Disaggregated contributions of ecosystem services to human well-being: a case study from Eastern Europe

By Andra Horcea-Milcu

This new paper is part of recent efforts (e.g. Spangenberg et al. 2014) to widen the ecosystem service metaphor in order to encompass the multiple ways in which nature supports human well-being. As I tried to illustrate in more detail here, the evolution of the ecosystem service discourse has roughly followed down the Haines-Young and Potschin ‘cascade’ towards the beneficiaries’ end: their capabilities, agency, interest, power, preferences, inner values, and the totality of social processes influencing the cascade (e.g. the management of the ecosystem services flow). The question of how is human well-being connected to ecosystem services gave rise to new research agendas including issues of co-production by social-ecological systems, equity (e.g. Pascual et al. 2014), benefit distribution and disaggregation of beneficiaries based on various criteria such as gender or location (e.g. Daw 2011). Disaggregation enables studying in more depth patterns of ecosystem services flows, similarly to how a finer scale analysis allows to research different patterns in comparison to a coarse scale approach.

Adept Foundation booklet

Adept Foundation booklet

Disaggregated contributions of ecosystem services to human well-being: a case study from Eastern Europe” explores the unequal distribution of nine provisioning ecosystem services among potential beneficiary groups in Southern Transylvania and the contextual factors that explain this distribution. Data collection was based on group interviews. For analyzing the data we used an informed grounded theory approach operationalized in two iterative cycles of qualitative coding, performed similarly to how I explained here. Initially inspired by Daw et al. 2011 and by the literature on access (Ribot and Peluso 2003), this paper proposes a conceptual model based on six mediating factors that better situate the relation between human well-being and nature’s benefits. The developed model is in line with reflections on the co-production of ecosystem services by various elements and forms of capital pertaining to the social and ecological system (e.g. Palomo et al. 2016, but see also here for a total zoom out).

Conceptual model of mediating factors (MMF)

Conceptual model of mediating factors (MMF)

Factor 1 characteristics of the appropriated ecosystem services
We separated the investigated ecosystem services in three categories based on their capacity to generate indirect benefits such as cash income or employment.
Factor 2 policies, formal institutions, and markets
Factor 2 is about the visible institutional and policy contexts shaping the well-being contribution of nature’s services to humans. In our study area, these were frequently associated with the perceived effect of specific policies such as the European Common Agriculture Policy and its agri-environment measures.
Factor 3 social and power relations, and informal institutions
The intricate webs of power, knowledge and social relations among beneficiaries further enhance or block access to ecosystem services benefits.
Factor 4 household decisions and individual contexts
Well-being circumstances like income levels, abilities, preferences, livelihood decisions, and strategies at individual or more aggregated levels such as households add more complexity to the ecosystem services–well-being relationship.
Factor 5 different perceptions and understandings of equity
Mental models of fairness and adjusted expectations distort outcomes of the ecosystem services–well-being relationship. Our study illustrated that what is regarded as legitimate is linked to locals’ judgments and mental models, placing fairness in the eye of the beholder.
Factor 6 individually held values
Finally, the sixth factor pertained to values and norms held by participants.

The above factors share similarities with others identified in the recent literature (e.g. Hicks and Cinner 2014), although they may differ in terms of jargon, but less so in terms of content and meaning. The delineation of these factors is based on the analytical assumption that our model facilitates the study of ecosystem services–well-being relationships by deconstructing their contextual complexity. In reality, these factors interact (see last section before the Discussion) and future studies may reveal the ways this happens in different settings. For example, in Transylvania, the conventional discourse that regards ecosystem services as instrumental to poverty alleviation is overly simplified and ineffective. Objective needs versus subjective wants, perceptions and attitudes about who is entitled to benefit from ecosystem services, they all make a difference. Likewise, the deeply held values (factor 6), may reverse the self-reinforcing dynamic of the other factors that perpetuate the gap between winners and losers.

Group Interview

Beyond the importance of the factors and their dynamic which is detailed in the paper, I would like to take a more scientivist stance, and highlight a few place-based insights that it is worth being acknowledged in addition to the conceptual contributions of this paper. What I found most striking about this piece of research is the story it told (together with the other papers from my thesis) about who are the winners and losers that benefit the nature of Transylvania. Many studies now show that ecosystem services flow unequally to different beneficiaries (e.g. Felipe-Lucia et al. 2015). In the case of Southern Transylvania benefits seem to flow to supertenants (Romanians or foreigners living outside the village, but having economic connections to it) and much less to small scale farmers. Hence supertenants (sometimes called ‘townsmen’ like in this excerpt from my pilot study: “P1: Let’s be grateful there aren’t too many of these. P2: Yes. There are not too many townsmen who invested here”) are socially and physically disconnected from these landscapes. They are less vulnerable to changes in ecological conditions and not part of the rural communities. Meanwhile small farmers, through their practical connection to the land, are considered genuinely and functionally connected to the landscape. The extent to which supertenents may or may not be potential actors in the land grabbing phenomena remains yet to be investigated. Nevertheless, the veil of mystery surrounding their identity from the perspective of our interviewees still remains fascinating, even after such a emotional strenuous fieldwork as this study entailed, and the many challenges we faced in getting participants around the table. Despite occupying sizeable land surfaces, supertenants did not seem to occupy the mental space of our participants (largely rural community members). They were very seldom spontaneously mentioned, usually requiring prompting. Their access to land however explained many of the unknowns and question marks surging during the group interviews, such as the apparently untraceable but largely detectable vanishing of ‘the commons’, known to be ‘at the heart’ of the traditional Transylvanian villages.

As a follow up to this study and supported by our understanding of these particular social-ecological systems and human-nature relationships that we built during the past Romania project, we will try to further explore the transformative role of values and social relations. By conducting a transdisciplinary case-study in Southern Transylvania, within the Leverage Points project, we will focus on associative structures around land access for small-scale farmers, and their importance for moving towards sustainability and its intra- and inter-generational equity dimensions.



Daw, T., Brown, K., Rosendo, S., & Pomeroy, R. (2011). Applying the ecosystem services concept to poverty alleviation: the need to disaggregate human well-being. Environmental Conservation, 38(04), 370-379.
Felipe-Lucia, M. R., Martín-López, B., Lavorel, S., Berraquero-Díaz, L., Escalera-Reyes, J., & Comín, F. A. (2015). Ecosystem services flows: why stakeholders’ power relationships matter. PloS one, 10(7), e0132232.
Haines-Young, R., & Potschin, M. (2010). The links between biodiversity, ecosystem services and human well-being. Ecosystem Ecology: a new synthesis, 110-139.
Hicks, C. C., & Cinner, J. E. (2014). Social, institutional, and knowledge mechanisms mediate diverse ecosystem service benefits from coral reefs. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(50), 17791-17796.
Palomo, I., Felipe-Lucia, M. R., Bennett, E. M., Martín-López, B., & Pascual, U. (2016). Disentangling the pathways and effects of ecosystem service co-production. Advances in Ecological Research.
Pascual, U., Phelps, J., Garmendia, E., Brown, K., Corbera, E., Martin, A., … & Muradian, R. (2014). Social equity matters in payments for ecosystem services. BioScience, 64(11), 1027-1036.
Ribot, J. C., & Peluso, N. L. (2003). A theory of access*. Rural sociology, 68(2), 153-181.
Spangenberg, J. H., von Haaren, C., & Settele, J. (2014). The ecosystem service cascade: Further developing the metaphor. Integrating societal processes to accommodate social processes and planning, and the case of bioenergy. Ecological Economics, 104, 22-32.

Milestones in sustainability related research and useful readings

I once heard this question being asked within an interview setting for a university position. I thought then, as I do now, that it is an inspiring way to structure my thoughts regarding the different disciplines and associated worldviews I am exposed to, or work with. I find timelines and evolutionary perspectives extremely useful, especially for those who share a time orientated understanding of the world. Rather than thinking in spatial landmarks, I like to create timelines in my mind. I suppose structuring research fields would also work nicely (or even nicer) with mind maps.

Following this logic, I tried to sketch some personal answers, which would probably need some revisiting soon enough. I would like to share with you a few relatively recent trends that I see gathering even more momentum in the near future, being aware there are many other milestones one could consider. In sharing these thoughts, I think mainly about young PhD students or academia scholars, but mostly non-academia professionals, such as practitioners working in the field of sustainable development. Hence, this is fairly simplified, with only a few references and suggested readings of papers deemed representative of their respective field.

We tried to debate some of these thoughts in our yet “pilot journal club”, so this may serve as a proposition for a more “holistic” journal club session.

