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“Enjoy the beaches!” – Perceptions and Reality of Social Science Research

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Have you heard about Cuiabá? It is the capital city of Mato Grosso, the third-largest Brazilian state, where I went for my PhD fieldwork. In my research, I am trying to understand the connection between multiple dimensions of water values and water governance in the Cuiabá River Basin, engaging with a wide variety of stakeholders from water-related sectors.

Whenever I tell people that I am doing research in Brazil, they imagine me sitting at the beach, drinking cocktails, and watching samba dancers at a carnival party. Cuiabá, however, is located exactly in the geographical centre of South America – I also like to call it the “point furthest away from any beach” in the entire continent. And just like in Europe, many people dream of going to Rio to see the famous carnival shows (it’s almost 2000 km away).Researching water governance at a river basin committee meeting. Would you be able to tell it’s Brazil? Credit: Christopher Schulz, 2014

With Brazilians, the typical reaction is different. “Cuiabá? It’s very hot there!” they will say, then either laugh or show a knowing, concerned face.

When I arrived in October, it was very hot, even for Cuiabá’s standards, although I didn’t realise this until later and accepted daily temperatures around 40°C as normal. A popular joke at the time was: “It’s so hot – Dalí would have been considered a realist!” Given the heat, I would usually find my interview partners from the water sector in air conditioned offices, most of them in the part of town with the pragmatic name “CPA” (Political and Administrative Centre). 

Sometimes I wondered if anything about my day to day research work would have been much different at all, if my case study had been in Scotland, not Brazil: air-conditioned offices seem to look the same all over the world. 

One part of my research was distinctively Brazilian though: At some point I was invited to join a research trip in the Pantanal with the environmental project “Bichos do Pantanal”, sponsored by Petrobras through its programme “Petrobras Socioambiental”. The Pantanal is the world’s biggest tropicThe Brazilian Pantanal. Credit: Christopher Schulz, 2014al freshwater wetland and is home to a large number of species which are endangered elsewhere in Brazil, for example the hyacinth macaw. I spent 10 days travelling on a boat on the Paraguay River in the Northern Pantanal, together with Douglas Trent, an ecologist who is studying the local bird populations, as well as jaguars, giant river otters, and other animal species.

While I had the opportunity to interview members of the fishing and tourism sectors along the way, there was another motivation behind joining this research trip: getting to know the Pantanal, a place I had “known” for almost two years. I had been able to write my MSc dissertation and publish a paper (on prospects for Payments for Ecosystem Services in the Pantanal) together with my PhD supervisors Julia Martin-Ortega, Antonio Ioris, and Klaus Glenk, without ever actually having been to the area. Skype interviews with local researchers, e-mail and abundant literature made this possible.

So – does “having been there” have an impact on the research, apart from the obvious benefit of being able to interview local people more easily? I am not sure. The information is the same – what does change are the pictures in your mind (and the photographs in your presentations…). I had written about the role of traditional pantaneiro culture for the future of the region – now I actually know how traditional fishermen look like, how they talk, where they live. I had read about the flood cycle in the area – now I have seen how the enormous changes in water levels leave their marks on tree trunks.Christopher with Douglas Trent of Bichos do Pantanal after a successful research trip on the Paraguay River in the Northern Pantanal. Credit: Christopher Schulz, 2014

However, simply going somewhere could never replace the benefits of a thorough literature review. So on reflection, I think it is a good thing to visit the place you do research on, not necessarily as a requirement for the quality of your research, but simply to remind you that you are writing about real people and real places that exist somewhere “out there”.  As I am studying water values, many people intuitively expect me to spend a lot of time near rivers, but what actually guides my research is the question: “Where can I find the best information?” and usually the answer is: “in offices” or “in my laptop".

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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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.