Neighbourhood Biology

Monitoring and Surveys as Action Research

Counting shellfish, identifying the types of invertebrates in a stream, mapping the types of vegetation along the banks of a river -- these are typical monitoring activities. Collating sightings by residents of birds nesting, taping oral histories about changes in the local ecology over time -- these are typical survey activities.

All these activities build knowledge. They take on a new twist when the organisers set these activities in an action research framework. Action research is a framework for "learning by doing". The original query and activities lead to action which then raises new questions and leads into new activities.

Neighbourhood Biology uses the action research framework in its concern about the fundamentals of local ecology. Sampling the sea shore or a stream, conducting local surveys of long term residents, polling people about the use of a reserve can bring together information which could highlight pollution or degradation or abuses. Or cleanliness, special species or local treasures. These in turn then suggests local actions: new measures, new plantings, new arrangements to conserve and enhance. These then are monitored and surveyed, perhaps leading off into a vital tangent, another set of actions.

Hallmarks of action research, Neighbourhood Biology style

New opportunities are provided by using a Neighbourhood Biology approach. Local projects, bringing locals and specialists together, are exploring new settings and new ways in which to do science. Not only that, this is leading to new results, changing what we think science actually is. For science to do some things in a well rounded, multi-faceted way is at least as important as what it does in a narrow, single purpose way.

Six Hallmarks of the Neighbourhood Biology research process

1. multilevel investigations

In our world, whatever we see happening is part of an ongoing process, a collection of many different factors, causes and influences. Some we can clearly identify. Others we just glimpse and others we can only sense. So to investigate and get somewhere in the vicinity of what is happening, we need to bring together an assemblage of knowledge building and action fostering components.

These components are part of the design or plan of the research. The components you design with helps determine where the exploration will happen. In a Neighbourhood Biology project, we deliberately design to work on several scales. We aim to see something of forest as well as trees. A visual monitoring method locals can use along with one that requires microscopic work which maybe only some people use, with some training. A survey of an animal group in a place including some individual animal studies. Or maybe some other groups of that animal, providing community scale information.

We also deliberately choose diverse tools, with the aim of getting the best from an assemblage. Drawing from different disciplines, say the natural and social sciences helps. The numbers and types of creatures in a stream as well as the stories of the fishing there. The shellfish in the beds and the stories about the harvest of them in recent times and beyond. The plants identified and the stories of the ones missing from the area now.

Home2. Clear expressions of quality control

No data is perfect. No information is completely pure truth. Some ‘slop’ is unavoidable, but it can be curtailed or reined in. We need to be frank with ourselves and know how much slop there is in our information.

Having a number of people sampling can be even more accurate overall than having just one sole worker. But we need to use procedures which watch for variations -- the extent of ‘slop’. And we need to show how we keep it from getting out of hand. Things like creating clear instructions and checking to see how they are interpreted by others. Having teams size and sort the same model sample to see if and by how much their results can vary.

3. Involves at least two or more different sets of people as characterised by age, common interest, usual occupation, etc

Having a variety of people involved in different stages -- from planning to actual doing to working results -- makes for a constellation of perception. This affects the process, especially in how it brings new perspectives to the attention of the organisers. So consult in question setting stage. Ask for advice and participation in the actual investigations. And when presenting results, speak to a variety of interests using a variety of media.

4. Addresses subsistence process and relationship issues

The key ecological processes and issues which characterise the Neighbourhood Biology approach are about food, drink and shelter, for the many species of a locality, including people. One way of understanding a catchment is that it is an arrangement of physical and social processes about food, water and shelter. Another way is that is the arena for the lifecycles of many species.

Although we can imagine many idyllic scenes in a faraway future ‘if only we all did such and such’, we can only begin in some small way. That’s where we have a chance to make a choice. Each catchment now has some key subsistence or life cycle features which need protection, conservation or enhancement. The important thing is to make a start, with even just one aspect which local people believe in. From there, the rest will develop in its own way.

5. Process of activity and its results are public information, presented in a variety of ways

Make the whole research process and the knowledge developed become local lore by showing and telling to a number of different audiences. Store copies of results in local libraries. Use any media and arts available. Infiltrate gossip and grapevines. Make it public. Make it fun.

6. The research activity and/or the knowledge developed becomes an integral part of local community customs

You know this has happened when the monitoring and observation practices become a local institution right up there with the annual school fair. Or it becomes a preferred practice like taking taxis when drinking or remembering RICE when dealing with an injury -- rest, immobilisation, compression and elevation. You can help get it there by paying attention to people's constraints and interests. Keep the work simple and keep it meaningful.

NBio Highlights
Getting to know where we are: three ecological units
Identifying who we are: us as neighbours
Recognising how we live: glimpses of local ecology in action
Lore and data
   
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1997 Mary Gardner