Photo credits: http://chelonianri.org

Photo credits: http://chelonianri.org

Ecosystem services (ES) research

Research on ES evolved quickly from conceptualization, localized documentation and modeling of ecological dynamics, to policy and management applications, such as the creation of payment schemes for ES. A very nice timeline is provided by Gómez-Baggethun et al. 2010. Ecologists, economists and policy makers now widely engage with the concept, turning ES into a heuristic tool for revealing the multiple ways in which ecosystems support human well-being, an operational tool for making decisions, and a compelling language for policy makers. At the same time, the concept has generated a lot of criticism because of its hypertrophied focus on utilitarianism and potential commodification of nature (e.g. Schröter et al., 2014). Specifically, some authors have viewed ES as a one sided simplistic metaphor of human-environment relationships (e.g. Norgaard 2010, Raymond et al. 2013), ignoring different, often non-material, values that beneficiaries may assign to ecosystems. In response, new research agendas have emerged, including issues of: co-production by social-ecological systems, socio-cultural valuation of ES (e.g. Martín-López et al. 2014, Scholte et al. 2015) depending on a wide variety of values that stakeholders assign to ES (based on well on their own held values) (e.g. Ives and Kendal 2014), equity (e.g. Pascual et al. 2014), benefit distribution and disaggregation of beneficiaries based on various criteria such as location or gender (e.g. Daw 2009). The academic discourse on ES has roughly followed down the Haines-Young and Potschin ‘cascade’ towards recognizing their stakeholder driven nature. At the current stage there is growing interest in studying and understanding the more anthropospheric side (e.g. Spangenberg et al. 2014), or the ‘subjective end’ of the cascade: the plurality of benefits and values associated with different beneficiaries and their well-being. The general discourse is moving towards stakeholders, their capabilities (e.g. Polishchuk and Rauschmayer 2012), agency, interest, power (e.g. Fisher et al. 2013, Felipe Lucia et al. 2015), preferences, inner values, and the totality of social processes influencing the cascade: mobilization, appropriation, value articulation (e.g. Ernstson 2008), management, governance, normative foundations (e.g. Abson et al. 2014).

Social-ecological systems (SES) research

This point has been thoroughly dealt with in a previous more detailed blog entry (see also here). In short and simply put, present discourses seem to focus on the fundamental connection between the social and the ecological system, and, at the same time, the risk of disconnection or the dangers of teleconnections (e.g. Challies 2014), as well as potential solutions such as innovative re-connections supporting a transition towards sustainability. To these ends, SES research is striving to accommodate and adapt its frameworks to the social dynamics of globalizing systems inherently pertaining to a global economy and market. A variety of new conceptual frameworks (e.g. Diaz et al. 2015, Diaz et al. 2011, Fisher et. al 2014) are trying to capture better the interlinkages and interdependencies between nature and people and between science and society, while acknowledging them as being an integrative part of the other, and inseparable in reality. Authors are increasingly placing the focus on the knowledge about links between “the social” and “the ecological”, knowledge that was generated beyond disciplinary boundaries, at the interface between science and society (e.g. Fischer et al. in 2015). Papers are proposing various recoupling strategies (e.g. Fischer et al. in 2012), emphasizing reconnecting social-ecological feedbacks (Folke et al. 2011), such as more effective “virtuous circles” between natural, cultural, and economic assets (e.g. Plieninger and Bieling 2013, Selman and Knight 2006).

(Cultural) landscape research

The landscape lens brings forward the landscape as an arena for sustainable development and knowledge integration. Here, I would chose to stop over the rise of landscape stewardship, as a way to operationalize moral concerns in relation to social-ecological interactions that were enounced as early as the 50s (Leopold, 1949). Science for relinking communities and landscapes draws attention to the potential of landscape stewardship as one of the ambitious but effective ways to achieve sustainable management and design inclusive rural development policies (e.g. Plieninger et al. 2015). Integrating a broad suite of landscape values through engaged forms of stewardship is thought to balance out the dependency on active outside input (again inherent to a globalized world).

Sustainability science research

An important acknowledged milestone for sustainability science is re-thinking boundaries and structures, overcoming societal roles, and transforming the science-society interface, through for example the co-design of research projects and the co-production of knowledge fitting with transdisciplinary approaches (e.g. Lang et al. 2012, Brandt et al. 2013). Other suggested pathways are the recognition of its normative foundations through mapping and deliberating sustainability held values (e.g. Miller et al. 2014).

Resilience thinking

Resilience thinking continues to receive a lot of criticism for not sufficiently acknowledged limits such as the lack of attention to normative and epistemological issues. Recent discourse on resilience aims to open towards fields more engaged with the issues of power and agency such as political ecology or sociology, which may complement the arguably functional perspective of resilience. A permanent work in progress, resilience theory continues to develop, striving for a more complete knowledge integration of human and ecological dynamics. A more detailed perspective is offered here.

Sustainability related governance research

Finally, I am not sure to which extent this is a milestone, but I retained that in addition to the governance models incorporating elements of participatory (non-state multi-actor engagement, e.g. industry, NGOs) and multi-level governance, recent literature calls for polycentricity, further emphasizing the idea of a collaborative dispersion of authority (Biggs et al. 2015). Advanced polycentric systems comprise multiple independent centers of decision making, with different levels of inclusiveness, collaborating horizontally and vertically at various scales. In theory, these systems may isolate failures, but if successful, may be reproduced elsewhere. I found this idea worthy of further explorations in contexts with a diversity of elements pertaining to the social subsystems: different formal and informal institutions, land-use preferences, management approaches, various values, perspectives and interests such as identified in Southern Transylvania.

In conclusion, I take from these potential milestones that the general trend seems to be towards integration of existing knowledge, conceptual and epistemological openness and plurality, and maybe even a ‘subjectivisation’ of science, in hope of achieving meaningful contributions towards normative goals.

As for future directions, I guess one of the main questions that stems from the above are: 1. Do we need to engage more in these pathways, and if so how can we capitalize on them? 2. Do any of these potential milestones are going to lead to any fundamental changes in approaches towards sustainability (e.g. mainstreaming transdisciplinarity?)

As already mentioned, there are many other interesting developing directions in all of the scientific disciplines I touched upon. The few selected are reflective of a particular research experience and perspective I had from my positioning as a PhD student dealing with the ecology of the social system. This is just a starting point from where the mind can continue traveling boundlessly to imagine infinite perspectives outside comfort zones.


