Most people have read and love the Harry Potter novels. When reading these stories, you are immersed into a time and place that are entirely different from your own. You say – I know nothing about what it’s like to be a young wizard and to have a magic wand, but as you continue to read, you begin to identify with Harry and his friends. How does that happen? Through thematic analysis. You begin to find common themes emerging and you are able to relate to these commonalities. Although the story is about a young wizard who ultimately defeats his evil nemesis (a situation I hope none who are reading this post ever find themselves in), within the pages you begin to see themes of friendship, courage, and family weaving their way through the narratives and we ARE able to recognize, relate and connect with these threads. As you are reading, you are compiling and internalizing these themes, and you begin to understand why the characters act the way they do, why they make the decisions they make, and what motivates them. You can see the threads that bind them together.
The study of the relationship between human experiences and the environment did not come about through "normal" science (Kuhn, 1963). Physical scientists began to seek input from social scientists to better understand how the “human dimension” was contributing to the sudden increase in changes in our environment. Social scientists often use qualitative methods to define and describe people, experiences, cultures and events and try to decipher the meanings within those definitions and descriptions. Research in the human dimensions of natural resource management, looks at how social attitudes, processes and behaviors influence how we maintain, protect and utilize our natural resources by applying theory-based social science to natural resource management problems. By using at these methods, human dimensions researchers within the natural resource field hope to understand the social and individual motivations that impact the decisions we make and the dynamic processes that inform how we use our natural resources.
Thematic analysis is a methodology that is used to gain understanding of a group, culture or experience, and that data that emerges can be used to inform a collaboration or facilitation process. Instead of starting with a hypothesis, and proving something to be right or wrong, a researcher can ask a few questions and then through conversation and storytelling, gather the experiences of each group member to then distill these stories down to the foundation, until the same themes begin occurring over and over again. This process can take significant time but immersion and saturation are key components of this kind of data collection. My 3 year old son loves to use self-correcting puzzles for learning his ABC. If you try to match big A with little b – the pieces don’t fit, big A only fits with little a. Much the same way, long form data collection corrects itself. If you don’t see a specific theme repeat across the group, then it’s most likely a motivator for that individual, not for the group. Once you find a recurring theme, you can use that thread as a way to connect people who may need to work together to resolve a natural resource conflict. All members of the group understand that theme and can relate to it. Recurring themes can be used to inform policy decisions, direct further research or to outline other processes that affect a group of people.
The natural world does not exist in a vacuum, every decision that humans make is tied to the environment in ways that we may not fully understand and qualitative methods are a valuable tool that we use at Resolve Conservation to help natural resource management decision makers understand and work with the human dimension.