Resource Flow Analysis: Cool Tools

We often find ourselves talking about symbols and emotions in fieldwork rather than digging into some of the more basic structures of life. How do basic elements of survival interact with and shape world view? How does that influence or shape buying patterns? In an age of what appears to be long-term economic distress, understanding how and why resources move in daily life can shed significant light on how we market and design. So let’s take a few minutes to wax nerdy and talk about resource flow analysis.

Traditionally, resource flow analysis has aimed to quantify the flow of resources, in terms of mass, within a defined geographical area or industry sector over a set period of time. What comes in, what goes out, how does it shape behavior and action. But the application of a resource flow analysis model can extend well beyond the industrial setting and be used to better understand daily life. It is yet another marvelous tool to add to the ethnographic tool kit.

The study of the complex issues around how resources are attained, used, repurposed and disposed of within a household or community is called resource flow. In essence, it is a process by which people or companies catalog the purchase journey. Statistically, humans are alone only a small percentage of their lives. We exist in family units, social webs, neighborhoods, work structures and other organizations. All resource input (salary, crops, material goods, other capital) will inevitably be filtered directly or indirectly by multiple individuals, including pets. This is true even for those who live alone, except in extreme cases. For ethnography in a business context, you should rarely concept resource flow in a 1:1 ratio.

Generally speaking, resources can be defined as materials or products. Raw materials are extracted from nature and consumed as they are or combined with other materials to produce finished products. The consumption of materials and products creates waste which can be disposed of or repurposed. Resource flows also identify hidden flows, which are materials extracted from nature but not consumed or incorporated into final materials and products. Therefore, to complete a resource flow analysis of a geographical area it is necessary to qualify: • Household material imports. • Household material production.

• Modes of acquisition.

• Waste disposal and repurposing.

• Hidden income flows.

• Means of attaining capital.

• “Hidden” capital.

• Implicit and explicit users.

• Power structures of use.

• Decision patterns for use and disposal.

A good way to start is to ask an individual in the group to draw representations of those things in the home, office or community that bring in money or goods. Next, have them do the same – but focus on those things that take out money or goods. There will be debate about these representations from other members of the group (in public and in private). The goal is to get people talking about how the process works and the factors influencing it. Make sure to document observations and diagram the resource flow. Try to keep any and all participants actively engaged through discussion and cooperative diagraming.


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