  • Abson, D. J., H. Von Wehrden, S. Baumgärtner, J. Fischer, J. Hanspach, W. Härdtle, H. Heinrichs et al. “Ecosystem services as a boundary object for sustainability.” Ecological Economics 103 (2014): 29-37.
  • *Bennett, Elena M., Wolfgang Cramer, Alpina Begossi, Georgina Cundill, Sandra Díaz, Benis N. Egoh, Ilse R. Geijzendorffer et al. “Linking biodiversity, ecosystem services, and human well-being: three challenges for designing research for sustainability.” Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 14 (2015): 76-85.
  • *Biggs, Reinette, Maja Schlüter, and Michael L. Schoon, eds. Principles for Building Resilience: Sustaining Ecosystem Services in Social-Ecological Systems. Cambridge University Press, 2015.
  • *Brandt, Patric, et al. “A review of transdisciplinary research in sustainability science.” Ecological Economics 92 (2013): 1-15.
  • Challies, Edward, Jens Newig, and Andrea Lenschow. “What role for social–ecological systems research in governing global teleconnections?.” Global Environmental Change 27 (2014): 32-40.
  • *Cote, Muriel, and Andrea J. Nightingale. “Resilience thinking meets social theory Situating social change in socio-ecological systems (SES) research.” Progress in Human Geography4 (2012): 475-489.
  • Daw, Tim, Katrina Brown, Sergio Rosendo, and Robert Pomeroy. “Applying the ecosystem services concept to poverty alleviation: the need to disaggregate human well-being.” Environmental Conservation 38, no. 04 (2011): 370-379.
  • Díaz, Sandra, Fabien Quétier, Daniel M. Cáceres, Sarah F. Trainor, Natalia Pérez-Harguindeguy, M. Syndonia Bret-Harte, Bryan Finegan, Marielos Peña-Claros, and Lourens Poorter. “Linking functional diversity and social actor strategies in a framework for interdisciplinary analysis of nature’s benefits to society.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 108, no. 3 (2011): 895-902.
  • Díaz, Sandra, Sebsebe Demissew, Julia Carabias, Carlos Joly, Mark Lonsdale, Neville Ash, Anne Larigauderie et al. “The IPBES Conceptual Framework—connecting nature and people.” Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 14 (2015): 1-16.
  • Ernstson, Henrik. “The social production of ecosystem services: lessons from urban resilience research.” Ernston, H, In Rhizomia: Actors, Networks and Resilience in Urban Landscapes, PhD Thesis, Stockholm University (2008).
  • Felipe-Lucia, María R., Berta Martín-López, Sandra Lavorel, Luis Berraquero-Díaz, Javier Escalera-Reyes, and Francisco A. Comín. “Ecosystem Services Flows: Why Stakeholders’ Power Relationships Matter.” PloS one 10, no. 7 (2015): e0132232.
  • *Fischer, Joern, et al. “Advancing sustainability through mainstreaming a social–ecological systems perspective.” Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 14 (2015): 144-149.
  • Fischer, Joern, Tibor Hartel, and Tobias Kuemmerle. “Conservation policy in traditional farming landscapes.” Conservation Letters 5, no. 3 (2012): 167-175.
  • *Fisher, Janet A., et al. “Strengthening conceptual foundations: analyzing frameworks for ecosystem services and poverty alleviation research.” Global Environmental Change5 (2013): 1098-1111.
  • Fisher, Janet A., Genevieve Patenaude, Kalpana Giri, Kristina Lewis, Patrick Meir, Patricia Pinho, Mark DA Rounsevell, and Mathew Williams. “Understanding the relationships between ecosystem services and poverty alleviation: a conceptual framework.” Ecosystem services 7 (2014): 34-45.
  • Fisher, Janet A., Genevieve Patenaude, Patrick Meir, Andrea J. Nightingale, Mark DA Rounsevell, Mathew Williams, and Iain H. Woodhouse. “Strengthening conceptual foundations: analysing frameworks for ecosystem services and poverty alleviation research.” Global Environmental Change 23, no. 5 (2013): 1098-1111.
  • Folke, Carl, Åsa Jansson, Johan Rockström, Per Olsson, Stephen R. Carpenter, F. Stuart Chapin III, Anne-Sophie Crépin et al. “Reconnecting to the biosphere.” Ambio 40, no. 7 (2011): 719-738.
  • Gómez-Baggethun, Erik, Rudolf De Groot, Pedro L. Lomas, and Carlos Montes. “The history of ecosystem services in economic theory and practice: from early notions to markets and payment schemes.” Ecological Economics 69, no. 6 (2010): 1209-1218.
  • Ives, Christopher D., and Dave Kendal. “The role of social values in the management of ecological systems.” Journal of environmental management 144 (2014): 67-72.
  • *Lang, Daniel J., et al. “Transdisciplinary research in sustainability science: practice, principles, and challenges.” Sustainability science1 (2012): 25-43.
  • Leopold, Aldo. The land ethic. USA, 1949.
  • Martín-López, Berta, Erik Gómez-Baggethun, Marina García-Llorente, and Carlos Montes. “Trade-offs across value-domains in ecosystem services assessment.” Ecological Indicators 37 (2014): 220-228.
  • Miller, Thaddeus R., Arnim Wiek, Daniel Sarewitz, John Robinson, Lennart Olsson, David Kriebel, and Derk Loorbach. “The future of sustainability science: a solutions-oriented research agenda.” Sustainability science 9, no. 2 (2014): 239-246.
  • *Newig, Jens, and Oliver Fritsch. Environmental governance: participatory, multi-level-and effective?. No. 15/2008. UFZ Diskussionspapiere, 2008.
  • Norgaard, Richard B. “Ecosystem services: From eye-opening metaphor to complexity blinder.” Ecological economics 69, no. 6 (2010): 1219-1227.
  • Pascual, Unai, Jacob Phelps, Eneko Garmendia, Katrina Brown, Esteve Corbera, Adrian Martin, Erik Gomez-Baggethun, and Roldan Muradian. “Social equity matters in payments for ecosystem services.” BioScience (2014): biu146.
  • Plieninger, Tobias, and Claudia Bieling. “Resilience-based perspectives to guiding high-nature-value farmland through socioeconomic change.” Ecology and Society 18, no. 4 (2013).
  • *Plieninger, Tobias, and Claudia Bieling. Resilience and the cultural landscape: understanding and managing change in human-shaped environments. Cambridge University Press, 2012.
  • *Plieninger, Tobias, et al. “Exploring ecosystem-change and society through a landscape lens: recent progress in European landscape research.” Ecology and Society2 (2015): 5.
  • Polishchuk, Yuliana, and Felix Rauschmayer. “Beyond “benefits”? Looking at ecosystem services through the capability approach.” Ecological Economics 81 (2012): 103-111.
  • Raymond, Christopher M., Gerald G. Singh, Karina Benessaiah, Joanna R. Bernhardt, Jordan Levine, Harry Nelson, Nancy J. Turner, Bryan Norton, Jordan Tam, and Kai MA Chan. “Ecosystem services and beyond: Using multiple metaphors to understand human–environment relationships.” BioScience 63, no. 7 (2013): 536-546.
  • Scholte, Samantha SK, Astrid JA van Teeffelen, and Peter H. Verburg. “Integrating socio-cultural perspectives into ecosystem service valuation: A review of concepts and methods.” Ecological Economics 114 (2015): 67-78.
  • Schröter, Matthias, Emma H. Zanden, Alexander PE Oudenhoven, Roy P. Remme, Hector M. Serna‐Chavez, Rudolf S. Groot, and Paul Opdam. “Ecosystem services as a contested concept: a synthesis of critique and counter‐” Conservation Letters 7, no. 6 (2014): 514-523.
  • Selman, Paul, and Melanie Knight. “On the nature of virtuous change in cultural landscapes: Exploring sustainability through qualitative models.” Landscape Research 31, no. 3 (2006): 295-307.
  • Spangenberg, Joachim H., Christina von Haaren, and Josef Settele. “The ecosystem service cascade: Further developing the metaphor. Integrating societal processes to accommodate social processes and planning, and the case of bioenergy.” Ecological Economics 104 (2014): 22-32.
  • *Turner, Matthew D. “Political ecology I An alliance with resilience?.” Progress in Human Geography (2013): 0309132513502770.

*Suggested readings

Ideas for a PhD defense

By four newly pressed graduated PhD students

In continuation of Joern’s blog entry on strategies for a successful PhD, and since all of the four PhD students working on the Romania project have just finished their PhD, we would like to take a reflexive step, and share our experiences with you about our PhD defenses. At Leuphana University in Germany, the common procedure is to present one’s work in about half an hour, followed by one hour of questions and discussion, the actual “defense”. This procedure can be seen as a last formal step to being accepted in the “scholars’ club”.

We hope our thoughts will be useful for the next generation of PhD students, or to anyone who googles this topic.

The following is not an exhaustive list and there are plenty of other good posts on the topic (e.g. 1, e.g. 2). Similarly, this post is not intended as a blueprint for preparing a PhD defense. It is up to the candidates how they would like to approach this step. As we had the chance to see the strengths in each others’ presentations, it contains what we thought worked well in our defenses, but also what we now believe we could have done better. As a little disclaimer, we should mention that none of us respected all of the following points… that is why we entitled this post “ideas”, and not strategies for a successful PhD defense, as we actually did not test all the suggestions below. Moreover, merely having a list of useful things to think about is not sufficient, since they also need to be put in practice, which can be difficult in conditions of stress, nervousness and limited time. Likewise, there is always the possibility of over preparing which can distract one’s focus from the achievements of the research (see one of the points below).

So here’s a collection of lessons learnt and useful tips.

