New paper: Incorporating anthropogenic effects into trophic ecology

Note: this post originally appeared on Dale Nimmo’s site. I’ve reproduced it here, including the offensive, not-at-all funny bits. I’ll leave you to figure out which I might mean… so much choice!

Last year I spent six weeks with Joern Fischer and his posse (yep, he has a posse) bird watching, playing carom, and generally Germany-ing it up.

Carom is a game played all over the world, but mainly at Jan Hanspach’s place in Lüneburg, Germany.

Although the beer was alarmingly cheap, I did manage to use some of my time in a productive manner. This week, the fruits of that productivity have ripened, and are now ready to be plucked from the tree, diced finely, and added to a glass of gin and soda water.

In case you need me to spell it out for you, we’ve published a paper.

What’s it about? I’m glad you asked.

Joern and his posse ran a big research project in a very cool part of the world: Transylvania, Romania. This region is undergoing a transition from traditional to more modern, industrialised farming practices and Joern and his team are trying to figure out what that means for the people and biodiversity that call the place home.

Transylvania has a very interesting set of large mammals, including carnivores such as bears, wolves and foxes, and herbivores such as red deer and roe deer. These species occur along with the people of Transylvania and their dogs that help look after livestock. The paper examined how these species co-exist, and what are the main drivers of their occurrence throughout the landscape.

We used camera traps to monitor these species and an important aspect of this work was that we treated humans like any other species: if we recorded them on a camera trap, we could calculate an index of local human activity, much like we often do with other species.

We then modelled the entire ‘ecosystem’, including humans, to show the relative effect of people on other species, compared to the effects of species on each other. We had some expected results, such as the suppressive effects of large carnivores on herbivores. However, these effects pale in comparison to the effects that humans have on species from all trophic levels. Our work highlights the need to think about people as part of the network of species within a region.

The paper is published in Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B.

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:

Photo credits:

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

Congratulations to Ine Dorresteijn on this year’s Horst Wiehe Award!

By Joern Fischer

I’m very happy to report that Ine Dorresteijn has received this year’s Horst Wiehe Award by the Ecological Society of Germany — which is dedicated to recognising outstanding work by early career scientists. The award was presented to her at this year’s meeting of the society in Goettingen. For those who missed it, Ine’s presentation summarising her work is available here. Well done, Ine!

Corncrake conservation: the role of heterogeneous farmland

By Joern Fischer

I’d like to share key points from a recent paper led by Ine Dorresteijn on the Corncrake (Crex crex). It’s one of the most charismatic bird species in Europe, and has attracted the attention of a lot of conservationists. In landscapes where it remains common, it’s well known for its nocturnal calls “crex-crex-crex…”, which is where it got its name from.

Corncrakes have disappeared from most of Western Europe. Where the species does persist, it is most commonly associated with extensive, wet meadows. But what about in landscapes where larger populations remain?

We studied the corncrake in Central Romania, where it seems virtually ubiquitous. It’s difficult to be out in the countryside at nighttime in June and not hear a corncrake sooner or later. We wanted to know what constitutes habitat for the corncrake in this traditional farming landscape – and our findings presented an interesting contrast to common wisdom on corncrake conservation.

We found corncrakes not only in grassland but equally in the direct vicinity of arable fields. Statistical analysis suggested that corncrakes seemed to prefer remote areas that were wet and flat, which is largely consistent with previous work. However, we also found that corncrakes were more likely to occur in areas with a high land cover diversity at the 100 ha scale. This suggests that traditional, heterogeneous arable land provides important habitat for the corncrake – and not just extensive areas of grassland.

This new finding has some important consequences for conservation. First, it suggests that focusing on grassland alone may not be enough; heterogeneous arable land also provides useful habitat for the corncrake, and may be equally worthy of conservation efforts. Second, the scale at which the corncrake responded to land cover diversity is relatively large (100 ha). This suggests that conservation management should not only promote measures taken by individual farmers. Rather, a whole-of-landscape approach is needed to maintain land cover diversity, and this by necessity will involve multiple landholders.

Finally, a simulation model suggested that even moderate losses of land cover diversity in the future would severely impact corncrake populations (see below). This sends a clear signal for landscapes such as those in Central Romania: to maintain this European hotspot of the corncrake, it’s important to maintain the diverse character of the landscape.


Scenarios for the future of Transylvania (now in four languages)

By Joern Fischer

About a year ago, I shared on this blog our booklet describing four alternative scenarios for the future of Southern Transylvania (Romania). This booklet was originally written in Romanian and Hungarian – the two languages most relevant to our local stakeholders. However, Transylvania also has strong relations to Germany, and most of the international research community communicates in English. For these reasons, we have now re-produced this booklet in English and German, too. It is available as an open-access PDF, and we have a large stack of hard copies to give away in the coming months.

