The term “Positive Deviance” initially appeared in nutrition research literature with the publication of a book entitled” Positive Deviance in Nutrition” by Tufts University nutrition professor, Marian Zeitlin, in the 1990s, where she compiled a dozen surveys that documented the existence of “Positive Deviant” children in poor communities who were better nourished than others. In this book, Zeitlin and her colleagues advocated for the use of this concept to address childhood malnutrition issues at the community level by identifying what was going right in the community in order to amplify it, as opposed to focusing on what was going wrong in the community and fixing it.
In the early 1990’s, Jerry Sternin, a visiting scholar at Tufts University, and his wife, Monique, experimented with Zeitlin’s ideas and operationalized the PD concept as a tool to promote behavior and social change to organize various PD-centered social change interventions around the world .
The Sternins helped to institutionalize PD as a social change approach by demonstrating its successful application, first to childhood malnutrition, and then expanded its successful application to a variety of seemingly intractable problems in diverse sectors, such as public health, education, and child protection, among others.
Based on these early successes, the approach was scaled-up both locally and internationally with the development of a community-based nutrition rehabilitation model called PD/Hearth which was promoted by USAID and other international organizations such as UNICEF.
Concurrently, the use of the PD approach was applied to other seemingly intractable problems, such as female genital mutilation (FGM) in Egypt in the late 1990s, with resounding success. Driven by these early successes, the Sternins, joined by a small group of PD champions, expanded the PD approach to new sectors and many organizations over the next decade.
The PDI has collaborated with a variety of partners to expand the use of the PD approach. Such collaboratives include ministries of health in different countries, foundations and INGOs, UNICEF, Peace Corps, USAID, and the World Bank, Within the US, PDI has also collaborated with the CDC, Plexus Institute, Delmarva Foundation, Department of Education, and teachers unions .