Before the presentation

  • Take time. We would recommend two to three weeks in total: One to two weeks for the preparation and practicing of the presentation, and approx. one week for refreshing the memory.
  • Re-read your papers or your monograph several times to be very clear about the methods (and eventually theories) used, the key findings, and what you could have done differently. Arguably, no research is perfect and while you should be aware of potential faults or weaknesses of your research, you should also focus on the positives.
  • Also in relation to refreshing the memory, be able to articulate some important milestones in the evolution of your research field, together with some recent trends as well as potential critique to the theories and approaches you used.
  • On a secondary note, if time allows, tackle the matter of working out additional material and continuously building your knowledge and understanding by trying to mentally integrate some new ideas presented in recent publications. Simply put, stay updated about recent developments in your research field.
  • If not already, get familiar with the work of your reviewers so that you will be able to answer questions in a common “language”. This may also improve your understanding of their way of thinking, and help to anticipate their potential questions during the defense.
  • In the case of a cumulative dissertation, the presentation would benefit from clarifying the overall internal logic and coherence of your papers combined. Also, how does this show in each of the papers?
  • Some distinctive slides on the knowledge generation, significance, and/or applicability of one’s research to the broader academic world are very much welcome (i.e. the “so what?” of your findings, as well as research gaps closed).
  • In the case of co-authored papers one should be able to shortly and clearly explain one’s contribution (it might be obvious, but less so in conditions of stress).
  • Write down the answers to the examiners’ comments on your thesis (which you receive approx. one month before the defense). Try to tackle their main points of criticism during the presentation, and ideally have some “backup” slides prepared for the actual defense afterwards. One may also prepare supplementary slides with some of the questions you thought about yourself or you were asked during test defenses; it can help to use these slides when answering questions during defense.
  • Prepare for the typical questions. These may be content related such as the strengths and limitations of the applied method(s), justification of the use of a particular conceptual framework/theory, explanation of the normative assumptions underpinning one’s work or theoretical framings that were used, and eventually the ‘policy relevance’ of your findings. At least three of us were asked “how would you put into practice and/or translate into specific policies your general recommendations”.
  • Other questions may be rather related to the overall experience as a PhD student: what did you enjoy the most, what would you do differently, what have you learned, what would be your next research goals/steps, what would you do research-wise if you had an unlimited amount of money? Arguably, one cannot pre-empt all (un-)foreseen issues, but we found it a useful reflection exercise. There is also the danger of over preparing, and trying to prepare for every possible question or situation can dilute one’s focus from the main points of the research.
  • Presentation: Focus on your achievements (findings) and their implications. Focus on what you are knowledgeable about. Try to be as precise as possible, and avoid “unnecessary” details.
  • Practice your presentation. At the beginning alone, then with the cat, aunt, on the balcony, on the roof, with pointer or not, etc. Finally, give at least one test defense in front of your colleagues, friends, etc. and kindly ask them to comment and ask questions. We differed greatly among each other in the number of times we practiced. If possible, try to practice once in the actual room where you are going to give your talk. This helps checking whether the projector properly displays the colors you selected for your graphs, and also gives you a feeling for the actual “defense situation”.
  • Stress management; this is crucial and often not tackled well enough. Despite giving a fair number of public presentations until the moment of the defense, some may still be overwhelmed by the amount of emotions. Here again, it varies enormously from person to person, so we will just mention some of our own stress coping strategies: during the days prior to the defense, having someone to bounce back all the accumulated potentially negative energy; try to make sure to have some close friend/family member/colleague sitting in the defense where you can focus at while presenting your thesis; doing sports during the preparation period to clear one’s mind, working on the defense in a different and quiet environment where people would not ask every five minutes how preparations are going.
  • Logistics: prepare the room so that you feel comfortable in it; bring sufficient water for yourself and the examiners, adapters, chocolate, a “don’t disturb sign” on the door, pointer, an extra connection cable for the projector (in case it collapses), pen and paper. Have a copy of your thesis handy in case examiners refer to an exact page in your thesis, etc.

During the presentation

  • We all had very different talk speeds and rhythms, so it depends on what one feels comfortable with (breathing seems a good idea, for example between sentences, but may not always be possible…).
  • Use the pointer to make things more accessible.
  • Show you acknowledge the formality of the procedure by being dressed appropriately.

During the defense

  • Write down the questions you receive in case you are susceptible to forgetting them (it also gives you some seconds to think about, and eventually structure your answers already).
  • When answering try to link to papers you authored or that you read; it may be difficult to remember authors, but it may be worth it. Maybe make a “top ten list” of papers that you really liked during the PhD and that are useful to support more than one argument.
  • Try to underline your arguments with examples (e.g. from other policy fields/world regions). Admittedly, the purpose of a PhD defense is to argue for the importance and validity of one’s results, especially when those results are challenged, but the extent and ways this is done varies.
  • Enjoy your defense as it is a nice occasion when so many bright minds focus on what you have to say and on having a dialogue with you. The defense is also the time when you can confidently showcase several years of research and effort. One can think of this experience as a discussion between peers. This may also be an opportunity to maybe go beyond your work and think about it holistically. Use the time to talk to your examiners afterwards, as you might be working with them in the future. Finally, it is also a time to possibly have nice conceptual talks with researchers you admire, not fearing that you are wasting someone’s time.

As we wrote the above, we have realized that probably the most important point is the last one. “Enjoy the experience of the <<fall>> and worry about the landing when you get there”, as Dave so nicely put it in one of his comments.

These ideas are open for debate. What other points would you add?

How I see qualitative coding

By Andra Ioana Horcea-Milcu

When answering to reviews of qualitative or semi-qualitative interdisciplinary papers, I noticed researchers may be sometimes challenged to explain how they arrived to the qualitative results they present. This made me think several times about how I analyze my own interview data, which often comes down to explaining how I code the data, which is potentially more difficult than the coding itself. I would like to deconstruct the way I perform or rather see coding in this blog entry. More specifically, I would like to emphasize one of the aspects that, to my mind, is often overlooked. As a disclaimer, I would like to mention there is a lot of literature on the different technicalities, types, cycles, etc. of coding, and I believe there is no such thing as a single recipe to these. Here, I aim to provide an intuitive meta-view on coding while I am still learning about it.

Coding: a 3D process

Broadly speaking, qualitative coding is a way of operationalizing the analysis of qualitative data by labeling fragments of it (Bryman 2012). I like to look at coding as a 3D process (Fig. 1) having its origin (0,0) in the research question. Simply put, one dimension are the themes, another one the concepts, and the third dimension is the interpretation.


First dimension

On the OX axis there is the actual content, the expressed themes, the substance. Coding along this axis goes more in the direction of thematic coding and content analysis. It is the more descriptive part of coding and in my opinion, it is also the most grounded stage of it. Themes may stem from prompted and unprompted content, i.e. emergent themes which may remain as a separate category.

Second dimension

I see the OY axis complementary to the first one. Here we find the underlying content, its form, the way it is expressed and constructed, the more abstract notions. This goes more in the direction of discourse analysis, axial coding, abstraction, conceptualization. It is the more analytical stage of coding. Here, I try to look in my data for more abstract concepts, sometimes guided by the literature, based on the refined codes pertaining to the first dimension.

Third dimension

Finally, I use my own knowledge and creativity to link the above together, and meaningfully “lift” the results above the data, in relation to the research question. Although generally more “invisible”, depending on the extent to which coding is aimed at building a theory, the importance of this axis (OZ) increases. It is thanks to this dimension that we are able to interpret data (i.e. attribute meaning to codes, intermediate points on OX and OY). This is also one of the reasons why qualitative data analysis software cannot fully replace the researcher. The importance of this “interference” of the researcher with the result became clear to me when a more senior social scientist recommended me two editorials: Pratt 2009 and Suddaby 2006. The third axis is, in my opinion, the salt and pepper of coding. It is an area of creativity and where the art of coding becomes possible.

The result

Qualitative results don’t just happen. Although qualitative results presented by papers may seem just as sudden as the black dot on Fig. 1, in reality they represent several dimensions. My understanding is that, depending on the research question, the result, what we report as a finding, is somewhere situated along these three axes (or more, as each of them can be further decomposed). Along the axes, we focus, we aggregate, we synthesize, we reduce, ultimately we extract. Processing and analyzing data along each of them is part of the result. For simplification, going along the axes could correspond to different iterative cycles of coding. This (at least) bimodal coding process is quite commonly described by several authors; e.g.: first-order and second-order codes in Pratt 2009, first and second cycle coding in Seldaña 2009, first-level and second-level codes in Tracy 2013. In reality, I think these dimensions are not so clearly separated and may happen simultaneously.

Reviewing coding

When coding, the researcher is inherent to the results. In my opinion this has interesting implications for the review process. It needn’t mean that one should cease looking for objectivity or repeatability or that coding isn’t pragmatic, but rather to acknowledge and recognize the characteristics of qualitative research. Although I am still learning about this, I think that the existence in the research design of elements indicating concern for quality criteria, internal coherence, triangulation, feed-backs, and transparency could increase the credibility of results and make the third dimension more embedded (and justifiable). Saving the coding tree at different moments in time allows for tracking back the way codes evolved through the analysis, if necessary. Keeping a record of iterations or metadata about codes, could be also useful ways to transform coding into a “HD” process.


