Talk to 25 people about the same event and you will get 25 different observations of the experience. This is intuitive especially if you watch any of the multiple crime dramas on TV. Many eyewitnesses can witness something different despite watching the same scene. Add the element of time and the possible observations grows. Add that the witnesses are a diverse grouping of people with different values and worldviews and the possible number of observations becomes overwhelming.
Over the last three months, I have sat down to chat with 25 people who have been involved in a large-scale research project to anticipate water scarcity in the Willamette Valley over the next 85 years. This subset of participants in Willamette Water 2100 (as the research project is called) is meant to be representative of the multiple viewpoints engaged in this project and includes university principle investigators of natural and social sciences, county commissioners, farmers, and representatives from state and federal agencies like the Oregon Water Resource Department (OWRD), the Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA), the Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), and the Forest Service (USFS), among others. The idea is that by talking to multiple witnesses of this project, I can fully characterize the participants and their resulting outcomes after participating. Did each person have a unique experience or did all participants experience the same things? My interviews and analyses will speak to this question and more.
These “chats” followed a semi-structured interview format. This means that I had a list of questions or themes that I wanted to talk about but that I allowed the conversation to go any direction so I could follow up on any interesting points that might deviate from my list of questions. The interviews lasted anywhere from 25 minutes to an hour and a half but most were around an hour long. I asked my interviewees how they had gotten involved in Willamette Water 2100 and why. I asked what they had expected coming in to the project and if their expectations had been met. The interviewees also named challenges and successes that the project had faced and identified ways that the project is useful while suggesting methods to present the results to a wider audience.
After talking to each person, I took the audio-recording and transcribed our conversation to a text file. These text files are my data. Now, how do I analyze files of words? I have been trained to handle data of numbers and categories entered into Excel to generate graphs and summary statistics. That is not the way to handle qualitative data like my conversation documents.
I am just beginning to analyze my words in a process called “coding” which organizes repeating ideas into themes and concepts. For instance, one concept that practically every interviewee mentioned was that participating in this research benefitted them through learning. What was learned may differ among individuals or between groups of individuals, but they are all unified under that concept of learning. Reading and re-reading, and grouping and re-grouping are the next steps for me with this data so that I can accurately characterize the long-term participant experience in this research project.
But! That is not the only data with which I will be working. I am also about to launch an online survey to all participants of the process. Where my interviews were targeted based on expertise and experience with the project, my survey will be sent to every person on this project’s list serve. I will ask similar but more specific questions seeking to identify the degree of participation of each individual, their motivations for participating, and their perceptions of the project’s outcomes. The survey will provide me with some numbers to strengthen the conclusions I am making with the words of the interviews. Using multiple measures is a good way to confirm my conclusions.
I am feeling pretty accomplished having completed the interview data collection and transcription by the end of winter term. However, as we are beginning the spring term, I realize that there is still so much more work to do. And, while I would rather continue reflecting on my research process with you, I had better return to organizing the reflections of my subjects on the research process they went through. Unlike the police, however, I am not trying to recreate a crime to identify what happened, so I am going to change metaphors now at the end of this post (and let you see a picture of me when I was four years old). Consider the following picture of a party.
(Photo credit: Pam Ferguson)
Everyone is at the same party, but you might imagine, that different attendees will have different comments to make about the success of the party or how they felt leaving it. I want to know what the common and uncommon perceptions of the party were so that I can throw a better party in the future. While it may be weird to interview and survey your guests after a party, coordinators of scientific engagement processes definitely can do this. And then we hope to develop and invite people to better scientific engagement processes in the future.