Kate Sherren

Landscapes - People - Global change

Category: Methods (page 1 of 11)

Governing Shale Gas: new book

Matt Dairon, John Parkins and I now have a chapter out on Matt’s Masters work at U of A in Governing Shale Gas: Development, Citizen Participation, and Decision Making in the US, Canada, Australia, and Europe. Our chapter is near the back, chapter 17 of 18: Seeking common ground in contested energy technology landscapes: Insights from a Q Methodology study.  While the book is about shale gas, this case study uses the same concourse as another recent paper, but in sites of shale and wind farm development in southwestern Alberta, and with interviews to bring nuance.

Edited by John Whitton, Matthew Cotton, Ioan M. Charnley-Parry, and Kathy Brasier, this book:

“… attempts to bring together critical themes inherent in the energy governance literature and illustrate them through cases in multiple countries, including the US, the UK, Canada, South Africa, Germany and Poland. These themes include how multiple actors and institutions – industry, governments and regulatory bodies at all scales, communities, opposition movements, and individual landowners – have roles in developing, contesting, monitoring, and enforcing practices and regulations within unconventional oil and gas development. Overall, the book proposes a systemic, participatory, community-led approach required to achieve a form of legitimacy that allows communities to derive social priorities by a process of community visioning. This book will be of great relevance to scholars and policy-makers with an interest in shale gas development, and energy policy and governance.”

NOLA book serendipity

Three books from my AAG trip to New Orleans

Three books from my AAG trip to New Orleans

Bookshelf serendipity strikes again! I can’t resist telling this story, though it was awhile ago. Appropriate to the geography conference I was in town to attend, I bought a compelling atlas of New Orleans by Rebeccas Solnit and Snedeker, Unfathomable City, part of a series at UC Press, at a small bookstore behind the Cabildo. Each map and essay tells an idiosyncratic story about the place, including human and river channel migrations, social and landscape erosions, including social clubs, seafood and sex. While excellent, it wasn’t an easy one to tote in my bag for idle moments.

The ‘take a book, leave a book’ shelf at my hotel filled the gap with But What if We’re Wrong, by pop seer Chuck Klosterman (sorry Columns Hotel, I’ll leave one next time). Klosterman is talking about the same thing that I was at AAG to talk about: climax thinking. He asks how we can learn to make decisions anticipating the many ways that we might be wrong, so we don’t box ourselves in. Instead we denigrate the people who made decisions or assessments we reflect upon today as folly, but assume against evidence that we’re going to be right. There is something to be said about doubt.

Having finished both of the above, I needed another book for the flight home. During a layover in Toronto airport I bought Everybody Lies by Seth Stephens-Davidowicz. He is a computer scientist who thinks data mining has replaced social science, so a few sections (particularly the conclusion) grated, but this was a fun (and surprisingly dirty) introduction to how secondary online datasets like our Google queries help us learn what people are really thinking and feeling. I have since brought up his examples in a few social science contexts, like the energy incubator at Cornell. I’m loathe to hand it to students, given some of the icky content (people are, it turns out, gross), but as survey response rates drop, offensiphobia rules, and questions around sustainability cross the sociology/psychology boundary, such datasets may well be the only way we can really understand what kind of society we are really working with.

Cornell Energy Incubator

Dylan Bugden chairs our discussion of research best practice.

Dylan Bugden chairs our discussion of research best practice.

Excellent first day here at the ‘Energy Incubator’ invited meeting here at Cornell, sponsored by Rich Stedman‘s social science fellowship at the Atkinson Centre for a Sustainable Future. Mostly Americans, save for Tom Beckley and Louise Comeau (UNB) and I, this group is gender- and experience-balanced and engaged in research across a range of energy/society issues: landscape, justice, gender, ‘booms’, impacts on other industries (ag), etc.

Getting started at the Energy Incubator.

Getting started at the Energy Incubator.

We started with short bursts on the more or less ‘half-baked’ ideas people pitched up before we came–at the half-baked end I talked about my ideas for an enpathy engine (that is, energy empathy) to combat climax thinking. We then brainstormed best practice for energy impacts research and broke into groups for some more focused discussions, which is what we’ll spend today doing. We then had a chance to explore the stunning Ithaca campus on the way to dinner.

