Proud to be one of a strong list of applied social science experts co-authoring a paper out this week, Expanding the role of social science in conservation through an engagement with philosophy, methodology, and methods (open access). Led by the clear-headed Katie Moon, of UNSW Canberra, this new article responds to a special feature in Methods in Ecology and Evolution on qualitative methods for decision-making. Given the mix of methods they included (e.g. including Q-method and MCDA), it seems they used qualitative as if synonymous with social, which is one of my pet peeves. But there were more substantial issues with the special issue. I have written before that I weary of reviewing papers led by teams of natural scientists who wade into social science work without involving any experienced social scientists, so was really happy to weigh in with this great team.
Full disclosure: I joined the team late, and my rationale is not theirs; I speak only for myself. But it was a real joy to develop fellowship and debate ideas with this group, despite our far-flung geography. I’m sorry only that a poorly considered analogy fuelled an angry place online, already in oversupply, distracting from the value of this contribution and the good faith of its lead authors. Good response articles are not the result of indoctrinated voices speaking in unison, but rather a novel network of scholars working together to iron out some of the wrinkles that have been causing collective discomfort. And there is just nothing like slipping into freshly laundered sheets.
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.
Conservation culturomics is one of this year’s emerging issues.
I drove in this slippery morning listening to the Smiths, turning off my car during Some Girls are Bigger Than Others. It’s still in my head, but now I’m hearing “some cites are better than others”. Earlier this week I saw that our Mactaquac ‘flocus group’ work was cited in an interesting new article by Susana Batel engaging critically with social acceptance of energy literature. Bummer, then, to see our paper reported as case work from Nevada, USA, instead of New Brunswick, Canada! Improving my mood, this morning, our culturomics commentary in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment on the potential of images in culturomics was one of five cited in the ninth annual ‘horizon scan’ of emerging issues for global conservation and biological diversity in Trends in Ecology & Evolution to support the growing importance of conservation culturomics. Some citations are truly better than others.
New Brunswick, with dots representing survey respondents, coloured by their Mactaquac preference.
Coincidentally, given the previous post, the last paper out of research that Energy Transitions in Canada undertook on the Mactaquac decision came out today in Water Alternatives. This new open source paper features both qualitative and quantitative analysis of a randomized proportional survey of 500 New Brunswickers implemented back in 2014, before the official public engagement campaign began in earnest. We compare the results of that survey against insights from our qualitative fieldwork with local residents, undertaken in 2013-2014. The paper describes how and why the local and provincial discourses came to align. It is part of a special issue on dam removal, so thanks to co-editors Chris Sneddon, Régis Barraud, and Marie-Anne Germaine for their hard work on the collection.
Late afternoon sun picks out a river course on West Falkland.
I am now back from my 3+ week immersion into the farming culture of the Falkland Islands, with 700 photos, 30 hours of interviews, 20 pages of observational notes, and a strong sense of my inadequacies as a specialist within a land of self-reliant generalists. Despite coming at the busiest time in the farming calendar – shearing and lamb marking – farmers were incredibly generous in their willingness to talk, and sometimes tour and host as well. My research assistant, Marilou Delignieres, went far beyond her role as recruiter, guide and driver, happily engaging in farm work and babysitting to help me get time with farmers. Her parents, Hugues and Marie-Paul, helped us with logistics, but also provided additional opportunities during my visit. I relished my discussions with members of a contract shearing gang then working at their farm Dunbar, and got to experience a cruise ship visit, one of the ways that many farmers here diversify their incomes and benefit from hosting penguin colonies and other wildlife. I travelled by 4×4, workboat (ferry) and Islander aircraft. I marveled at all scales: skies to ground cover. These memories will sustain me through the difficult transcription phase which follows such research, and support my subsequent analysis. Thanks to the OECD Co-operative Research Programme and Dalhousie’s Supplemental Sabbatical Fund for the fellowship funding to undertake this travel, and SSHRC for its support of Marilou.
Marilou throws a fleece in the Dunbar shearing shed, as Alex shears, Polly rousies, and Hugues and Marie-Paul look on, ready to class it.
Cruise ship tourists visiting Gentoo Penguins at Dunbar farm, with Death Head in the background – one of their tricker paddocks to gather sheep in.