Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

You are here

What do we mean by Deficit to Desired Based Approaches?

empowering's picture

Clarifying the Spectrum from Deficit to Desire Based Approaches: 

Deficit-Based Approach: A linear model, application-based, values efficiency, deals with single variables, sets controls for variables. Patches up a problem externally; streamlines and compartmentalizes. Approaches problems from what's lacking rather than what's possible.

Example of the strengths of Deficit Based approaches

Filling a Medical Void

Catherine Hamlin, an Australian gynecologist who has spent most of her life in Ethiopia, is a 21st-century Mother Teresa. She has revolutionized care of a childbirth injury called obstetric fistula, which occurs when the baby gets stuck in the birth canal and there is no doctor to perform a cesarean section. As many as two million women worldwide (and often young teenage girls) suffer from fistulas (Manolova 2014).

Dr. Hamlin and her late husband, Reg, set up a fistula hospital in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and their work proves that it is possible to repair the injuries cheaply. This hospital trained generations of doctors to repair fistulas and provided a model that has been replicated in other countries (Kristof 2014).

(This is deficit-based because she's seeing a need and filling it, she is indeed a hero but her impact is limited in the sense that she does not change the ideologies of the women being stigmatized in their country)

Some might say that approaching problems by primarily addressing deficits is more practical, streamlined, or "realistic". Humans naturally gravitate towards what's lacking, missing, or different, thus spotting deficiencies comes quickly and easily. 


Example of the drawbacks of Deficit Based approaches

Systems that perpetuate mass, cookie cutter education and that discourage individuality

For example, treating each student like a product in a factory line, using methods that perform “quality checks” by analyzing standardized data and categorizing students as “low-achieving” and “high-achieving”.

Deficit based approaches leave little room for possibility, growth, or achievement. By defining a person or idea through deficiencies, we inherantly box that person or idea into a void, while maintaining fewer expectations for change. Furthermore, deficiencies are often defined relative to a standard. Standards are based on what's expected by the majority or group in power, thus deficit based views often perpetuate systematic ideas that perpetuate inequalities and prevent possibility. 


Desire-Based ApproachNon-linear model, changes ideologies and attitudes; deals with multiple variables, examines the “context” and tries to discover the source of the problem and fix internally. Deals with messiness. Leaves room for possibility and change. Approaches problems from what's possible rather than what's lacking.


Example of the strengths of Desire Based approaches: Nursing homes that give more attention to a person’s abilities rather than his/her disabilities empower the elderly to build upon the strengths of old age rather than dwell on the weaknesses of old age. For example, nursing homes that employ mindfulness exercises and physical activities in order to manage stress and disease achieve healthier outcomes than nursing homes that use antipsychotic medication. (Jaffe 2014)


Example of the drawbacks of Desire Based approaches: Some concepts are more difficult to describe without beginning with deficit based ideas. Some examples include “depression”, “eating disorder”, and “illness”.


In a desired based view, the deficit-based view can be an analytical avenue that enables the creation of greater possibilities and higher level of thinking in order to achieve a greater level of desired-based thought. We invite readers to resist the temptation of categorizing ideas into a binary of “deficit” versus “desire”. Instead, think of “desire” based approaches as working through and alongside “deficit” based approaches in order to reach a more complex way of thinking about an issue.  Desire and deficit are not in complete opposition, but rather we need to acknowledge both in order to reach empowering ways of thinking and treating others.