere. We do not expect e.g. a farmer  to tell his or her annual income to us straight away after we have barged in his compound. Would you yourself do that? I don’t think so.
  • The data received from this exercise should therefore not be considered flawlessly scientific nor should any major conclusions be based on it, especially if the exercise is done only with one household. The data received from this exercise should be considered complementary data.
  • However, it is a wonderful exercise which hands over the power and voice to the respondent. If you facilitate the exercise correctly, you should merely give brief instructions to the farmer – he or she should be the boss of the situation.

You will need: three flipchart sized papers, a marker and 75 stones (bottletops will do fine as well).

1. Draw a circle in each of the papers. In the first one: write ‘5 YEARS AGO’. In the second one, write: ‘NOW’. In the third one, write: ‘5 YEARS FROM TODAY’. Place 25 stones/bottletops in the vicinity of each circle.


2. Start with the one in the past. Ask the farmer to recollect his situation five years ago. What income sources did he have then? Ask him to list all of them e.g. 1) wheat production 2) onion production 3) cattle fattening 4) working as a guard during weekends. One stone or bottletop represents one income source. Ask the person to place the stones in the circle, distinctively separated from each other.

3. After he/she has identified all income sources during a specific time period, ask the person now to weigh each income source with the stones. The more he earned with wheat production, the more stones he should add to that income source. If he only earned a little from onion production, he should add very few stones to that income source. Once he is finished, let him check the circle one more time and ask him if he is sure of the weighing. Then, ask him to recollect the income he received from each of those sources, e.g. 10 000 Ethiopian Birr from fattening.

4. Repeat the same for ‘NOW’ and ‘5 YEARS FROM NOW’. In the meantime, you can ask some relevant questions such as: Why did you not decide to continue producing wheat? What happened? For what reason have you switched to onion production?


The person should feel relaxed at this stage and discussion should flow smoothly – the exercise is a perfect ice-breaker for discussion since it gives control to the respondent.

In the end, you should have some estimates on his current annual income as well as vision for future income (by adding up the figures he gave you after the weighing was done).

You should also be aware of the reasons why the person has changed her income sources. What was her rationale behind diversifying or reducing income sources? Why is one income source favoured over the other? What does she dare to vision for herself 5 years from now?

The methodology allows you to go around the rude and direct question ‘How much do you make a year?’ and is more gentle on the respondent. In addition, it makes the respondent think of their choices regarding income and allows them to say their dreams out loud!


4 thoughts on “Participatory Methods in Development Aid: Circle and Stones

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