In a nutshell, our scenarios describe four alternative, plausible futures for Southern Transylvania. The aim of this work was to stimulate debate about these scenarios – not to tell people what’s right or wrong, but rather to get local people to think about what they want, what they don’t want, and what they can do to shape the future of their region.

In the first scenario, “Prosperity through growth”, small-scale farming is replaced by intensified, larger-scale, conventional agriculture. Forests are exploited where profitable, and tourism is restricted to the entertainment sector. Economic development is driven by local people, and consequently, people are wealthier than they are at the moment. These developments cause losses in farmland and forest biodiversity, as well as the deterioration of regulating, supporting, and cultural ecosystem services.

In the second scenario, “Our land, their wealth”, land use is also intensified and also causes the loss of regulating, supporting, and cultural services. However, economic development is driven by foreign investors, and consequently, few locals benefit from it. The gap between rich and poor widens. Crime and conflicts are frequent, including between ethnic groups. People leave their villages for Romanian towns or Western Europe, and most farmland that is unprofitable for foreign companies is abandoned. Due to the difficult socioeconomic conditions and a highly disturbed landscape, tourism all but vanishes from Transylvania.

The third scenario, “Balance brings beauty”, describes a future in which locals are organized and able to capitalize on high national and international demand for organic agricultural products. Sustainable use of resources coexists with intensified land use via modern organic farming methods. Vibrant cultural tourism and eco-tourism stabilize people’s incomes from the agricultural sector. Although few people are financially wealthy, economic and social inequalities are reduced and community spirit is high. Cultural and natural capital is valued and actively maintained.

In the fourth scenario, “Missed opportunity”, locals are unable to capitalize on the opportunities provided by a pro-environment policy setting. Instead, foreign companies set up modern organic farms in the region, exploiting easy access to cheap land and labour. Semi-subsistence farming as it has been practiced for many decades is ongoing in the villages, while forests are exploited for firewood and sometimes logged illegally. Most locals are poor, and those who are able to, leave the area. Corruption, crime, and conflict are common. Farmland biodiversity experiences moderate decreases due to intensification in some areas and abandonment in others.

Check out the booklet in English/German or Romanian/Hungarian to read more about this, and share it with your friends and colleagues!

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.

My “hit list” of journals (literally!)

By Joern Fischer

Our work in Romania is in its final stage. A few more papers are still in preparation or review, and a synthesis book remains to be written. But most papers are published – they are available here. This list of outputs looks quite nice, but hides the many rejections we’ve had to endure in the process. I thought it might be interesting to see where we did manage to get published.

One of the most telling factors for whether a paper ultimately is published or not – quality aside – is “journal fit”. Whether a paper fits to a particular journal, however, is not just a matter of whether it fits with what the instructions for authors say. Rather, I’d say most journals have their own cultures of what kinds of things they like or dislike.

Most of the work that I am involved with has a few defining properties: (1) it is rarely purely deductive, i.e. driven by a small number of carefully crafted hypotheses; rather (2) it is typically exploring systems, ecological, social, or social-ecological (i.e. it is inductive); (3) it is often interdisciplinary; and (4) it is often focused at the landscape scale. These kinds of properties fundamentally don’t lend themselves to being “liked” by some kinds of journals.

So, who publishes such work? Here is my personal “hit list”, i.e. the list of journals where we have actually published two or more papers coming from the Romania project:

In terms of “analysis”, to me, this suggests that key journals for this kind of space appear to be Ecology & Society (at the interface of ecological and social sciences), Landscape Ecology (especially for the ecological sciences, but also the interface), and Land Use Policy (especially for the social sciences, but also the interface).

Biodiversity & Conservation, PLoS One, and Basic and Applied Ecology tended to be good for landscape-scale empirical papers – the kinds of papers that journals such as Biological Conservation and Conservation Biology typically felt were not ambitious, “novel” or otherwise grand enough. Conservation Letters served us well for conceptual pieces.

Perhaps this list of journal names doesn’t come as a surprise – but with “reject without review” being so common these days, I found it interesting to see which journals regularly accept landscape-scale work that leans towards generating a systems understanding rather than testing specific hypotheses.

