Exploring the Frontier of Livelihoods Research


  • Leo De Haan,

    1. director of the African Studies Centre (PO Box 9555, RB Leiden, The Netherlands) and professor in ‘Development of Sub-Sahara Africa’ at Leiden University.
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  • Annelies Zoomers

    1. associate professor of human geography at CEDLA (Center for Latin American Research and Documentation), Keizersgracht 395–397, 1016 EK, Amsterdam, The Netherlands.
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  • The authors would like to thank Dr Bridget O’Laughlin (ISS, The Hague), as well as two anonymous reviewers, for their useful comments on earlier drafts of this article, and Young CIDIN for their stimulating brainstorming.


This article discusses the value of livelihoods studies and examines the obstacles which have prevented it from making a greater contribution to understanding the lives of poor people over the past decade. After examining the roots of the livelihoods approach, two major challenges are explored: the conceptualization of the problem of access, and how to achieve a better understanding of the mutual link between livelihood opportunities and decision-making. The article concludes that access to livelihood opportunities is governed by social relations, institutions and organizations, and that power is an important (and sometimes overlooked) explanatory variable. In discussing the issue of access to livelihood opportunities, the authors note the occurrence of both strategic and unintentional behaviour and the importance of structural factors; they discuss concepts of styles and pathways, which try to cater for structural components and regularities; and they propose livelihood trajectories as an appropriate methodology for examining these issues. In this way, the article also sets the agenda for future livelihoods research.