I tried to briefly discuss the way I think about coding, and convey how I broadly code qualitative data. Probably, every researcher has a different way of approaching coding, and has built and adapted through time his or her own understanding of qualitative coding. There may be many other ways to decompose this process and explain how one arrived to specific results. However, openly acknowledging the third dimension of “this movement of data” would make communication among the more quantitative driven and the more qualitative driven scientists more amicable and enjoyable.


Bryman, A. (2012). Social research methods. Oxford university press.

Pratt, M. G. (2009). From the editors: For the lack of a boilerplate: Tips on writing up (and reviewing) qualitative research. Academy of Management Journal, 52(5), 856-862.

Saldaña, J. (2012). The coding manual for qualitative researchers (No. 14). Sage.

Suddaby, R. (2006). From the editors: What grounded theory is not. Academy of management journal, 49(4), 633-642.

Tracy, S. J. (2012). Qualitative research methods: Collecting evidence, crafting analysis, communicating impact. John Wiley & Sons.

New paper: Navigating conflicting landscape aspirations. Application of a photo-based Q-method in Transylvania (Central Romania)

Andra Ioana Milcu, Kate Sherren, Jan Hanspach, David Abson, Joern Fischer. Land Use Policy (full paper available here or here)

How do locals look at their landscape and what do they want from it? These are two questions we’ve been trying to answer since the start of our research project, and the answers are “differently” and “many things” respectively. These questions are interesting to ask in the context of any cultural landscape, but all the more of those subject to increased and confusing pressures from external drivers. In Southern Transylvania, the global and European socio-economic contexts translate in demanding and often contradicting challenges for the Saxons landscapes. On the one hand, as globalization turns into reality for this region as well, traditional subsistence agriculture loses its economic profitability and agricultural intensification becomes a strong model for development. On the other hand, a growing awareness of the threats and continuous alterations cultural landscapes are facing drives European policy makers to elaborate conservation policies which seek to preserve the valuable ecological subsystems.

Our aim was to understand the various ways in which locals think and feel about the cultural landscape of Southern Transylvania and its future role. In order to do so, we employed the Q methodology, a research method that explores people’s subjectivity by identifying shared ways of thinking about a certain topic by how they sort a set of stimuli related to it. 129 participants from 30 villages were asked to sort 33 landscape photos in a forced normal distribution according to what they would like to see more of in their village or village surroundings. By focusing on the respondent and his own system of reference without using imposed a priori meanings, the Q method becomes friendlier to the subjects, which might explain some of the positive feedback we received from locals.

We would like to acknowledgephoto credits to the following colleagues, contacts and web-sites, who agreed to the photos being used for the purpose ofthis: Silvina Armat, Ana Saftiuc, Sebastian Dan (www.newsbv.ro), www.fele-apa-fele-viz.blogspot.com, Cristi Darie, Alin Todea,Mariana Cut¸, www.liliac.com, Andrei Ostroveanu, www.blog.artizanescu.ro, Viorel Iras¸ cu, www.cntours.eu, and Jacqueline Loos.

Characteristic arrangement of photos for one of the factors

Our findings revealed five ways (viewpoints) in which locals perceived their landscape.

Landscapes for prosperity and economic development (F1)

People sharing this opinion thought that landscapes should be put at the service of development and seemed most determined to adopt any means or technologies in order to achieve modernization and economic growth. Pictures suggesting wild, nature-dominated landscapes, or traditional agricultural practices were rated poorly. These people were willing to accept a trade-off between prosperity, and cultural and natural heritage, that might come with development. F1 included many state officials and individuals in management positions who often administrate or control relatively large areas of land.

Landscapes for traditions and balance (F2)

People sharing this opinion prioritized spiritual values and saw landscapes as a way to maintain their cultural identity and traditions.Their preferences suggested pastoral landscapes in which people interact with the landscape in somewhat idyllic ways. They were seeking this balanced relationship between human intervention and nature while projecting on the landscape their own expectations. Ironically, they idealized traditional agriculture, although many of them practiced agriculture mostly as a hobby, not as a source of income. Paradoxically, they had a strong need for sense of place, although F2 included the largest proportion of foreigners. As these individuals made a conscious choice to escape modernization, their lifestyle became dependent on the conservation of the landscapes and maintaining the cultural identity.

Landscapes for people (F3)

People sharing this opinion feel that landscapes should fulfill basic human needs and provide leisure activities. In contrast with F2, for F3 agriculture was a way of survival and they looked at landscapes with fear but at the same time gratitude being dependent on it for food, water and heat. They also preferred traditional rural landscapes but without being able to identify those precise elements of cultural identity or heritage. Very specific to this factor was the concern for community cohesion and seeing landscapes as a space for celebration and community. They had the highest proportion of relatively poor subsistence farmers and day laborers.

Landscapes for farming (F4)

People sharing this opinion think that landscapes are meant for farming and cultivating land.

But while F1 individuals wanted to explore all development opportunities offered by nature, F4 individuals generally viewed agriculture as their only option for achieving development and well being. This group was the least impressed by the beauty of nature and felt little connection to recreation activities in nature. However, they expressed appreciation for open landscapes and had an aesthetic preference for well-maintained settings that mirror stewardship qualities, and seemed to prefer a mix of new and old farming practices. This group was dominated by medium-large farmers, directly shaping and being dependent on the landscape.

Landscapes for nature (F5)

This is the group of recreation consumers that appreciate a natural landscape for its visual qualities. Preferred settings suggested high appreciation for greenery-dominated landscapes and denoted the least degree of anthropic intervention  in the landscape. F5 displayed less active engagement in the landscape than F2, less dependence on the landscape than F3 and F4, and considerably less power than F1. This group included retired country-dwellers but also commuters and weekend inhabitants.

Fig. 5

Conceptual space diagram illustrating the positioning of factors and associated viewpoints (regarding the landscape) relative to the level of desired modernization and the change agency level of individuals within a given factor relative to the landscape

In keeping with this diversity of opinions and interests, we believe Southern Transylvania would gain from avoiding ecological and economical simplification, as well as the homogenization of landscapes and cultures. Policies that nurture diverse opportunities for development, by providing equal chances for economically viable farming, such as operational markets for niche products stemming from traditionally managed areas, as well as non-agricultural livelihoods such as culture-based tourism) are key for the region. Economic diversity, with its various income opportunities, is dependent on a diverse and rich landscape. Landscape heterogeneity would also mitigate conflicts of identities and values over the landscape, which are recently arising among locals with different visions and values systems.

To read our paper on landscape preferences in Southern Transylvania go here. To read other papers that have been published within the Romania project go here.

When frameworks come together: the case of ecosystem services and poverty alleviation

Today I would like to make a new paper recommendation: Strengthening conceptual foundations: Analysing frameworks for ecosystem services and poverty alleviation research by  Fisher J. A., Patenaude G., Meir P., Nightingale A. J., Rounsevell M. D.A., Williams M., Woodhouse, I.H. in Global Environmental Change (free access).

I will develop my recommendation from a two-fold perspective: first, the content of the paper and its contribution to knowledge and second, how I perceive it as a PhD student.

1) What does it say?

In this paper, Fisher et al. outline some of the various facets of ecosystem services frameworks and concepts that the research agenda on poverty alleviation could draw on. For nine conceptual frameworks, judged as “thinking-tools”, it provides a nice overview of relevant information including: definition and/or description of main elements, key authors, a diagram (if existent), the contribution to research on the nexus of ecosystem services and poverty, overlaps and/or possible linkages with other frameworks, critiques and weaknesses. Below are the nine frameworks and bodies of literature reviewed by Fisher et al., next to which I provide essential points gleaned from the paper:

The Sustainable Livelihoods framework (taken from Fisher et al. 2013), highlighted by the authors as one of the most holistic, and reflecting the complexity of rural development.

