Methodological considerations for researching corruption and building urban integrity – a Qualitative Action Experiment in Zambia

The first contribution (Zinnbauer 2019) to the Cities of Integrity working paper series put forward two key messages: first, that tackling corruption in urban development is a key policy challenge of our time; and second, that activating the professional integrity of the urban planning community is a particularly promising and underexplored response to this challenge. Building on that framing, this working paper investigates the Qualitative Action Experiment (also referred to as “QAE” where expedient) as one particular methodological approach to studying corruption and integrity in urban planning. We illustrate the use and usefulness of this approach by drawing on the case of a QAE conducted with a cohort of Zambian professional planners in October 2019.

This paper begins by taking a deep dive introducing the popular imperatives for researching corruption, the common methodological approaches that ensue, and how such research usually gets translated into action. The paper argues that studies of corruption and integrity would benefit from supplementing somewhat orthodox corruption research methodologies – such as randomized control trials and large-scale perception surveys – with applied qualitative methodologies that allow for in-depth data gathering on human behaviours and more immediate translation of knowledge into action. Further, we advance the Qualitative Action Experiment (QAE) as a novel methodological approach to understanding corruption and building capacity in individual professionals as well as their institutions to champion integrity. As we show, the QAE methodology is well-suited for building integrity while studying corruption, because it occupies a middle ground between reflective observation and engaged activism, seeking practical solutions that allow for a “knowing with” instead of simply a “knowing about” participants.

To illustrate the QAE methodology in practice, we draw on QAE activities conducted in Zambia, tracing the ways in which they helped us to generate applied knowledge while exploring ways of building integrity and fostering a community of integrity champions amongst practicing planners. This paper targets urban and urban planning scholars, professional institutions in the built environment, international and national donors in the field of anti-corruption, anti-corruption watchdogs, and activists in both the anti-corruption and urban development fields. Through the QAE undertakings in Zambia, the paper shows how a QAE methodology can effectively enable researchers to engage with professionals as both research participants and change agents.

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