The small hydro facility on the Cornell campus.

The small hydro facility on the Cornell campus.

Our meeting today was held in a beautiful centre at the Cornell Botanic Gardens, part of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, but the gracious campus buildings are also nestled beside stunning gorges that tumble down to the townsite. There is even a small hydroelectricity dam that provides power to the campus (probably a project of the Engineering school)? Sign me up, Cornell. 

Ithaca is Gorges!

Ithaca is Gorges!

Jeffrey Jacquet tours us around Cornell's gorges.

Jeffrey Jacquet tours us around Cornell’s gorges.

What is to be done (with Facebook)?

I’m not on Facebook. Never have been. Or Twitter. Or Instagram. Certainly not SnapChat or any of those newfangled things. But as a social scientist I’ve increasingly found useful the data that other people make public in such settings. Some reasons are pragmatic. The public has become exhausted by surveys, and are too busy to participate in interviews and workshops, at the same time that environmentally minded graduate students have become increasingly less likely to have drivers’ licenses and thus less able to head out on field work to run them. Human ethics research boards are generally unconcerned with data that people voluntarily place in the public domain, allowing quick pilot work using social media across a range of topics and publics. If you take user agreements and settings literally and assume that those data have been volunteered, it is quite easy to be ethical by aggregation and citation, like you would any source. Finally, I believe there is very real understanding to be gained by using such data as proxies to understand human values, preferences, behaviours, and yearnings. My qualitative methods course finished up this week with presentations, and it took my breath away what insight the students gained over a month on topics as diverse as sexually transmitted disease infection, sustainable food conceptualizations, and human disturbance of migratory shorebirds thanks to posts on Reddit and Instagram.

So then comes the recent horrifying news over Facebook and its business model: unscrupulously selling access to large volumes of personal data to even less scrupulous companies like Cambridge Analytica. So what do I do now, besides a quick (and perhaps smug) wipe of the brow with relief that I did not aid in either Trump or Brexit? The furor suggests that many people, maybe even some of the same ones who so clearly cherish unknown followers, are not aware their data is available to people like me.  They may not see my intentions differently than the infamous personality test that fed Cambridge Analytica, for instance if I advertise a scholarly survey via Facebook to target a very specific group not otherwise easy to capture. Moreover, how implicated might I feel if I paid them for that access, knowing now what kind of algorithms are driving that cleverness? Perhaps the lesson for researchers is the same as the lessons for social media users more generally; a somewhat Methodist moral that if something is effortless, there may be something wrong with it. Yet I will mourn the loss of access to social riches that will inevitably follow this news.

End of an era

Me with Simon Greenland-Smith at the Dalhousie University Club Pub.

Me with Simon Greenland-Smith at the Dalhousie University Club Pub.

Back in 2011 when I was a new professor at Dalhousie, Simon Greenland-Smith–then an Environmental Science Honours student–came to talk to me about his farmer survey about riparian buffers. John Brazner, provincial wetland specialist and Simon’s Honours supervisor, introduced us. Thank goodness he did.

Yesterday, Simon had his last day at SRES, finishing two years as the Wood Turtle Strides farmer stewardship program manager, working for the Nova Scotia Federation of Agriculture but sitting two doors down in SRES. In between, Simon worked in my lab as an undergraduate research intern, transcribing photo-elicitation interviews I did with farmers in Cumberland County; carried out a novel Masters of Environmental Studies thesis using wetland walkabout interviews with farmers in the Annapolis Valley to show how ecosystem services valuations miss many social values; became my go-to survey administrator and statistician for a range of research projects (e.g. dams of all things); and, picked up where Kate Goodale left off with our farmer extension website BioLOG, adding educational materials and a range of videos to the mix. He has been a great citizen inside SRES and out, including his leadership in DivestDal.

I’m equal parts sad and proud to see him head off Monday to work on marine conservation targets as National Campaign Manager of the SeaBlue Initiative (bringing together the Ecology Action Centre, Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, David Suzuki Foundation and West Coast Environmental Law). While we plan to keep collaborating, I wish him well in the new adventure, and hope to welcome him back to Halifax sooner than later.

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