The central question of my PhD is how benefits are produced within a wastewaterscape. To answer this question requires a mix of methods. However, mixing methods is not as simple as cake or even concrete making. For those who have made their own mayonnaise, I think this provides the best metaphorical mixture.

It can be done! But there’s also the potential for a lumpy, unmixed, unappealing mess. The key is to proceed carefully.

The oil-water separation between social and natural science methods begins with foundational assumptions about the nature of reality and the role of science. Epistemology is the branch of philosophy concerned with how we know things. The point of all methods is to create some kind of knowledge. However, different academic disciplines are foregrounded on different projects of knowledge creation. I’d like to avoid diving too far into concepts such as positivism, post-positivism, and ontologies here. I think a rough and ready way of exploring this terrain is to highlight a difference between prediction and interpretation. These may be caricatures, but I hope they highlight some of the differences that need to be discussed, in order for interdisciplinary synthesis to be possible.

Natural science is built on an approach to method that works towards prediction. A good method produces laws or relationships that are expected to hold in the world in general. In order to make these predictions, a degree of simplification is always required – this is why so much research takes place in the controlled conditions of a laboratory. Even when a constructed wetland system is being studied, something designed to go out into the world, a large number of papers publishing results from constructed wetlands have been conducted on small systems in controlled research conditions. Another consequence of this is that the role of the researcher is removed from the final outcome. Predictions should be the same no matter who carries out the research. The politics of the research, the way that findings may influence the ongoing entangling of the world, is rarely given 

In contrast, much social research aims for interpretation. Firstly, many social researchers are not prepared to accept the concept of a detached observer (see Haraway for more on this suspicion). Researching social dynamics automatically places you within the social setting, where your actions will have some impact. Given the complexity of social realities, interpretive choices need to be made, and good social research is open about these interpretive choices, and the way that these are influenced by the position of the researcher. Given the importance of context and history in producing a certain natureculture, the possibilities of prediction are constrained. However, through developing theoretical tools, similar analyses can be applied across cases. Finally, in developing theories, social research realises that ways of describing the world have the power to shape it. 

What does this mean for my research?

For conducting my PhD research, I find the methodological approaches of social science more compelling. Waterscapes are inescapably social, and influenced by social and political dynamics. One example of how these insights are important to my research plan is how I treat the concept of benefits. 

Benefits don’t exist independently of social actors who create or recognise them. Treating benefits as constructed through social processes requires my research to be open to multiple ways that benefits can be understood. Certain social actors have more power to define benefits, but that doesn’t mean I should take these definitions as the most appropriate! There’s a political muddle going on as I select and define the benefits I will be studying. I have tried to include the voices of those living near the wetland, and how the project appears to them. 

As I develop these benefit definitions I am simultaneously mapping a collection of social and ecological processes which is tied up in the production of this benefit. These are what my methods will investigate.

It is here that natural science methods come back into the frame. Natural science methods aim to describe or quantify ecological/biophysical processes. These include:

  • Water quality sampling at various points along the ‘treatment chain’
  • Vegetation survey of the wetlands
  • Camera observation to create a visual and audio record of animal interactions with the wetlands
  • Water sampling for eDNA analysis to describe microbial communities in inflow and outflow water, as well as within the wetland itself.

This is where some of the assumptions of natural science methods are still appropriate. In collecting water quality, or ecological data, it is entirely reasonable to hope that data are going to be the same no matter who collected them. 

Social science methods aim to describe social relations relevant to the benefits. Social relations is an umbrella category, including pretty much any form of human action: legal processes, rule making and following, emotional reactions, as well as the knowledge that then shapes action.

The methods used to approach these topics are:

  • Interviews, surveys and focus group discussions with people living near the wetlands
  • Interviews with ‘key stakeholders’, including scientists and those with political power
  • Textual analysis of documents and reports produced by stakeholders
  • Observation and note taking, in the villages, and in the labs/offices of project stakeholders.

Another function of social research methods is to add detail and context to the findings of the natural science methods, through investigations of the history of each method (drawing on literature), as well as participant observation and interviews to understand how each method is applied.