Social research: potential costs of satisfying academic needs?

by Tibor Hartel

Human domination of Earth ecosystems is increasingly visible and understanding systems of people and nature to address conservation issues is increasingly needed. Many people with ecological background are now shifting toward social research, and their number adds to the professional anthropologists, ethnographers and sociologists – of which number is also increasing. The ‘habitat niche’ of these scientists is represented by people from well urbanized areas to people from small, traditional villages. They are interviewed, surveyed and ‘focus grouped’. And it is always fascinating to find out the multiple realities coming out from their heads. Nevertheless, information from people is invaluable for creating development and conservation strategies which are grounded in the ‘real world’ (i.e., in the world of people).

I am one of those ecologists who are making such a shift. Well, if not shift, then just broadening interest toward social aspects of nature conservation. No matter how we take it, I find myself doing social type of research and reading many study cases and methodological papers about how to make it well.

And – with my amphibian ecologist background – I realized something: people are not like frogs. Below I share some of my feelings and thoughts about ‘studying people’ based on my first experiences with them including talks with good sociologist and other colleagues and friends.

Talking with people was more than just information exchange. And more than just verbalization. It might be that the way we look to each other, our gestures, our face, the tone of our voice, the way we talk, the way we listen, may be more important than what we actually say to each other. All these are rather ‘subjective’, ‘irrational’ (but definitely not antirational) aspects, but can make a (a short and long term) difference. I felt it.

A good friend from England, close to my age, who is social scientist, was with me this summer for some group exercises with people from villages. I don’t prepared him how to behave and he was for the first time inRomania. Have no Romanian knowledge and local people had no English knowledge. But this language and possibly cultural barrier was not a ‘handicap’: every local person told me that they have the feeling that he is active part of the group and discussions, although they don’t understand a word from what he says (and other way round). He was simply able to capture the local cultural and behavioral atmosphere and environment, and adapt to it, but at the same time keeping the main features of his own personality. In this way he was not perceived as funny but nice and friendly.

Possibly all researchers studying people are aware about the above mentioned aspects. And they try to be nice and useful. Many of them may manage it in a way to make people feel this research is indeed very useful, and they (i.e. the locals) are indeed very valuable, and unique.

While working with people one needs to have ‘a certain kind’ of ‘social patience’. Sometimes, researchers are too hungry for information, too enthusiastic and impatient and may be too pushy. Therefore, conversations may open unexpectedly interesting doors to new themes, and the researcher may push the talk on that line. But opened doors once need to be closed in a clever way – in this way a talk may make sense, and a ‘take home message’ can arise, which may be useful for both the interviewee and the scientist.

Shakespeare wrote in ‘As You Like It’ (1600): ‘Why then, can one desire too much of a good thing?’. Indeed, too much of a good thing can harm. Imagine small local communities, interviewed by myriads of researchers, all smiling, nice, and full with good wishes, and all of them addressing what they perceive ‘the most important problems of the planet’. Most often, they come, research, publish and go, and locals remain with their problems, and with the perception that all this ‘nice and patient’ look of the scientists may be a strategic game to access information’s and feel good for a while in the community. Sometimes local people expressed that while people outside of their villages come and go, and express how beautiful the village is, they (i.e. the villagers) remain in their poorness and with their everyday problems.

Social research is needed, and I see it as an important way to be grounded in real world. But social research can also ‘damage’ (I never experienced this personally in the area where I work but there are examples in other countries), and it may be up to us to make it effective and sustainable.

There are possibly many solutions proposed in the social science literature to minimalize the research ‘impact’ on people. Below I mention just few which comes in my minds, based on own experience.

–    ‘Be nice’, friendly, and respect local rules and values. However, not overdo it because you are foreigner anyway and whatever you do, you will be a foreigner, this is clear. For example, if I would talk to székely people of which accent are different of mine, I will never force myself to learn their accent before going to talk with them. Because I am not székely. However, I still can be nice in a way to not look completely strange, nor stupid, and have an interesting talk with them.