Other papers from the project (in journals represented just once) include the following:

Disease and biodiversity conservation: the case of chytrid fungus in Romania

Today we have a guest post from Ben Scheele who has recently submitted his PhD thesis investigating the impacts of chytrid fungus on amphibian populations. Much of Ben’s thesis investigated the dynamics of chytrid infection in Australian amphibians, but an important component of his research was conducted in Transylvania, Romania. Today he shares the results of his Romanian research.

With ever increasing global trade, the unintentional spread of pathogens into naïve host populations is a major threat to biodiversity. This threat is perhaps best exemplified by disease-driven global amphibian declines. First recognised in the late 1990s, the amphibian disease chytridiomycosis, caused by infection with chytrid fungus, has been implicated in the severe decline or extinction of hundreds of amphibian species.

Much research on chytrid has focused on regions where the pathogen has driven rapid amphibian declines, such as Australia and Central America. However, over the last few years the known distribution of the pathogen has expanded rapidly, with the fungus now detected in over 50 countries. Eastern Europe is a region where chytrid has recently been reported, however, little is currently known about the pathogen’s distribution or impact on amphibians in the region.

In 2012, two of our collaborators detected chytrid in Romania. Given the capacity for the pathogen to drive mass amphibian declines, we were interested in evaluating the threat posed by chytrid. We focused on infection in the yellow-bellied toad, a species that is commonly infected in Western Europe and is widespread throughout our study landscape. We collected skin swabs from 550 toads (check out a short clip of the field work here). Because environmental conditions can mediate the distribution and prevalence of chytrid infection, we collected our samples from 60 independent ponds, covering a diverse range of habitats. We then examined whether the environmental context of each pond influenced whether chytrid was present or absent.

Overall, we found that chytrid infection was low in yellow-bellied toads (5%) – good news indeed! However, the pathogen was widespread across the landscape, occurring in a quarter of all sampled ponds (see map). We found that ponds were more likely to contain infected toads when they occurred close to perennial water sources. We suggest that this pattern reflects pathogen spill-over into ephemeral ponds due to amphibian movements from nearby, more permanent breeding habitats. Chytrid is sensitive to desiccation and is unlikely to persist in ephemeral ponds during extended dry periods, while perennial ponds can remain chytrid-positive over consecutive years, likely acting as source habitat for the pathogen. We also found that ponds in open landscapes were less likely to contain infected toads. Such ponds are probably less suitable for chytrid because they experience higher water temperatures compared to forest ponds, potentially reducing chytrid growth and survival.

A map showing the distribution of sampled ponds and ponds where chytrid-infected yellow-bellied toads were detected.

A map showing the distribution of sampled ponds and ponds where chytrid-infected yellow-bellied toads were detected.

The landscapes of Southern Transylvania are a mosaic of forest, pasture, meadow and arable land uses, with relatively few amphibian breeding areas containing permanent water. Our results indicate that this mosaic results in patchy environmental suitability for chytrid, as ephemeral ponds in open landscapes, isolated from permanent water sources are likely unfavourable for the fungus. As such, the overall risk posed by chytrid to yellow-bellied toads in the region may be limited because conditions suitable for the pathogen appear to occur in only a subset of toad habitat. However, in Southern Transylvania, ephemeral ponds in open landscapes are disappearing due to a transition from cattle and buffalo to sheep grazing and agricultural intensification. The loss of ephemeral ponds from open landscapes is likely to cause a contraction of yellow-bellied toads into forest and stream-side ponds, which appear to have higher pathogen suitability. As such, a higher proportion of the total habitat area occupied by toads may be suitable for chytrid fungus in the future.

Chytrid-infected toads were rarely detected in ponds in open landscapes, located long distances from perennial water sources.

Chytrid-infected toads were rarely detected in ponds in open landscapes, located long distances from perennial water sources.

For more information, take a look at our new paper in Animal Conservation: Scheele, B.C., Driscoll, D.A., Fischer, J., Fletcher A.W., Hanspach, J., Vӧrӧs, J. & Hartel, T. (In press). Landscape context influences chytrid fungus distribution in an endangered European amphibian. PDF available here: 2015-Scheele_et_al-Animal_Conservation

The idea of a “research journey” (sensu McGowan et al. 2014)

By Joern Fischer

In a recent paper in Ecology & Society, McGowan et al. introduce the idea of a “research journey”. An academic’s research journey takes place along two axes: from expert knowledge to knowledge that is co-produced with stakeholders; and from unpacking details to getting the “big picture”. The following figures stylises this:

McGowan's idea of a "research journey"

McGowan’s idea of a “research journey” (click to enlarge)