  1. Environmental Entitlements (Leach et al. 1999). With key notions such as “legitimate” versus “effective” entitlements, capabilities (Sen 1985), and categories of property rights (Schlager and Ostrom, 1992), it is the only framework that makes the distinction between access and availability explicit.
  2. Framework for Ecosystem Services Provision (Rounsevell et al. 2010). Based on the DPSIR chain, it recognizes the role played by beneficiaries in their interaction with ecosystem service, which creates potential for differentiation between social actors.
  3. Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA 2005). Currently, the dominant ecosystem service framework and among the most advanced one in terms of categorization of ecosystem services and well-being components.
  4. Political Ecology (Blaikie and Brookfield 1987). With key focus on social justice and power, it is the strongest framework for analyzing access mechanisms and inequities in the distribution of ecosystem services.
  5. Resilience (Folke 2006, Holling 1973). Closely associated with the discourse on change, adaptive management, and unlinearity, it offers a conceptual basis for thinking about social-ecological systems.
  6. Sustainable Livelihoods (Chambers and Conway 1992, Scoones, 1998). Suited for the holistic analysis of poverty, it also offers various points of linkages (or insertion) for many frameworks with which it shares common elements.
  7. The Social Assessment of Protected Areas (linked to Sustainable Livelihoods) (Schreckenberg et al. 2010). Most comprehensive framework, but rather static by just enumerating elements that need to be considered by the research.
  8. The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB 2010). With a central focus on economic valuation, it emphasizes the distinction between ecological functions, ecosystem services, final ecosystem services, and benefits, in relation to human well-being.
  9. Vulnerability (Adger 2006, Fussel 2007). With key elements such as adaptive capacity, and social vulnerability, it is central for understanding poverty linked to the degradation of ecosystem services.

The paper also touched upon other topical debates and research questions that could facilitate the understanding of the linkages between ecosystem services and poverty alleviation:

  • A broader definition of poverty in relation to well-being (unrestricted to material assets);
  • The relationship between poverty and the environment, emphasizing on the vulnerability of the poor and their dependence on nature’s services;
  • Which categories of ecosystem services contribute to which components of well-being and to which aspects of vulnerability?
  • The constraints of access versus the constraints of availability of ecosystem services; which mechanisms govern access to which ecosystem services?
  • Ecosystem services as “safety nets” against absolute poverty, rather than contributors to poverty reduction (i.e. increasing the standard of living above poverty line);
  • The role of education, health and rural development in poverty alleviation.

The paper concludes by suggesting that a new conceptual framework for ecosystem services and poverty alleviation should comprise or try to tackle social differentiations (sensu Daw et al. 2011), power and political factors affecting access, control and distribution of the different categories of ecosystem services (in line with the framework  of Environmental Entitlements and the body of literature around Political Ecology), and the dynamic relations within social-ecological systems (such as Framework for ecosystem service provision, the Resilience body of literature).

The framework for ecosystem service provision

The framework for Ecosystem Service Provision (taken from Fisher et al. 2013), in the authors’ view one of the most dynamic frameworks due to its representation of a social-ecological system with directional relations and feedbacks.

2) Why do I like it?

Because when I first flicked through it, it was like Anthony Hopkins, Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchet, Tom Hanks, Dustin Hoffman, Judi Dench and Emma Thompson and a couple of other giants I was not very familiar with, got together in a movie, including deleted scenes where they introduce themselves, their past roles and awards.

When you are a PhD student that comes across many frameworks and concepts (probably not so many as senior researchers, but enough to make things hard and confusing), it is really comforting and exciting to see them once in a while, compared, grouped, and reviewed according to a given criteria (here their achievements for the poverty alleviation research agenda). The novelty of this paper, as authors state in the methods section, is in the approach it takes, and in putting things into perspective, rather than in the content it delivers. In my opinion, this paper is more about laying one brick on the top of another than building another brick path. I find this much needed, especially at the beginning of one’s academic journey: to consolidate, link, compare concepts and then let them leaven.

This is not to say that having multiple frameworks per research question is negative. As Fisher et al. do point out in their example, each framework and body of literature has its own merits and suitabilities. However, a systematical categorization of those is more than welcome, especially for didactic purposes, and when novel research fields are emerging. I think the authors chose a propitious moment for this particular study, since conceptual work on poverty alleviation and ecosystem services is relatively in its early stages but emerging fast, with some notable recent contributions (Tallis et al. 2008, Daw et al. 2009). Such as systematization could be applied in the case of other conceptual frameworks as well, in order to help answer other established questions.

I would recommend this paper to academics who are involved in teaching and to PhD students. I see it as a useful pedagogical material, with different levels of complexity that allow switching between them (from definitions, descriptions to links and correlations). The list of references is also definitely worth mining. At the same time, the text is guiding the reader through topical and overly circulated notions that he/she could stumble repeatedly in many connected fields of research (e.g. capabilities, social justice, resilience, etc). Other pluses for students are that it is very accessible in terms of language and flow, and has a predictable structure that makes it easy to navigate between the frameworks’ strengths and weakness.

To my mind, PhD students are not primarily in search of novelty, but strive instead to acquire some conceptual foundations and be able to operate with those. Finding all these frameworks (that you read so many things about) in one place, with each being influential in its own field, makes you feel the world makes more sense. It gives more consistency to your subject of research* and brings a sense of limpidity, just as if all frameworks come together in a conceptual orchestration, where each one would play its part.

*My last field study was on the distribution of ecosystem services within the population of Southern Transylvania.

Selective bibliography

Adger, W.N., 2006. Vulnerability. Global Environmental Change 16, 268–281.

Blaikie, P.M., Brookfield, H.C., 1987. Land Degradation and Society. Routledge, London.

Chambers, R., Conway, G., 1992. Sustainable rural livelihoods: practical concepts for the 21st century. IDS Discussion Paper 296.

Daw, T., Brown, K., Rosendo, S., Pomeroy, R., 2011. Applying the ecosystem services concept to poverty alleviation: the need to disaggregate human well-being. Environmental Conservation 38, 370–379.

Folke, C., 2006. Resilience: the emergence of a perspective for social–ecological systems analyses. Global Environmental Change 16, 253–267.

Leach, M., Mearns, R., Scoones, I., 1999. Environmental entitlements: dynamics and institutions in community-based natural resource management. World Development 27, 225–247.

Rounsevell, M., Dawson, T., Harrison, P., 2010. A conceptual framework to assess the effects of environmental change on ecosystem services. Biodiversity and Con- servation 19, 2823–2842.

Tallis, H.,  Kareiva, P., Marvier, M., Chang, A., 2008. An ecosystem services framework to support both practical conservation and economic development. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 105, 28, 9457–64.

Cultural Ecosystem Services: A Literature Review and Prospects for Future Research

I would like to report on the latest published paper of our working group on cultural ecosystem services (CES) in the journal Ecology and Society. The paper not only aimed to bring together the big picture for a wide range of the literature dealing with this growing field of research but also to put some order within the variety of disciplines and research perspectives. We explained this heterogeneity in approaches to CES by three interacting circumstances: 1) A diversity of approaches and apparent lack of cohesiveness rightfully corresponds to the eclectic nature of CES; 2) CES are somewhat peripheral in most papers, hence are being assessed with methods initially designed to address broader research questions; 3) CES is a vibrant research arena where incipient directions are starting to crystallize and move away from the initial labels of a “generic” (Vihervaara 2010) or even “residual” ecosystem services category (Chan et al. 2012, Daniel et al. 2012).


photo credits: Andra Milcu

Using a cluster analysis, we identified five groups of publications: Group 1, conceptual focus, contained predominantly theoretical publications; Group 2, descriptive reviews, consisted mostly of desktop studies; Group 3, localized outcomes, dealt with case studies coming from different disciplines typically seeking to advance qualitative arguments for the conservation of a particular ecosystem or area; Group 4, social and participatory, dealt mainly with assessing preferences and perceptions emphasizing the social aspects of case studies; and Group 5, economic assessments, was centered around present or future economic values of ecosystem services.

We also found a paradox around CES being “under-studied and under-regarded” and at the same time more strongly considered by the literature than regulating and supporting services. We acknowledged the co-existence of these two apparently opposite trends and explained it by the tendency of CES research to focus on specific subcategories of CES (i.e. recreation, tourism, and sometimes cultural heritage) not on the whole range of CES. As with the secondary focus on CES in terms of research agendas, CES usually serve as a complementary—rather than a leading—incentive for orientating decisions.


photo credits: Andra Milcu

Our threefold conclusion was that: 1) Greater synthesis of these different research approaches may help reduce the production of disconnected understandings of CES and the divergent perspectives illustrated by the five clusters (or by parallel research communities for that matter) should not be in competition but, rather, complementary; 2) CES are an accessible and effective vehicle for the multistakeholder, holistic management of ecosystems since authors have suggested that including immaterial benefits in the management of natural resources can improve the social acceptance and legitimacy of management decisions; 3) CES can serve as stepping stones in today’s sea of ideas by being mobilized as binding elements between social and ecological conceptual constructs (e.g. social-ecological systems theory and the ecosystem services framework).

To read our paper on cultural ecosystem services go here. To read other interesting papers which have been recently published on the topic go here or here.

Chan, K. M. A., T. Satterfield, and J. Goldstein. 2012. Rethinking ecosystem services to better address and navigate cultural values. Ecological Economics 74:8-18.

