Q Method in Action

My summer was defined by one letter: Q.

Q Methodology was something I was aware of, but had never investigated in detail. It turned out to be pretty awesome.

 Where the genius happens.

Where the genius happens.

I’m not the kind of person that is always looking to do new things, but if someone approaches me (like my advisor, Katie Meehan) with a new challenge, I am the kind of person that will say yes. When I was asked by Katie if I would like to assist developing the Q concourse, without hesitation I said yes. When asked if I knew what Q was, without hesitation I said no.

Almost overnight I was submerged into the world of Q. As the Graduate Research Assistant on the Knowledge Integration Project, my job was to review the Q method literature (especially in geography), develop and refine the Q method concourse, investigate different online Q survey tools, and prepare the survey for ‘trouble-free’ implementation in the fall. I spent my summer either swimming in the literature or in the piles of statements on index cards that slowly amassed in my office.

 Lourdes at work, inductively categorizing Q statements (quotes from interview participants) on index cards.

Lourdes at work, inductively categorizing Q statements (quotes from interview participants) on index cards.

 Our brilliant conceptual framework. Pro tip: Avoid doing “shit we already know.”

Our brilliant conceptual framework. Pro tip: Avoid doing “shit we already know.”

Tackling the learning curve was made easy by the impressive amount of literature and resources available. Simon Watts and Paul Stenner’s book “Doing Q Methodological Research” became my bible. I received additional guidance from articles such as: Paul Robbins’ “The politics of barstool biology: Environmental knowledge and power in greater Northern Yellowstone”; “Using Q Method to Reveal Social Perspectives in Environmental Research” by Thomas Webler, Stentor Danielson and Seth Tuler; and “Structuring subjectivities? Using Q methodology in human geography” by Sally Eden, Andrew Donaldson, and Gordon Walker. The Q-Method online community was a wealth of information, as was contacting scholars directly utilizing the method. [A side note: the Q Method community is relatively small, so a newbie can actually email professors and Q innovators, or post to the Q listserv, and receive direct responses from Q experts!]

Specifically, I appreciated the input of Dr. Kerri Jean Ormerod, who took time out of her busy summer to provide sage advice, both theoretical and practical. (Thank you, KJ!) My own background and experience with other qualitative methods (i.e. interviews, qualitative coding and analysis) also provided a firm foundation. Being able to build on this foundation helped me quell the natural anxieties that rise when you’re (1) doing something new; or (2) feel like you have no idea what is going on.

 Making order out of chaos. Over a week, we identified key themes and developed categories out of the Q concourse, and began to pinpoint a set of suitable Q statements for each category. Categories were a mix of inductive (identified out of our mess of statements) and deductive (already identified by the STS literature as important/influential).

Making order out of chaos. Over a week, we identified key themes and developed categories out of the Q concourse, and began to pinpoint a set of suitable Q statements for each category. Categories were a mix of inductive (identified out of our mess of statements) and deductive (already identified by the STS literature as important/influential).

 Lourdes Ginart (left) and Katie Meehan (right) sorting statements into categories. Some researchers opt to do this step in a qualitative data software program, like Atlas.ti. We preferred to do this in person, armed with physical cards, spread out over a large conference table, supported by baked goods and coffee. Working in person allowed us to quickly and efficiently troubleshoot cards and categories, discuss and verify choices, ask questions, and call for back-up. Q Method is best done in a team atmosphere.

Lourdes Ginart (left) and Katie Meehan (right) sorting statements into categories. Some researchers opt to do this step in a qualitative data software program, like Atlas.ti. We preferred to do this in person, armed with physical cards, spread out over a large conference table, supported by baked goods and coffee. Working in person allowed us to quickly and efficiently troubleshoot cards and categories, discuss and verify choices, ask questions, and call for back-up. Q Method is best done in a team atmosphere.