I wondered what my own research journey looked like, and so I tried to analyse it. I started with birds and paddock trees — a pretty specific issue, solely relying on expert knowledge (number 1 below). I then moved to reptiles in farming and forestry landscapes — still, largely drawing on expert knowledge, but trying to come up with general patterns about what drives biodiversity in human-dominated landscapes (2). From there, I moved to paddock trees in a broader sense; in a transdisciplinary project that involved stakeholders, social scientists and ecologists. The scope of this was much broader, ranging from specific to general, and the type of knowledge generation was much more diverse (3). From there, I went to a project on sustainable development in Transylvania, which went both very deep and very broad, and involved locals (but to a lesser extent than my previous work in Australia on paddock trees; 4). Finally, I’m now starting to work on the intersection of food security and biodiversity. The goal here is extremely general, and it is largely based on scientific knowledge. But still, I’m hoping we can also involve stakeholders in our case study in Ethiopia, and be of some local use (5).

Three patterns are apparent for my own journey: a trend from specific to general; a trend from expert-driven to stakeholders, but slightly back to expert-driven; and (most strikingly) an increasingly comprehensive scope (i.e. a bigger bubble, see below). I found this an interesting exercise! What does your research journey look like?

Joern's research journey

Joern’s research journey (click to enlarge)

New Paper: Applying a capitals approach to understand rural development traps

In an increasingly globalized world, rural areas are confronted with enormous development challenges. Agriculture, and in particular smallholder farming, often provides the backbone of rural livelihoods, but the future viability of this sector is threatened by a rising integration of rural areas into the global economy, and thus an increasing exposure of primary product markets to liberalized trade regimes. As a result, rural residents often need to diversify their incomes, specialize, or shift away from traditional farming activities – a set of changes that is closely linked with the notion of rural development. Several models of rural development have been proposed, but they do not always adequately explain why development stagnates in certain regions.

In our new paper we provide a possible explanation for such stagnation, illustrated by a case study from Central Romania. Based on qualitative interviews with over 350 inhabitants from 66 villages, our aim was to understand the barriers to rural development of this region or social-ecological system, respectively, and to suggest levers to move it into a more desirable state. To this end, we combined the concept of traps with the sustainable livelihoods approach. In short, the traps concept depicts the dynamics across spatial, organizational, and temporal scales in creating undesirable system states that are difficult to overcome. The sustainable livelihoods approach, in turn, analyzes at the household or community level how different combinations of livelihood assets correspond to alternative livelihood strategies. Livelihood assets or ‘capitals’ are typically built capital (e.g. infrastructure); natural capital (e.g. land, trees); human capital (e.g. education, health); financial capital (e.g. incomes, savings), and social capital (i.e. bonding and bridging ties within and between people, communities, or organizations). The notion of cultural capital is sometimes used in addition, referring to specific values, world views, and (ecological) knowledge transmitted within a community.

To our mind, the combination of the sustainable livelihoods approach with traps theory had a series of useful advantages. With the notion of capital assets, the sustainable livelihoods approach served to differentiate between different types of barriers to rural development, while the systems approach was useful to highlight interdependencies between various barriers. So what we did was to cluster potential development barriers, identified by rural inhabitants, into different kinds of livelihood capitals (see Table). We then looked at the interaction and feedbacks between these capitals, as well as the role of the institutional context.

Table.Key barriers

Our empirical findings suggest that Central Romania is subject to a multitude of rural development barriers, associated with a lack or endangerment of various different types of capital assets. Moreover, our findings indicate that development barriers are often interacting and mutually reinforcing, which in combination seem to keep Central Romania trapped in an undesirable state characterized by poverty, outmigration, and severe risks to farmland biodiversity. While the region’s natural and cultural capitals stand the best chances to foster rural development, they are likely to deteriorate, too, unless other capitals – financial, social, human, and physical capitals – are also developed at the same time. The development of capitals, in turn, is strongly influenced by the institutional context, which according to our results is in need of improvement. Given the interconnectedness of barriers, we doubt that big-push economic interventions alone would successfully ‘unlock’ the trap-like situation of Central Romania. To our mind, such measures could even be counterproductive. Instead, we recommend that policy interventions tackle various capitals at the same time, ideally leading to positive feedbacks across multiple types of capitals.

While this paper focused on Central Romania, we believe our approach could offer a fruitful, new way of framing rural development research, and to develop appropriate policy strategies.

Recommended citation:

Mikulcak, F., Haider, J.L., Abson, D.J., Newig, J. & J. Fischer (2015), Applying a capitals approach to understand rural development traps: A case study from post-socialist Romania, Land Use Policy 43: 248–258. ­