Daniel, T. C., A. Muhar, A. Arnberger, O. Aznar, J. W. Boyd, K. M. A. Chan, R. Costanza, T. Elmqvist, C. G. Flint, P. H. Gobster, A. Grêt-Regamey, R. Lave, S. Muhar, M. Penker, R. G. Ribe, T. Schauppenlehner, T. Sikor, I. Soloviy, M. Spierenburg, K. Taczanowska, J. Tam, and A. von der Dunk. 2012. Contributions of cultural services to the ecosystem services agenda. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 109(23):8812-8819.

Vihervaara, P., M. Rönkä, and M. Walls. 2010b. Trends in ecosystem service research: early steps and current drivers. AMBIO 39:314–324.

Roşia Montană, a symbol


Roşia Montană is a commune in the Apuseni Mountains in Romania. The area has been known since Roman times for its rich mineral resources which some say are the biggest in the EU today. In 1997 the Roşia Montană Gold Corporation (majority-owned by Canada’s Gabriel Resources Ltd. with an interesting history of its own) was born and received its concession license for the area, planning to open here the largest opencast gold mine in Europe. Since then, the company lost several justice trials concerning national and international legal and environmental standards, split the population of Roşia Montană in two groups, bribed the media, “influenced” the politicians and the public administration, saw its shares going up and down following presidential discourses or protest activities respectively. On the other side of the camp, some NGOs and a handful of locals advocated for the inclusion of Roşia Montană on the UNESCO World Heritage List, organized various activism movements (the Fân Fest music festival, “Adopt a house in Roşia Montană” program, writing letter to politicians, acting as watchdogs) and gathered signatures for a petition against the project.  In fact, in the last 20 years this campaign was one of the largest over a non-political cause in Romania.

The controversy around Roşia Montană made it world known and turned it into a key point during election campaigns to the point that the current political leaders (including current prime-minister) won several votes on the basis of their declared opposition towards the project. Up until now these two unequal forces seemed to balance each other in a spectacular manner, giving birth to a close to insane struggle going on for more than a decade.

Recent past

However, on August the 27th, during a session not publicly announced, the government made a decisive step, adopting a draft law granting national interest status to the gold mine project. A few days afterwards thousands of people (around 7000 in Bucharest on Sunday) took the streets of Romanian and foreign cities to protest against the passing of the draft legislation. Every day of the last week, people met in the evenings and walked between the University Square, the government building, or the Palace of the Parliament. Protests regarding Roşia Montană have made it across the international press, politicians at least apparently backed down and Gabriel shares dropped.


Photo credits: Cristian Vasile

It is not the aim of this blog post neither to give facts and numbers about the project, nor to list the cons and pros (if any) of the Roşia Montană Gold Corporation project. I don’t intend to write about the 13000 tons of cyanide that would be employed per year, the four peaks of local mountains destroyed, the 500 billion mountain of sterile that would be left behind, the crater of 8 km of diameter, the 185m high dam that should last for an eternity, or the 880 jobs with a 16 year deadline (with no perspectives afterwards) the project is so generous to offer. The aim of this blog entry is to show what makes the recent demonstrations so important.

What does Roşia Montană mean to Romania?

Roşia Montană is the fight of a generation. But not of a generation defined by age and education, instead  defined by common believes and values.  It is a fight of those who inherently feel that laws should be respected, that the ones breaking the rules aren’t necessarily the winners, that democracy means rights, as well as obligations; of those who don’t look at corporations as their income providers, instead start questioning their functioning and ethics, regardless of their current jobs. Roşia Montană is the question mark of a generation. Through their slogans and placards, participants question the system, the choice of the type of development, the enactment of laws and the quality of the governance. These are the signs of a new morality awakening.

Roşia Montană is a learning process for Romanians. They are learning about social capital and how to hold the government accountable. It is like a democracy exercise through applied civism. Romanians are beginning to realize that it is up to them to build a better future and defend the rule of law. They are engaging with causes that go beyond  their immediate realities. They are learning that social capital demands commitment, solidarity, confidence and trust. Roşia Montană shows the first bursts of solidarity within an often divided society.


Copyright: Dan Perjovschi

Roşia Montană is a lesson for the Romanian political leaders. They learn accountability. Some said protesters were elusive when it came to formulating clear demands, sometimes eccentric or that only young people joined the protests. Others said the crowd was very heterogeneous. Nevertheless, beyond inconsistencies, clumsiness and misleading information it was a valid attempt to make political leaders accountable, denounce corruption and shape the relationship between society and the political class for years to come.

Roşia Montană is the reconfirmation of a model. We can use this case-study to bring once again to light, the modus operandi of many large scale businesses. In a context where politicians and media institutions don’t do their jobs, corporations act almost symptomatically: spreading discord among locals, encouraging conflicts and abuses, involving lots of money in the process, displaying a remarkable dose of arrogance and disrespect, while everything summed up usually leads to unconstitutionality and the undermining of the rule of law.

Roşia Montană is a step forward towards a model of success for environmental activists. The aggregation of Romanian environmental NGOs which was proved by the amplitude of their campaigns, marks a (maturity) stage in the evolution of the Romanian civil society. It demonstrates how civil society can create the conditions for change towards a desirable path, as civil society is not (theoretically) hampered by mandates or limited competences like governments and state institutions are.

Finally, Roşia Montană is another example of an internet led movement since almost none of the main TV stations covered the story and participants organized themselves via facebook.


Photo credits: Alexandra Dodu https://www.facebook.com/alexandra.dodu.9

In the end, here is an Avaaz Petition to stop the mining project. There are numerous other Romanian petitions, one of the most successful among them being this one. This Sunday the 8th of September Romanians are getting ready to demonstrate again.

Ideas expressed in this post are not original. For writing this post I read around 20 journal articles and many facebook comments. I was also inspired by two of my colleagues. To paste all links here would be too space consuming and most of them are in Romanian, but there are also English, German and French articles. Here are only a couple of them.



Interviewing people: my research experience

My field experience interviewing people relates best to my field work from last summer in 30 villages of Romania. There are many books on this subject and the way it is done depends on what your study aims at, the type of questions you want to ask, the intended methodology, etc. In my case it was about ranking photos – illustrating different aspect of the landscapes in the villages from Southern Transylvania – according to what people would like to see more of/less of in the future. The ranking was done in a forced normal distribution, according to the Q methodology, in order to find out how and what people appreciate in their landscape. Going through my interviews, I completed a list of things I learned, things to avoid, feed-backs and general recommendation. Supposedly some might be useful to anyone who tries interviewing rural population in Eastern Europe.


Self-pieces of advice:

  1. Who surveys who? Even when playing the interviewer, interviews are a way of self-introspection all the more when applying an exploratory technique, grounded theory driven, such as the Q method. “By methodologically acknowledging and in fact incorporating the discursive nature of human subject study, Q challenges the researcher by encounter (Robbins and Krueger, 2000)”.
  2. Introduce who you are. Who are you and where do you come from. This might sound especially challenging for the ones who are on a perpetual self-discovering journey, but useful nonetheless. I tried to focus on my identity as a researcher. This might not be enough as I was often asked personal questions during my interviews to which I responded shortly but gladly.
  3. Introduce what you do, especially why you are doing it. Why are you there? Try not to settle for something like “I have to gather data for my PhD” although this is part of the answer. Try to explain that you’re a researcher doing field research although you may lose credibility when explaining that you earn your income by reading and writing. It is always a good idea to have a flyer presenting the project you are currently working on.
  4. If they ask for clarifications, try to be as clear as possible. Don’t get bored. At some point I realized I was not communicating the task they had to fulfil properly and I still wonder how they managed to do it right.
  5. Don’t pretend you know too much. Don’t make the interview seem too official. Of course that it depends on whom you are talking to, but don’t take yourself too seriously.
  6. Clarification questions are often necessary. Use people’s words in clarification questions and avoid misleading them: What do you mean by “…”?, “What does “…” mean to you?”
  7. Respect the time limit you set at the beginning of the interview. If you say that it will only take 20 minutes make sure you ask the most important things within the first 20 minutes. I felt quite guilty when I took too much of my respondents’ time. You may ask at the end of your 20 min. if they would like to continue with some more questions. I noticed that generally they seem more willing to discuss at the end than at the beginning of an interview.
  8. I also liked, where possible, to go by train or local buses or any public means of transport. You already get into the atmosphere and you can think of your interviews on the way.
  9. Be sure you do not agitate your papers, camera and other stuff in front of the recorder. It may seem obvious but it’s not.
  10. Don’t take pictures of people without asking their permission and don’t do it just because they look funny or strange.
  11. Take notes even when you are recording because it helps you remember and understand better what people are saying. Plus it makes people feel what they are saying counts.
  12. If you have ideas for your future codes or nodes (possible emerging themes) write them quickly or record yourself. You will be grateful to yourself afterwards. I recently read that in qualitative research, the analysis starts in the field (Gibbs, 2007).
  13. When a person is not very talkative ask yourself what you can do to help him/her. Start by asking that person to talk about themselves and gradually build towards the subject of interest. I noticed that people in Southern Transylvania find it easy to talk about their main occupation, their life “history”, rather than give their opinion about something. Accept silence as an answer.
  14. Let them lead you. If they want to find out about yourself or give you a tour of their household for example… or show you their new born calf, be happy about it. If the 5 (!) boys of the family you are talking to, want to play some sort of basketball with you and then make a gym competition involving high jumps and semi acrobatic elements and you’re not so sure about the whole thing, you have the right to say no.
  15. You can admire their domestic animals, the general state of their household or their knowledge about a certain topic (if you feel it is true).
  16. There’s a balance between the pleasure of the discussion and the information you want to get from the interviewees.
  17. Enjoy your interviews even when they don’t provide you with any precious information.
  18. Turn off the recorder at some point and enjoy the conversation. Maybe you will not remember the information but you will be left with a strong impression.
  19. Give children candies or Rubik’s cubes if the budget allows. Especially if you’re going into people’s houses be prepared to be beleaguered (laughed at, threw objects at) by children. Something to keep them occupied will always come in handy.
  20. When confronted with situations such as marriage proposals (quite normal within Rroma communities) it is recommended to ignore everything and focus on your questions and getting the answers.  Finding a vanishing point on the horizon line and avoiding eye contact will increase your chances.
  21. When offered food or juice, proceed as your stomach dictates. It’s always good to be sincere.  I tasted cheese, butter, drank innumerous glasses of “socata” (traditional Romanian soft drink made from the flowers of the European Sambucus nigra), ate homemade bread, cakes, etc, etc.
  22. When offered packed food in packages that you are sure will not last more than 5 minutes in one piece do not refuse them just because of that. The wonderful smell invading your rucksack will make you feel you are one of them. Cheese has a powerful smell; honey is sticky (empirically demonstrated). You can say no if you really think you will not like it.
  23. If you unexpectedly enter a room full of 20 men, (Rroma or not) and the door closes behind you with that decisive slamming door effect, don’t start imagining the worst scenarios possible. Keep calm and ask your questions to one of the guys, usually the one who actually wears a shirt (valid from May to September). Adopting a block start position is found not to help although on the spur of the moment you may judge yourself capable of breaking a new world record for 100 m flat.
  24. Remember that they are helping you; you’re not helping them per se, although that is one of your final/side aims.
  25. My main achievement: generally everybody felt well during my interviews and many told me to come back when I can. “Come as a researcher, leave as a friend”.

It is said that you need to make your respondent feel conformable. I don’t know about them, but I felt comfortable enough, and this too has something to do with the success of an interview. Every day I got back from field happier and more filled with positive energy than on the out journey.  Maybe with the exception of that day in Alexandrita where I had to wait 4 hours until I found someone speaking Romanian or when the biggest fly (of my life) went straight down my throat in Crit, or that time when I missed the bus in Agarbiciu and school kids were making fun of me. Still, interviewing people in the villages of Southern Transylvania was one of my most rewarding professional experiences.

Gibbs R. G., 2007. Analysing qualitative data.

Robbins P., Krueger R., 2010. Beyond Bias? The Promise and Limits of Q Method in Human Geography, The Professional Geographer, 52:4, 636-648.

DSCI0495 DSCI0735 DSCI0832 DSCI0934 DSCI1075 DSCI1156 DSCI1021DSCI0983

Understanding Romanians: 7 paradoxes to handle with care (part 3)

6. We have a low community spirit (higher in villages) but solid family ties and values. We care a lot about our families. Couple and family relations are authentic and tight. We are willing to make sacrifices for our dear ones, unlike for the community we are part of. We love our children deeply and to my mind we are doing a great job at raising them. We make wonderful grandparents. Probably the institution of grandparents is one of the most functional and rewording in Romania. Each time I touched on the subject with a foreign student, they usually complained about a bad relation with their mothers or families in general. Whereas when you talk to Romanians they will tell you they had a happy childhood, that their parents did the best they could at raising them and that they miss their grandparents. I reckon the (16) 18 old western discourse “No matter what happens I am your mother and I will always love you but I am kicking you out now because you need to learn how to live on your own and take full responsibilities of an adult life… but you will always find a place here” is not helping much.  Also that thing with taking responsibilities since the age of 4 might be a bit overrated… as it is underrated in Romania. “A survey conducted by the research department of the Discovery Channel says that of all young people in Europe, those in Romania, although they want to spend as much time as possible with friends, are at the same the most attached to their families, more concerned about the role of <<head of household>> (about 75% answered that “the most important thing is to support your family”, against a European average of only 26%). Researchers called this <<pressured provider>>, but it was translated in Romanian as <<traditionalists>>” (translated from here).

Photo credits: Veronica Cioboata

7. We are impolite but we are kind. Bucharest is next to being the less polite city in the world. It is true that we never hold the door for the one behind us (I’d say quite the opposite, based on a an unconditional devotion to Tom and Jerry) and that we have a unique set of driving rules (these times they are real Rules) essential for the ones who want to get out of their cars alive. We use excessively the horn, we spit, we don’t give priority neither as pedestrians neither as drivers, traffic lights are just some colored lights, we throw things in the street, we are loud, we don’t respect the environment, we don’t respect each other’s intimacy, we stare at people, we scream, we shout, we gossip, we smoke everywhere, yet… we are capable of feelings. I am not even going to find us a justification and say that probably 90% of our intellectuals were killed during the communism. I will just admit that we are controlled by our instincts, greed and appetites rather than rational thinking and appropriate social conduct. Instead of worrying me, this reassures me of our inner human qualities (and of our membership in the Regnum Animalia).

I will again illustrate this by the help of two short stories. In the ‘90s, a friend of my family’s was getting happily back from work after being paid that month’s salary. The money (it was cash at that time) were in a white envelope in a pocket of his jacket. Our friend was in the tram. At some point he felt a gentle hand caressing his jacket and the money were gone. Without losing his calm he addressed to the person standing eccentrically close to him (and I would recommend this British approach to anyone who encounters the same difficulties): “Excuse me Sir, but I do believe you are trying to rob me”. And then with a desperate crying begging face: “You see Sir, these money are meant for my family. I have a little girl and a wife”. (Already the sound of the word “wife” should lower the guard of the nice gentleman).  When they got off the tram, our friend followed the nice gentleman in order to place his knock-out blow (generally we avoid violence): “And you see Sir… I also have a sick mother in the hospital”. Then the inevitable occurred. The nice gentleman looked back and took our friend for a walk until they reached the headquarters of all nice gentlemen. There, all the white envelopes were sorted and counted. Our friend was given a free guided tour of the establishment and some unselfish recommendations on what to do to avoid these kind of situations. At the end he was given his envelope back… with twice the sum he initially had.

Photo credits: Liviu Mihaiu

In Mesendorf, one of the people I started to interview wiped tears from his eyes. He started talking about a family of tourists who visited his village and whom he fed with Romanian cheese, butter, honey. Their son used to spend each evening with him in the stables looking at the cows and drinking milk just after it was milked. He was crying because their holiday was over and they were preparing to leave. “He did not speak Romanian but he was like a nephew to me. Just after one week. But they said they will be back with the boy next summer, just for me to see him again”.

There is no recipe on how to deal with your Romanian employee, husband/wife, colleague, or student. For those who are into astrology, Romania is Aquarius, ascendant Cancer. As I enounced in paradox 1 we are a country of individuals, so you will find among us many different personalities and typologies. There are of course, like everywhere else, big differences between educated and non-educated people, between rural and urban communities. Just don’t think that if we are doing stupid things we are stupid. I would like to end my post by suggesting potential foundations that would like to get involved with Romanians, to support the building of social capital above all, for the rest we have.

PS: Additional case-studies that could round our “behavioral” identity are: behavior when waiting at the traffic lights; behavior when experiencing draft that is blowing in the houses, offices, metros; the symbolics of the Christmas porc: objective of national security, subject of debate on the social arena and its role within the family.