–    ’Poker face’ may not be helpful while talking to people. But being too enthusiastic when talking about specific subjects may not be helpful either because e.g. our happy face may make interviewees to insist more on the subjects we like. I experienced this, although I am not sure how general this may be.

–    Make time to go in the village outside research program. It happened that I was going in one of the villages I interviewed people, and I was prepared to stay for a talk, in the case I meet people I know and the situation requires to stay and share a word about minor things of life and to live place for a smile. Life rythm and the time may run in different ’dimensions’ in a small village (where generally is ’plenty of time’ to stay and talk, especially in wintertime and for older people) than in the busy world of scientists. But again, don’t overdo it. Being ’too present’ may not be good. It can make you funny, even if people don`t say it to you  explicitely.

–    I realized that before starting a social research, it is good to consider that other social scientists may come after us in that community to research. And our attitudes toward locals, may affect the locals attitudes toward the scientists going in that village after us. If the experiences are bad, then people will be dissapointed. And instead of opening them to find out their problems, we may close them even more. And in many places people may be already disgusted by the corrupt system where they live, and they may have already enough problems (e.g. social, economic) in their village. It would be good to not contribute to these problems.

–    It is good to be in touch with other social scientists working in the village. And to frame your research according to his / her on-going research. If you are too impactient, you can negatively affect on-going research, in many potential ways. I would even say that ideally I would cut some themes on what I am interested from my list, if the local researcher can provide me those informations. To not repeat talks with people. And even would design my sampling according to the suggestion of local person (and not according to the initial sampling design). Or why not, just avoid that village.

–    I would frame my research project in a way to respond to a local social need. I realized that no matter how interesting and helpful our ideas and projects can be, people may just ignore them because it may not be on their priority list.

– I would share and discuss my results with people.

Don`t forget: we all want to do something good and useful for people. Grounding our projects in reality of people, and not other way round may be a good step in this direction. In this way, the researcher and his skills and knowledge will be in the service of society, and not exclusively other way round.

I would be interested to know about your experiences, thoughts on this issue.

Suggested further readings

Chambers, R. 2002. Participatory workshops – a sourcebook of 21 sets of ideas and activities. London–Washington, DC.

Chambers, R. 2009. Whose reality counts? Putting the first last. Practical Action Publishing.

2 thoughts on “Social research: potential costs of satisfying academic needs?

  1. Dear Tibi
    You always have something really interesting and insightful to say in your blog. This entry was especially useful for me because I am also a natural scientist straying into the territory of social science. Thank you for making us think about these things

  2. Thanks for this entry. From a social scientist’s perspective it is interesting to see your point of view on the role of social research in studying ecological problems.
    The focus in this entry is clearly on the methodology and ethical side of empirical studies on society. Of course, it is important, however not what I would like to see as the only contribution of social sciences to resolving ecological problems. I would also disagree with you a bit on the special capabilities that social researchers have to conduct studies with people. We are trained in using our methodology, of course, but I wouldn’t say we are necessarily trained or born with any “social patience” or other skills you find important. To me this is more a matter of practice and expertise you gain while doing fieldwork and this can be achieved by people of different background. And I would bet that your sensitivity to ethical issues is bigger than in case of some researchers trained in social sciences… Learning methodology is relatively simple task, especially if you believe – as I do – that basic criteria for what is good and bad science don’t vary between social and natural sciences. Getting good information about social phenomena is a very basic thing. Explaining why they happen and what are the consequences is another, more difficult step. I think that challenges of doing interdisciplinary research are not mainly in changing objects of your studies (e.g. from frogs to people) or learning new research methods, but in using the knowledge produced within other disciplined in a meaningful way. So let me ask you a question (for another blog entry sometime, perhaps?). How theories and concepts developed in social sciences are helpful for you this respects?

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