Sunday, 11 May 2014

Post 18: What is Methodology?

I've been stewing over this question for the last 12 months or so, and more seriously the last 8, because I've been trying to figure out, What is methodology for my project?

I had a meeting with my committee in September, where I outlined a few books I would read in order to help me answer this question, and among them: Hugh Gusterson's "Nuclear Rites: A Weapons Laboratory at the end of the Cold War"; Sharon Traweek's "Beamtimes and Lifetimes: The World of High Energy Physicists"; Donna Haraway's "Primate Visions: Gender, Race, and Nature in the World of Modern Science", and a couple other texts that I'm still working my way through, including "States of Knowledge: The co-production of science and social order," edited by Sheila Jasanoff, and "Actor Network Theory and after" by John Law and John Hassard.

Trying to understand and track down what methodology is, is not very easy. I've spoken with a number of different people, to find that I'm easily discouraged by the somewhat contradictory things I've heard: there are so many different ideas of what methodology is! (And from what I understand, it's very much the experience of a master's trying to figure out, What is methodology.). So, despair not if you're like me, and struggling to sort this all out.

One friend's advice? It doesn't make sense to stew about methodology in the abstract. It will make a lot more sense by the time that you start to sit down and ready yourself for writing, because it'll help direct you for what you need to say. And I think that now that I feel like I'm on the brink of starting to get everything together, that makes a lot of sense. (Now would be a great time for a research methods and methodology class!)

Here, Google's definition:

"Methodology is the systematic, theoretical analysis of the methods applied to a field of study, or the theoretical analysis of the body of methods and principles associated with a branch of knowledge. It, typically, encompasses concepts such as paradigm, theoretical model, phases and quantitative or qualitative techniques.[1]

A methodology does not set out to provide solutions but offers the theoretical underpinning for understanding which method, set of methods or so called “best practices” can be applied to a specific case.

                                    A pause for some bright swamp lantern (Symplocarpus foetidus).

It has been defined also as follows:
  1. "the analysis of the principles of methods, rules, and postulates employed by a discipline";[2]
  2. "the systematic study of methods that are, can be, or have been applied within a discipline";[2]
  3. "the study or description of methods".[3]"

Which kinds of gets us somewhere, but I certainly struggled to make heads or tails of this definition months ago.

Some people said really confusing things like 'methodology is interchangeable with methods, but that doesn't make sense to me. The methods that I'm using are semi-structured interviews (my primary method), along with selective document analysis, and journaling. So, there's something missing here that isn't captured by just saying methodology is the set of methods that I'm using.

What I've arrived to more recently, is deciding that methodology means 'approach', and being able to justify why you made the decisions you made, including which methods to go with (empirical, qualitative, quantitative, etc), and why that suite of methods together, in order to best answer the research questions you posed.

So, where does that leave me? I've been trying to articulate my approach to myself for some time now. I interviewed scientists directly because the kinds of perspectives and ideas I wanted to know are not apparent in the published work that's publicly available. I wanted to focus on the intersection of the mountain pine beetle and scientists because I wanted to be sensitive to other non-human beings and their influence on the practice and perspectives of humans -- does the scale of the ecological/environmental change associated with the beetle challenge or change any of the key perspectives of scientists, and what does that look like? In so doing, I needed to read widely and deeply about the mountain pine beetle, and hone in on a group or network of scientists that I thought would be manageable to interview. I decided to focus on what I saw as a coming together of 5 research hubs, some closely linked, others not so, and I think it went reasonably well. Of course there are other people that I would have loved to interview, but as it was, there were only so many positive responses that I received, and could proceed with.

The other major focus of my thesis project has been the concept of novel ecosystems, and I speculate that the mountain pine beetle moving into the boreal forest (an ecosystem it's never historically been in, from what scientists can see), is a hybrid ecosystem with novel characteristics (following a classification system outlined by recent work done for the concept). I'm still trying to grapple with the dimensions and differences with the epidemic and endemic mountain pine beetle population patterns, and what that means for the idea of the novel ecosystem.

Now, I'm also preoccupied with describing the key relationships I saw forming and developing because of research that ensued in the context of climate change and the the climate-exacerbated mountain pine beetle, and what that tells us about scientists' capacities for change and adaptation, and where that is applicable elsewhere! There were a number of comments about the 'novel' habitat of the mountain pine beetle; my analysis will need to make sense of exactly how that relates to my ideas of the novel ecosystems concept.

My methodological approach will help me to explain why I focused on the information out there as I did, why I then went on to analyze my interviews and look for certain themes and ideas arising (as well as others that emerged from the interviews), and to reconcile that with the shaping ideas that I have forming from the whole process of undertaking such an empirical, qualitative study.

So, I feel like while I have sort of been able to describe for myself what my idea of methodology is, sorting that out will need a little bit more care in the coming weeks as I wrap up analyzing my interviews and laying out my thesis and writing.

I was reading somewhere the other day again in Laurie Waye's Thesis Handbook (apologies, I was quickly looking into the text, and don't have it with me currently), who mentioned that there will undoubtedly be a lot more research that I've done that won't make it into the thesis. There are also countless methodologies and methods that one can use -- different lenses, if you'll permit the analogy a la Haraway, that can be used to undertake projects and interpret data, so, it really comes down to committing to one and running with it. Students who struggle to complete their theses are likely those who dig too broadly, instead of focusing and digging in deep, and in part, that really resonates with me.