I enjoyed learning about Q methodology because it pushed me out of my comfort zone. I overcame the human discomfort of doing something new, I engaged with the theoretical literature more deeply, and I reached out to and engaged with other scholars doing Q. Building the concourse was also a constant and fruitful exercise in reflexivity. I had to move beyond my own opinions to address the research topic holistically because developing the Q-study demanded that I have a range of perspectives and opinions for the concourse. It seems obvious, but it’s a skill that demands development.

I see Q as a tool that allows us to locate and understand the divergence in opinions on a given topic. It’s not new, but it is revolutionary. Capturing and understanding these divergences provides an opportunity to move a conversation into a new direction. In this study, asking our participants to identify what ideas and practices should guide interdisciplinary research allows us to identify subconscious norms, sources of conflict, productivity, poor research practices, and successful research practices, making it possible to both quantify and discuss why and how these subjectivities matter.

 Success! After a long week and a lot of cold brew coffee, we have an operational Q method survey.

Success! After a long week and a lot of cold brew coffee, we have an operational Q method survey.

In the process I’ve strengthened my qualitative analysis techniques, I’ve developed new quantitative analysis skills, I’ve learned a new methodology, and I’m promoting the use of this methodology in geography. Undertaking a Q-study was time-consuming and deliberative, but it was also a great challenge and fun. I know my Q journey has just begun.

-Lourdes Ginart

 The final product: a set of Q statements (n=43) in each category, ready for sorting by survey participants. Next step: the online survey, coming this fall.

The final product: a set of Q statements (n=43) in each category, ready for sorting by survey participants. Next step: the online survey, coming this fall.

New Article in Print

Global change science has become more international in scope and transdisciplinary in nature, in response to the social expectation that scientific knowledge should inform collective action and our ability to cope with a warming world. How do we integrate knowledge to catalyze action, not only across scales of analysis, but across diverse cultures, social and political differences, and human geographies ?

In this article, published in Science, Technology, & Human Values (the flagship journal of 4S, the Society for the Social Study of Science), we move past idealized models of the science–policy interface (i.e. the "linear model") to examine the geopolitical dynamics of knowledge mobilization. We explore how the science-policy interface as a human ecosystem, including how works on the ground, in diverse settings and cultures, across the Américas.

While this paper is an outgrowth of my Fulbright NEXUS collaboration with scholars from across the hemisphere (Nicole Klenk in Canada and Fabián Mendez in Colombia), the NEXUS research directly inspired the goals and content of the Knowledge Integration project. What analysis of the NEXUS reveals, echoed in the bones of our current project, is that geopolitical asymmetries and friction cannot easy be scrubbed out of international, interdisciplinary collaborations. They must be navigated--and that requires a personal skillset that does not come easily.

Read more about it here! If you cannot access the article, please email Katie Meehan (meehan@uoregon.edu) for a PDF copy.

-Katie Meehan

Image (above): Sakurako Gibo, California College of the Arts (CCA). Inspired by soil science, the image depicts a theoretical assemblage of soil microbes with different morphologies (for instance round spores versus string-like mycelia).

Media Coverage of KI Project

Around the O, the University of Oregon's media organ (I love that word, "organ"), produced a nice little story last year about our NSF-funded Knowledge Integration Project. (In their words, "Around the O is the UO’s go-to place for information about the university, its people and the difference they make in Oregon and around the world.") Writer Emily Halnon is a skilled wordsmith and deftly captured the heart of our research ambitions.

Read the full article here. A few of my favorite excerpts:

  • Meehan wants to understand how international partnerships function and how the scientific community could do interdisciplinary research better. To investigate this question, she will examine how scientists from different places and backdrops collaborate on environmental research and how they might be able to more effectively integrate knowledge across borders. “We want to understand how different people stitch knowledge together across cultures, backgrounds, borders, disciplines and between people who work on different scales of analysis, from microbiomes to ecosystems,” Meehan said.
  • [Meehan] said many researchers are looking for a formulaic approach to international and interdisciplinary collaboration, but she expects the dynamic nature of the partnerships will prevent her from identifying a single formula for collaboration.
  • Meehan looks at the project as a study into how people work, which helps explain why it’s unlikely she will produce a one-size-fits-all recipe to apply to scientific partnerships. Humans are complex ingredients and she suspects her observations in the United States and Brazil might mirror some of what she saw during the Fulbright project in Latin America, when qualities like empathy and relationship-building were so key to successful teamwork.
  • “Some people are desperate for a recipe for interdisciplinary science collaboration,” she [Meehan] explained. “We are still just beginning the research, but I suspect our observations might point to the importance of negotiations, empathy and other complex skills that diverge from a formulaic strategy.”

