Beyond questionnaires

Sep 26, 2022 | General

Recently I talked about the gaps in ocean perceptions research.  One of these gaps is the lack of methodological diversity.  Essentially, there are many ways to gather data from people about what they think, feel, know or do in relation to conservation.  In the ocean perceptions review, we found that researchers were not using the range of methods available – 70% of the 349 reviewed studies gathered data using questionnaires. 

If I ask a room full of people to name a social science method, “questionnaires” is the most mentioned method.  That makes sense – questionnaires are familiar to many of us whether we have social science training or not.  Questionnaires are a useful method.  They can be used to deliver valuable research. 

But what I would like to do here is highlight a few less familiar methods.  By diversifying the methods we use to gather data from audiences, we’ll be better able to understand the complex relationships between people and nature.

Photo elicitation

Imagine a project which aims to understand what a place means to individuals.  Photos can be a powerful tool for really exploring that meaning.  For example, respondents are asked to take a certain number of photos over a given time frame relating to a particular topic or question – e.g. why is this area important to you.  At the end of that time frame, the researcher interviews the respondent, using the photos as prompts – the respondent can explain what the image shows and why they took them.  The researcher then analyses both the responses from the interview and the photographs.  Photo analysis can include identifying natural features, presence of people, activities being captured and much more.    

Using photos in data collection is valuable for numerous reasons.  The focus on the photo during the interview can remove some of the confrontation of one person asking another person a question – it changes the dynamic of the interaction.  The photo becomes a prompt for the discussion – both for the respondent to refer to and explain, and for the interviewer to use as a vehicle for asking their questions.  This can provide researchers with a much deeper understanding of the meaning of a particular place.

Participatory mapping

Participatory mapping methods bring groups of people together to explore a subject via maps and discussion.  These are useful methods for understanding spatial issues and can be used in a variety of ways.  For example, to explore current uses or values attributed to places.  Or to develop scenarios such as locations for protected area designation or understanding the potential effects of changes in the management of a particular area or its activities. 

Participatory mapping can involve individuals from the same stakeholder group to gain a deeper understanding of the views of that particular group.  Or representatives from multiple sectors can be convened to compare different views in one discussion.  Multiple sessions can be conducted with different audiences.  Or an iterative approach can be taken where the same groups are engaged over a number of discussions as information is added to the process.  These methods provide both a different way to engage with respondents and gather their data, and also map based outputs which can be used in communicating the results of research in compelling ways.

Methods to ask sensitive questions

Some conservation issues require researchers to gather information about illegal or socially unacceptable behaviours.  Perhaps gathering data about illegal hunting, or whether that respondent has done something which they know the interviewer or their community will disapprove of.  This is methodologically difficult for many reasons.  Will the respondent be honest?  Can the researcher rely on the data collected?  Are people – respondents or researchers – being put at risk by sharing or knowing this information?  

A suite of methods such as the Randomised Response Technique use tools such as dice, or numbered balls to allow researchers to gather reliable data on sensitive topics, whilst maintaining respondent anonymity.  These have been developed for use in conservation from methods used elsewhere in social sciences to explore sensitive topics such as drug taking.  A review by Nuno and St John (2014) provides a good insight into this range of methods and how they have been valuable in sensitive conservation topics. 

These are just three examples of methods used to gather data which are not questionnaires.  Questionnaires are undoubtedly a useful method.  But when we consider the range of conservation challenges faced and the diversity of audiences needing to be heard for effective conservation, it is likely that relying too heavily on questionnaires will not allow us to adequately hear those views.  By expanding the range of social science methods being used in conservation, researchers will be able to ask more questions and gather increasingly valuable insight to inform conservation action.

Perhaps this blog has highlighted methods which are relevant to your conservation project, but you don’t have a social science background and aren’t sure where to start.  I recommend connecting with social scientists as early as possibly in your work to benefit from their skills and expertise on how to find the most appropriate methods for your work. 

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