Posted by: jleventon | January 20, 2014

Social Soil Science: experience on stimulating interdisciplinary research

Last week, I started working with a group of physical scientists so that they can implement a piece of social science research.  I was at the kick of meeting of the RECARE project.  The project looks at addressing a range of soil threats and takes an interdisciplinary approach to doing so.  This means that we are looking at the physical process, but also participating with stakeholders to design management options.  I am managing a stakeholder analysis that should lay the foundation for this participatory process by identifying who should be involved and what role they may play.  However, with 17 case study sites, a variety of languages, and the desire to build long-term relationships between the scientists and the stakeholders, I am working to facilitate the analysis so that our soil science experts can implement it.

By having partners move outside their traditional disciplinary boundaries, it is intended that they will understand and integrate the social science in their own understanding.  Rather than have a social scientist do some social science that is separate to the core physical processes, we can co-generate knowledge and therefore co-generate physically and socially viable management options.

I started with the idea that I would provide a protocol to partners to implement and last week, I presented my ideas to the partners.  I also provided a feedback form.  I had hoped to get an overview of what partners already knew about their stakeholders, and gain some insight into what would be important to ask if determining stakeholders’ interests and influence in land management.  Some partners were enthusiastic and onboard from the offset.  Others did not greet my approaches with enthusiasm.

Discussions were difficult (if good humoured), and I felt like I worked hard.  Ultimately, it was very productive; both in terms of the partners shaping my work, and in terms of communicating the aims of the analysis.  I came away with a better understanding of the challenges in asking researchers with a physical focus to include a strong social focus in their research.

Approaching people is intimidating.  I don’t mean that partners are nervous about talking to people, or that they are socially awkward.  Indeed far from it – they are a very sociable group.  But as soon as you include people as your sample, you have to find a way to explain the stakeholder analysis, manage expectations in terms of outcomes, and reassure participants as to what their role is and isn’t, and how their information will be used.  If the partner themselves is unclear about this, then it’s very difficult to communicate it all to a stakeholder.

An overlapping concern is that maybe stakeholders just won’t want to talk.  Perhaps they will have better things to do.  Or perhaps they will be worried about sharing information, particularly if there has been a difficult political or social history.

The mistake I made was to propose only providing a protocol for the actual data collection (questions, etc.).  I now realise that I need to provide help and guidance on how to approach stakeholders and introduce the stakeholder analysis and broader research.  These will include example permissions forms and confidentiality agreements. Information sheets will be linked to the broader project’s dissemination strategy.  These are all tools I would normally create to go alongside my own data collection.  I had just not considered that they were not usual in research that doesn’t include people, and therefore had not thought to make it explicit in what I would provide to partners.

Even with these tools, I can go further to help partners feel confident in taking the decisions and responding to stakeholders ‘on the spot’.  To use the protocol, they will need to feel confident about asking alternative questions or responding if something in the protocol is not relevant to a particular stakeholder.  I hope to have mitigated some of this by asking partners to feed into the protocol design.  But in addition, I think I shall quite enjoy finding ways to train or empower partners from a distance; I am already thinking of videos and/or decision support tools I can provide.

Even with additional materials and support from me, the biggest challenge is in partners feeling like this is an additional job on top of a full workload, and thus a distraction to their core research.  This is actually a minority view in our project, with the vast majority in full support.  I did present a range of examples to provide justification and rationale.  But for those who remain unconvinced, I do understand.   I really do.  I just presented a world with different language and approaches and expectations; learning and implementing it will take a little time, even if I am committed to minimising this.  But I hope by making it as easy as possible, partners can implement the analysis, and will see for themselves the value it brings to their focus research.

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