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Social research meant as an investigation of the social reality by means of traditional social science survey tools has been the sector of activity that CERFE has worked in the longest. The institute actually began and became consolidated through a series of empirical studies on various themes such as catholic youth groups, the social conditions of the elderly, non-EU university students residing in Italy or the international cooperation activities conducted by donor countries in the Sahel region. CERFE’s research work has broadened over time and has moved towards the study of different types of complex social phenomena such as poverty and social exclusion, immigration, urban development, conflict resolution and small and medium-size enterprises.
CERFE has conducted its studies by means of different methodological approaches.

In some cases, mainly quantitative methods were used in order to gather data on large statistical samples, to reconstruct the universe of the target phenomena or to map these phenomena in their territory. This is the case, for example, with:
  • A study on hydro-geological risk factors, carried out in 1986-87, which led to mapping the landslides in all the municipalities at risk in Italy, making use of all the local knowledge available.
  • A study on citizens’ rights in the national health service, carried out in 1990-91, which involved the administration of questionnaires to about 2,000 hospitalised patients, to over 7,000 citizens and to over 2,600 health sector workers.
  • A study on non-EU immigrants in Italy’s Puglia region, carried out in those very same years by means of census-based survey techniques to assess the number of immigrants in each municipality.
  • A study on the vocational training of urban planning university graduates in Angola and Mozambique, carried out in 1996-97, which led to identifying all the urban planners operating in the two countries concerned and to reconstructing their relations by means of network analysis.

In other cases, instead, mainly qualitative methods were preferred, such as the study of narrative and linguistic material (biographies, life stories, testimonies, etc.), case studies, direct observation, documentary studies or the coordinated consultation of experts, key persons and stakeholders. Examples include the following:
  • A study on the social condition of the elderly, carried out in 1981-82, based on collecting and analysing over 350 biographies of elderly people.
  • A study carried out in 1997-98 in Guatemala and Somalia on the destruction and reconstruction of social capital in relation to the civil conflicts in those countries led to an in-depth study of the social relations and network of civil society organisations in some areas of the two countries.
  • A study on “corporate social responsibility in European small and medium-size enterprises , carried out in 1998-99 and based on case studies and on the identification of best practices (see also this UNIDO study on CSR ).
  • Research projects on regulatory barriers (in the broad sense) hindering the actual participation of civil society organizations in development programmes and initiatives in the fight against poverty and social exclusion . On the basis of these projects, a set of guidelines aimed at removing such barriers have been developed. Training activities for leaders of civil society organizations and government officers have been also carried out. A first project was conducted in Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic and Venezuela in the period 2000-2002 while a second project was carried out in Serbia between 2007 and 2008.
  • Research project (2006) on the migratory flows between Morocco and Italy involving high-skilled migrants. The project focused in particular on: the potentials of skilled migrations; the actual opportunities for taking advantage of skilled human resources involved in the migratory flows; the different modes of migrants’ return; the weight of the remittances and other forms of transfer in the framework of economic and social development process.
  • Research project (2005 -2006) on the micro-credit system in Morocco. The project was aimed at developing a model for taking advantage of microfinance for promoting development processes and fighting poverty and social exclusion.
  • Research project (2011 -2012) in Togo titled "Qualitative Assessment of Gender, Poverty and Economic Decision-making".

Many studies used a mixed form of quantitative-qualitative methodologies.This is the case for example of two studies on governance carried out in 2010 and 2011 in Ivory Coast and Senegal.

Apart from the methodological approach used, CERFE’s studies feature some distinctive elements, including:
  • The key role accorded to theory in the research framework and in interpreting the relative results (thereby avoiding the delegating of theoretical functions to statistical processing or, in qualitative type studies, to empathy or to the respondents’ opinions).
  • The attention paid to standardising the information in order to enable a proper comparison of information coming from different sources.
  • A knowledge-gathering orientation, which is primarily seen in the importance attributed to conducting detailed studies and reviews of the scientific literature before starting the actual research activities.
  • Valorising team work, above all, when analysing and interpreting the information gathered.
  • The attention paid to quality, both as regards processes (preparatory studies, project-designing, information gathering and processing, interpreting the information) and products (reports, technical tools, etc.).
  • The importance given to the “stake” with respect to the studied processes and thus to the social, economic and policymaking implications of the knowledge produced.
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