What is a social scientist doing here anyway?

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“Hi, my name’s Kaylin Clements. I’m a PhD student and my research focuses on the socioeconomics of lionfish in Florida.  Would it be okay if I ask you a few questions?”

This is how I start almost every conversation with my interviewees. But I wanted a place where I could be more clear about what kind of scientist I am. So here goes.

Human dimensions of huh?

When people want to know exactly what kind of science I do beyond my catchall “socioeconomics of lionfish”, my attempts at one-sentence explanations fall apart. Saying I am 100% social scientist is misleading. It’s more like 75% social scientist, 25% environmental scientist. And if you ask me what my degree is in, I sigh and rattle off “human dimensions of natural resources”, which will undoubtedly confuse you more and warrant a little grin saying as much. And I smile and nod and say “I know, I didn’t think that would help, sorry.” And then I say

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something like “so I’m not studying the fish itself, I’m studying the people who are interacting with the fish.. I’m not the guy dissecting a lionfish and counting how many eggs or meals it’s had, I’m the one trying to figure out why people are interested in lionfish and why we can’t seem to get it to market fast enough.” But in a sentence:

Human dimensions of natural resources is the application of social science, often married with ecological science, to address conservation issues.

There are only so many guts you can examine and radio collars you can track test before you have to stare the root cause of conservation issues in the face: people. Conservation wouldn’t exist if people didn’t exist. I don’t mean that as an attack on people, I just mean it as a reality. Humans both cause and solve conservation problems through our millions of strange, counter-intuitive behaviors. We often don’t even understand why we behave the way we do. I am proud that I get to study the most complicated, mystifying species on the planet.

What does social science look like?

Well ain’t that a can of lionfish eggs. In an effort to not oversimplify or diminish the work of the many subfields of social science (there are A LOT – I’m telling you, it takes a lot of science to figure out human beings!), here is the jargony version of what my social science research on lionfish in Florida looks like: I combine cognitive anthropology theory, ethnographic field methods, survey design, and qualitative and quantitative analysis to characterize Florida divers and spearfishers’ mental models of lionfish and barriers to market-related behaviors. YAWN. In English: I visit every lionfish tournament I can, Image result for social scientists like regular scientists but more talkativecall strangers on the phone who have been referred to me, badger the employees at seafood restaurants and counters at the grocery store, talk to every person involved in removal efforts who will talk to me; I sit and watch as the events unfold and take notes; I observe how divers talk about hunting for lionfish, how they go about cleaning the fish; I talk to the divers on the dock while they’re cutting the fillets out of their fish at the cleaning station; I show up at the weigh station right as they bring in their catch and hope it’s a big haul so I have more time to interview while it’s weighed or cleaned; I talk to restaurant chefs who buy and cook with lionfish, and I record as many interviews as I can. I guess it’s really a lot of talking.. but mostly listening.

What will I do with all this stuff?

First off, I will transcribe every interview – every um, and, and haha. If you’ve never transcribed anything before, I’ll tell you it’s a painful process. It’s like the social science version of micro-pipetting acid into test tubes for hours at a time. For every one hour of recording, it takes about 3.5 hours to transcribe. Some of my interviews are more than an hour. Most are between 15-30 minutes (which is actually very short for an interview). I have more than 50 interviews to transcribe at the moment.

Once I’ve got all of that done, I start my qualitative analysis. This is a type of social science research that some scientists groan over. It’s tedious and not nearly as straightforward as surveys that just spit back multiple choice answers and numbers. For example, a survey might ask the question “On a scale of one to five, how concerned are you about lionfish in Florida waters?” and the response will be some number between one and five. Easy peasy.

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But with qualitative analysis, you have to read every word every person says (so you’ve now listened in-person, listened again slowly while transcribing, and read every word of it). Then, you go back to the first person and with your general understanding of what everyone has said , you start to code. Coding interviews is not a straightforward process. It’s difficult, it takes diligence, and you do it knowing you will have to come back and re-code at least one more time, but probably more like four more times. There are a variety of ways to go about this, but the most useful for my research is coding for themes (theme analysis). I look for the ways that people characterize, for instance, diving for lionfish. Some of these are easy. I ask why they do it and they say “it’s fun”, or “lionfish taste good”, or “ecological reasons”. And other times, you learn information that you haven’t heard in any other interview, but it’s still super important, the nuggets that you wouldn’t have known to ask about without going in-person and talking face-to-face.

Now what?

The next step will be creating a more streamlined, straightforward survey based on all of the great information I have collected and will continue to collect this summer. The intention of it all is to find out the big issues that lionfish hunters, wholesalers, and restaurants are facing and help alleviate those barriers to ultimately support removal efforts. In the meantime, please tell me about your experience with lionfish and what you think about the barriers to getting it to market – I’m all ears!

Kaylin Clements
Author: Kaylin Clements