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Shaping research methods in response to participants’ wishes and concerns

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It is thought that greenspaces (natural and semi-natural places that are openly accessible in urban areas) can provide significant health and wellbeing benefits to people who use them. Together with my colleagues Petra Lackova and Liz Dinnie, I’ve been investigating this over the last two years through research with a group of conservation volunteers in a ‘greenspace’ in Dundee.

During our first research visit, we arranged a conversation with the organiser of a local volunteer-led organisation which explores ways of engaging with the greenspace through a mixture of conservation and cultural activities. The initial plan was to conduct ‘walk-along’ interviews with the volunteers using headcams and a participatory mapping exercise to elicit and explore the benefits of the greenspace. However, after our meeting with the organiser we mutually agreed that there were a number of problems with this approach.  Instead we needed to work in a way which meant that we got to know the group better so they weren’t hesitant to engage with us. We realised that we needed to make sure that we included the group in the design of the research to ensure that the research was not one-way. Our research design thus became very much more ‘co-produced’ and participatory. This, I think, eventually brought benefits both to our research and the people we were working with, as it allowed us to adapt as we engaged with the group which made way for a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the research problem.

The revised approach began by using ‘participant observation’ where we took part in group activities whilst observing their behaviour. Approximately once a month we joined in with the volunteers’ weekly half-day meetings. Over time, we felt more and more part of the group. I better understood the benefits that the Dighty could offer and my initial impressions of it only as a neglected space began to change as I realised that the place was a valuable nature corridor. As time went on the volunteers opened up to us more fully and very much saw us as part of the group, whereas earlier we were considered researchers. Also, I found myself appreciating the uniqueness this greenspace offered, and we were able to observe differences with how volunteers interacted with the Dighty, rather than just what they were able to tell us, (for example how someone noticing something different in the environment got people talking to each other and sharing stories). Liz, Petra and I are all agreed that the participant observation altered our relationships with the group; the volunteers felt more at ease with us and they realised that they knew a lot more than us about the wildlife and the area than we did!

After a number of visits we discussed carrying out interviews with the participants. We decided against using headcams during the walk-along interviews, because the group organisers told us that some of the group would not feel happy doing this - even if they had consented to it - as it made them visible to others, vulnerable and exposed to questioning and also raised ethical concerns relating to potential break down of anonymity.  Instead, as we had already established relationships with the volunteers, we were better able to carry out meaningful in-depth interviews.  In particular, we could ask more targeted questions and as we knew things about our interviewees from being part of the group that we could use as prompts. Also, because the interviewees felt more comfortable and informed about us, it helped empower them to raise issues and discuss details that they wished us to know about. However, if the participants had been using the headcams, they would have had a different opportunity to reflect back to us about their experiences outdoors and why they did what they did. Throughout the project we had to negotiate what we were doing, why we were doing it, and how we could do it in the most effective and also sensitive way. At stages, this involved some extensive debating both between researchers, and between the researchers and the group organiser. The changes in approaches had to be agreed with the Institute’s Ethics Committee causing extra work.  However doing the research in this way meant that we could fully engage with and potentially even assist the group by providing research findings in a useful way to them. We knew the group well enough to understand that presenting our findings in a traditional format would not have been very interesting for them - so we ended the project by organising a “walkshop”, a 12 mile walk along the river to feedback findings in a casual and relaxed way, which was in keeping with the way we had worked with the group, and included one of the group who was an artist to co-produce research postcards combining her work with ours.

This research was funded by the Scottish Government, Rural and Environment Science and Analytical Services Division (RESAS), and if you would like to know more about this and related work on ‘greenspace’ please visit our research project page.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog post are the views of the author(s), and not an official position of the institute or funder.



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Printed from /blog/segs/shaping-research-methods on 04/03/24 02:32:20 AM

The James Hutton Research Institute is the result of the merger in April 2011 of MLURI and SCRI. This merger formed a new powerhouse for research into food, land use, and climate change.