One of the wonderful bits about my current volunteer work is that I am doing hands-on research (again). And this time, not with the idea of developing or testing a theory as it is often the case in academia, but with the humble and simple goal of improving people’s lives while ensuring the long-term conservation of a marine area.
So, I have been gathering statistical data, doing descriptive analysis, designing questionnaires on paper…to transfer them to online surveys as soon as the Corona crises started, defining my population, doing the sampling, finding the contacts, sending the questionnaire, organizing interviews, transcribing them, and hopefully, next week I will start with the analysis. Just like in the old Ph.D. times ;-). Also with a supervisor, in this case, the head of the Marine program for which I am working.
My! I didn’t realize how much I missed doing that type of hands-on research! Even the boring bits, like finding the contacts of the people we want to send the survey to, or revising the questionnaire for the 100th time.
Why I am so happy?
Well, the answer is easy, I am “DOING” research…not supervising other people doing research as I have the feeling that I have been doing since I became a professor.
Well, admittedly I am exaggerating a bit, since it was not so long ago that I was interviewing the organic wine producers of the region of Panzano in Tuscany, with my colleague Filippo Randelli (Uni Florence). And probably it was there and then that I realized how much I was missing being on the field, doing fieldwork myself.
So, could it be that it is not only the fact that I am doing hands-on research again but what it means to do so?.
Reconnecting with real-life problems
Over the last weeks, I have been doing interviews with fishermen, hotel owners, and managers and tour operators whose income depends on or relates to the region’s protected areas, particularly its marine resources.
As I discussed in a previous blog post (also inspired by the volunteer work) poverty is one of the worst enemies of conservation. So, what does it take to increase the livelihoods of the communities so that they get involved and support conservation efforts?
I have realized that talking with real people about their real day-to-day problems is inspiring. After more than 80 interviews my head is boiling with new ideas. Of follow up research projects, of practice-oriented interventions, and of policies.
For me, it has always been easier to justify the importance of a particular project in terms of the real problem that it addresses rather than how it will contribute to the existing theory. And now, these days, I realize that I had lost this connection with the real world. Of course, both need to go hand in hand. One needs to be able to show that there is a real problem, for which there is not enough knowledge. But for me, it is the connection with the real-life situation that makes the click.
A renewed appreciation for what the research assistants do
One of the side-effects of engaging in the nitty-gritty details of research, including the boring bits, is that I have even more appreciation for the work that the research assistants in the different projects have been doing overtime. I am by no means implying that I didn’t appreciate their work before, but that I appreciate it now even more.
I have, for example, experienced again what a tedious and time-consuming work it can be to find the contact details of the organizations and people that one wants to interview; how it feels to get many rejections to be interviewed or even to have people hanging up the phone while you are still talking with them. How much time it takes to send a survey, to follow up, to go and do the interviews…
But also how much one learns by doing so. After some time, one gets familiar with the names, their relations, their locations, their stories. And bit by bit the puzzle starts making sense. So, in a sense, this small tedious work is a very important part of the research sense-making process.
Time to think and reflect
One of the things that I am enjoying most is writing a daily research diary, like the one I recommend my students to write but that I seldom have the time to do myself. I realize that it helps me to remember what I have been doing every day, how the research is done, and when and why we had to introduce changes in the research design.
But mostly, it helps me interpret the results, as I write about the context in which I am gathering the data, the things that I am observing about the place, the organization or the person. The chain of thoughts that a particular response triggers. I am convinced that it will be of great value when analyzing the data, writing the report on the socio-economic impact of protected areas, and ultimately, my report on the volunteer work for my supervisor.
Take-on’s for the future
My take on this for the future is in line with the previous blog’s insights. I need to do less and devote more time to fewer projects, smaller in size in which I am more involved in the day-to-day research process.
Simply because this is what I like. I like to do research. Not to manage research.
And in order to do research, I need to be able to dive into a project. This is something that I had lost while I was going up. It is time to put things in balance again.