So, here's to sorting out just a little bit more, exactly what my lens and my approach is in the coming little while!

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Post 17: Bike to Work Week

Bike to Work Week is COMING!!!

What is it? A week that celebrates, encourages, and supports new and seasoned cyclists who are on our roads. This is an event that happens all over the place: not just in Victoria, but across the country. Victoria has an amazing system of collaboration and support with all sorts of prizes and events during the week.

This year is extra special because it's the 20th year anniversary for the Victoria Bike to Work Week group.

                                           Cycling down near Oak Bay in Victoria, BC! :)

So aside from feeling awesome and encouraged about riding a bike—or tricycle, or a reclining bike—there are tons of opportunities to grab goodies and enter draw prizes and get a free tune-up at the Celebration Stations all throughout the week. They are held twice a day, in the morning and the evening, catching cyclists on their way to and from work. Or, you can do as I did last year, and minimally lengthen commute routes to hit a couple that aren't normally on your way to campus.

This year there's also a new Celebration MEGA-Station on May 31st (Saturday), from 1-4 PM at Centennial Square, to celebrate and recognize all the people and organizations that help to make (and have helped over the past 20 years) BTWW a success.

There are a number of courses on offer before the event, if you are interested in boosting your skills or confidence level, for kids and adults both.

It's been a cause of joy for me to see the weather warming and improving rapidly in Victoria, and I've already been cycling around more. Goodness knows I'll need to boost my bike-fitness a little bit more to brave riding up the steep Foul Bay Road hill to get to campus.

Otherwise, I've been laying out my thesis, and trying to account for the important pieces that I'll need to write, and that work has actually been fun. It's amazing what a load it is off my mind (and chest) to start putting things on paper. There's a lovely creative process there: once I put down the things I've been carrying in my head on paper, then I'm free to massage more out of what's there, as well as have new ideas or elaborations work out from what I've already got. I suppose this feels like more familiar territory that the terror of 'doing research' in the abstract, and questioning what that means all the time.

I'm trying to sign up for the Thesis Completion Group that's run through Counselling Services on campus here, over the summer. I'd tried to in the fall, but it was already full then; we'll see if a few spots have opened up for the coming months.

Cheers to writing and planning and data analysis with the sun providing an abundance of softer, natural light in my office!


Quick update post-event:

BTWW was fantastic! We had a great turnout, with 5 first-time participants, and we certainly outdid ourselves by having a much bigger team than last year. I also had a lot of help organizing and keeping track of everyone's statistics with 2 of my colleagues, and they did a great job, too!

We saved about 321 kg of C02 from everyone biking over the week, and we biked a cumulative 1566 kms over the week, with 138 unique trips. Way to go! Fantastic BTWW 2014. :)

Friday, 2 May 2014

Post 16: PICS Symposium and Sharing Research

I am one of the fortunate graduate students to be funded by the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions, and almost two years into the funding, I feel really appreciative of the annual Fellowship Symposium, which this year was held on Tuesday, April 29th in Vancouver.

While I felt the amplified though usual nerves I face when readying for a presentation (it's been several months since I've had to formally present on my research), the sense of relief and enjoyment I felt half way through the day, having spent my 10 minutes at the centre of attention, was delightful. I very much relaxed into being able to laugh freely, and listen to other fellows' research, see students, some of whom I recognized from last year, another who I'd worked with for CONFORWest, and another simply a PhD student who's quirkiness caught me last time, and this time made me cheer for him: he was submitting his thesis in two days' time.

I think the best part of the day was getting out of my skin to listen to the ideas others had. It was such a treat to hear Geoff Dembicki speak: his excellent Tyee series "Are We Screwed?" has him writing a compelling group of articles, trying to answer what he sees as the question of our times. I also heard from Cara Pike of the Social Capital Project, and James Glave from Clean Energy Canada, both of whom had projects conducting qualitative research trying to understand some aspects of rural Canadians perspective on climate change, energy, the environment, related policies, and the future.

After a well-charged morning those intriguing talks that left me feeling more clear-sighted and as though I were more squarely facing climate change and feeling decent about the direction of my research, it was time to face down the mental and physical challenge of staring down my talking slot. And, as always happens when slipped into a group of speakers, that time came altogether too quickly, and the next thing I knew, I was staring at the mike, trying to keep my breathing in order so that I could speak.

Not quite at the symposium, but presenting my poster at the Western
Division of the Canadian Association of Geographers (WDCAG), Spring 2014

At this point in time, I am glad for the many times I've gone over my talk. By this time my reliance on what I've written on my piece of paper (thankfully not shaking because it's glued to the podium at the front), has usually diminished, so I feel I can risk looking up a few times, or, as Dr. Tom Pederson, the director of PICS, encouraged me: think of the back of the room.

And, all at once, all that I planned and practiced came out in less than 10 minutes, and I was sitting back in my seat, waiting for the last two speakers before questions. All good.

So, looking back on the day, I feel lucky to be part of a research community filled with so many bright students! And I'm grateful that PICS takes the time to set aside a day in the year where we can all meet (being from different institutions, that doesn't always happen.) I can also wonder exactly about how to write my own thesis, and question what elements of 'developing stories that other people can see themselves in' I can incorporate into my research adventure. How to tell the story of scientists, climate change, and the mountain pine beetle? I'm trying to figure out just how much and how far I can use Actor-Network-Theory, or ANT, to do just that, and write a different kind of accounting from the human-dominating-nature kind of mythologies we see around us all the time.