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Panel 8: Quantitative data or analysis to answer anthropological questions: advantages and disadvantages


Sophie Caillon, Catherine Sabinot

Session presentation

In the Pacific region where few social scientists are focusing their research on environmental issues, we have witnessed an increasing numbers of papers dealing with human management of resources written by non-social scientists. They are prolific, as they are based on short-term field observations, and seducing as they attempt to prove through quantitative means hypotheses raised by researchers undertaking long-term research whose complexity could only be described through a qualitative approach. Instead of criticizing what is done within the sphere of conservationists and ecologists, couldn’t we integrate within our qualitative research some quantitative approaches? How can we identify an adequate balance between single- and multiple-cases studies, local- and meta-analysis, qualitative and quantitative data and analysis? The context of Pacific islands, often characterized by a low human-density, is particularly challenging to undertake such statistical research. The audience will hear a diversity of tools that could be mobilized in their own research. The experience of anthropologists but also geographers, ethnoecologists and added to the views of ecologists, mathematicians, and entrepreneurial researchers will be addressed.

Paper submissions are closed

Accepted papers

How do integrate quantitative data and/or quantitative analysis of qualitative data in the field of anthropology?

Catherine Sabinot (IRD - Institut de Recherche pour le Développement)

Sophie Caillon (CNRS - Centre National pour la Recherche Scientifique)

This introductive paper aims to describe a set of quantitative methods already available and used by anthropologists and human scientists, and to confront them with quantitative methods used by other disciplines related to management of natural resources. We propose to discuss the interest in and difficulties of integrating original approaches based on quantitative sociology (questionnaires, social network analysis), ethnobiology (free-listing, pile sorting), ecology (plant/animal identification and inventory), etc. Case-study methodology has proved its appropriateness to explore the “how” and “why” of contemporary local events. Methodologies such as comparison across multiple cases studies that integrate quantitative data and enhance external validity to a theory have been also acknowledged in various researches. What are methods for identifying an adequate balance between local- and meta-analysis?
This will conduct to highlight advantages, disadvantages (e.g. simplification of data and research questions…), and difficulties (e.g. how to work with other disciplines) that scientists encounter in this inter and transdisciplinary research experiences. Our goal is to show that quantitative data and methods are relevant only if questions and interpretations are based on long-term field observations, a specificity of Anthropology.

Social network analysis to study seed circulation in Vanuatu: what is the benefit?

Sophie Caillon (CNRS - Centre National pour la Recherche Scientifique)

By combining participant observation, ethnobiological inventories, and social network analysis, we investigated how farmer social status and plant biocultural value affect plant circulation. Plant biocultural value was estimated by referring to their local classification according to uses, cultivation practices, growing environments, and biological properties. We analyzed the daily circulation of biological objects, i.e., cultivated plants (31 species, 284 landraces), within a community of first-generation migrants (16 households, 30 persons) living on the island of Vanua Lava in Vanuatu. Results suggest that some of the social dynamics of the Melanesian-type Big Man political system may persist, even though the system itself no longer exists in traditional form. Moreover, based on our comparative analysis of the three subnetworks of plants, farmer social status appears to influence greatly the circulation of plants with high biocultural value while having little influence on plants with low biocultural value. In this presentation we will question the advantages and limitations of adopting such a combined qualitative/quantitative methodology compared to a classical approach in social anthropology. What is the added value in regard of the time invested and the side effects of asking recurrent and numerous questions to farmers (i.e. use of questionnaires)?

Quantifying and contextualising gender relations in Solomon Islands

Michelle Dyer (Stockholm University)

This presentation is based on my attempts to grapple with how to use quantitative data opportunistically collected during ethnographic fieldwork. During the course of field work in a village in the Western Province of Solomon Islands in 2013 into gender relations and natural resource management for my PhD I collected a great deal of quantitative data about gendered attendance and contributions to community meetings. In this presentation I show how the quantitative datasets and their presentation in graph and table format produces what seems like objective data about gender relations using a methodology that can be reproduced in a variety of contexts and seemingly as a tool to measure participation. However, a reading of the data in conjunction with background ethnographic knowledge about gendered styles in meetings and other culturally relevant factors leads to different interpretations and shows how such data can be misleading in the absence of context. In particular, this focus on quantifiability, which nonetheless produces useful and striking graphs, does little to further the aim of gender equity without considering how styles of participation are valued within the community in question, and more broadly in Solomon Islands and Melanesia. This presentation struggles with how to develop tools for understanding gender dynamics in multiple contexts that nonetheless remain contextually relevant.

Oceanic Language Data and Cultures of Resource Management

Alexander Mawyer (University of Hawai'i-Manoa)

Regional languages and linguistic data present an interesting context for considering the commensurability and compatibility of quantitative methods and anthropological concerns with environment, ecology, and conservation practices. As a big(ish) data domain amenable to a variety of quantitative methods, Oceanic language data are nevertheless entangled with issues of meaning, translation, and interpretation when drawn upon and activated by social and other sciences. The result is a sensitive context for examining divergent methodological and analytical strategies for research on environmental insular histories and questions of resource management with anthropological implications. Though engaged with several larger data sets, this paper focuses on the language-encoded semantics of natural kinds, and of nature-centered management practices in Eastern Polynesia to reflect on the question of what light Oceanic languages may shed on how Pacific worlds are constituted and experienced in biocultural interactions. Diverse linguistic data are brought to bear on recently anthropologically energized discussions of rahui as the chiefly setting aside of resource extraction for a fixed length of time for purposes of resource management, ecological sustainability and resilience.

The application of social network measures to the understanding of fishing activity in New Caledonia (Loyalty Islands)

Julie Mallet (Kingston University )

Catherine Sabinot (IRD - Institut de Recherche pour le Développement)

As part of a research on the role of trust in collective strategies of fishermen in Loyalty Islands this article seeks to discuss the extent to which the tools used in deriving social network measures (for example the name generator, the position generator or density measures) are applicable in a Loyalty Islands context.
The research highlights cultural specificities (for example hierarchy, values and religion) and suggests an adaptation of the tools with the integration of multiple levels of networks (as the household, the tribe, the clan, and the district) characterized in the various activities conducted by the social actor.

Biocultural approaches to sustainability indicator development: opportunities and challenges

Eleanor Sterling (American Museum of Natural History)

Erin Betley (American Museum of Natural History)

Nadav Gazit (American Museum of Natural History)

Sophie Caillon (CNRS - Centre National pour la Recherche Scientifique)

Amanda Sigouin (American Museum of Natural History)

Biocultural approaches—which explicitly build on local values and perspectives and address the inextricable link between people and their environment—bring systems-level thinking to sustainable resource management. These approaches facilitate development of sustainability indicators that are culturally grounded, help capture the full complexity of systems, and are better suited for local decision-making than externally created ones, which can be ineffective or detrimental to existing local structures and systems. Biocultural approaches yield different indicators than those focused on biodiversity or on human well-being. Despite these potential advantages, key challenges remain in the identification, implementation, and measurement of indicators developed by these approaches. Indicators that integrate both biological and cultural aspects can be challenging to identify and communicate, given the multidimensional nature of the relationships and feedbacks they are measuring. This complexity creates additional challenges when trying to measure, standardize, and categorize indicators, important for facilitating meaningful translation across scales, as their interrelated nature resists discrete groupings. Based on research with government officials, academics, place-based practitioners, and NGOs, we identify characteristics of social-ecological resilience that are not currently measured in international goals and present biocultural approaches, emphasizing their advantages and gaps.