 

Local Knowledge is Not a Pot of Gold

How do we know that the world is changing around us? What can place-based knowledge tell us about climates, past and future? Can we use that knowledge for good, not evil?

'Local' knowledge—an umbrella category for traditional, tacit, indigenous, and ‘uncertified’ expertise—is often viewed by science groups (like the IPCC) as vital for crafting effective and appropriate solutions to the world’s wicked problems—like climate change.

At the same time, local knowledge is slippery: it hinges differently across place and time. Local knowledge may be at odds with scientific and technological goals of universal knowledge and progress. In 'extracting' local knowledge from the context of its production, experts may break the ties that bind such knowledge to the materiality of its place—including local governance arrangements and sociotechnical practices. Extraction may do more violence than good.

In a recent article, authored by our Fulbright NEXUS team and published in WIREs Climate Change, we make the point that local knowledge is not a pot of gold, awaiting discovery at the end of the proverbial rainbow. In reviewing the field, we combed through literature in climate adaptation science and took stock of common trends, patterns, and ideas about local knowledge. Drawing on theory in science and technology studies (STS), we move away from the extractionist approach—still so common in science—and toward a compositionalist theory of local knowledge. This shift, we argue, calls for an end to ‘mining’ local knowledge to reinforce climate governance regimes.

Moved to read more? The article is now available on the WIREs Climate Change website; or email Katie Meehan for a copy.  

 This graph charts the explosion of publications citing 'local knowledge' in climate change adaptation research. Prior to 2010, only 10 articles were published about this topic--the same number of articles published in the first quarter (January-March) of 2015 alone.

This graph charts the explosion of publications citing 'local knowledge' in climate change adaptation research. Prior to 2010, only 10 articles were published about this topic--the same number of articles published in the first quarter (January-March) of 2015 alone.

We’re Hiring!

Are you a prospective PhD student interested in science studies and the politics of environmental knowledge? Dr. Katie Meehan is seeking to hire a new graduate research assistant (GRA) to work on the NSF-funded Knowledge Integration Project.

The ideal candidate has strong interests in political ecology, science and technology studies (STS), and environmental politics in Latin America, especially Brazil. Requirements include (1) a master’s degree, in Geography, STS, or a relevant area; (2) experience with qualitative research; (3) field or work experience in Latin America. Language skills in Portuguese and field experience in the Amazon are highly desirable, but not required.

Specific GRA responsibilities will include: 1) preparing and administering a visual Q-method survey, an image-based qualitative technique; 2) analyzing qualitative data and reporting the results; 3) assisting Dr. Meehan with project-related activities, such as the public art/science exhibit. The GRA will gain skills in Q method, survey design, qualitative data analysis, academic writing, and project management.

The GRA position is for one year (starting Fall 2018) and provides an annual stipend, health insurance, and tuition waiver. Upon admission to the graduate program, the Geography department provides select, highly competitive applicants with up to 3-4 years of additional funding, typically as a teaching assistant or instructor.

The Department of Geography at the University of Oregon is top-ranked program with strengths in critical human geography, biophysical geography, spatial data science, and political ecology. We are located in Eugene, Oregon, a weird but lovable town situated between the Cascade Mountains and Pacific Coast.

Interested in this position? Prior to formal application (due January 15, 2018) to the Geography program, prospective applicants should send a brief letter of interest and CV (including GPA and GRE scores) to Dr. Katie Meehan (meehan@uoregon.edu). Thanks!