Environmental Studies Part 2: Qualitative Research

The natural world is shifting, changing and heating up. Global politics affect natural resource allocation, and environmental changes disproportionately challenge the lives of the world’s poorest people. Consequently, environment professionals conduct social science research as a staple of their jobs. No longer is their work confined to academia. Instead, it influences politics, economics and human migration on local, national and international scales.

In a previous article on empirical research in environmental studies, we noted that leaders trust empirical research because it is based on direct and indirect observation and submits to the rigors of quantitative and qualitative research analysis. Empirical research, though, is not the only kind of research that bolsters the work of environmental scholars. Another critical research method is called qualitative research, or less commonly, naturalistic inquiry.

Defining Qualitative Research

In An Overview of Qualitative Research Methods: Direct Observation, Interviews, Participation, Immersion, and Focus Groups, Ashley Crossman defines qualitative research as “a type of social science research that collects and works with non-numerical data and that seeks to interpret meaning from these data that help us understand social life through the study of targeted populations or places.” In layman’s terms, qualitative research focuses on how and why events happen without using numerical data.

Although qualitative research, like its quantitative counterpart, relies on systems to collect, analyze, and test data, its aim is often particular rather than broad based. In qualitative studies, researchers seek to understand human behaviors and feelings such as emotions, beliefs, relationships, or religious values. Alternatively, the research may focus on intangible factors that are difficult to quantify, including social norms, ethnicities, or socioeconomic status.

When conducting qualitative research, scholars use data collection methods like in-depth interviews, ethnographic research, focus groups, case studies and content analyses. In an interview, for example, an experienced researcher can collect extensive amounts of meaningful data both by allowing the speaker freedom to express themselves at length and by observing body language and voice tone. Typically, the interviewer will ask open-ended questions that encourage descriptive data and flexible participant response.

Many companies use focus groups to test the general public’s anticipated response to new products or services. A focus group usually includes 6-10 people from the target audience who share their opinions, insights and general feedback about the topic at hand. One advantage focus groups hold over one-on-one interviews is their interactive nature. A statement by one group member may spark deeper, more accurate feedback from other members than those members would give an interviewer on their own.

Examples of general qualitative research questions might include:

  • How does the amount of time students in an urban high school spend playing video games each day affect the students’ relationships with their parents?
  • Why do people who listen to country music tend to vote more conservatively than people who listen to rock music?

Qualitative Research in Environmental Studies

Public health employees and other environmental professionals use qualitative research because its methods emphasize the complex effects of environmental issues on the individual, and they provide a nuanced narrative of the entire community’s voice. A study conducted at Brown University’s Department of Sociology stated:

Public health researchers increasingly turn to qualitative methods either on their own, or in combination with quantitative methods. Qualitative methods are especially important to community environmental health research, since they provide a way to produce community narratives that give voice to individuals, and that characterize the community in a full and complex fashion.

Simply put, qualitative research concentrates on human values and individual experiences. By using case studies, interviews and ethnographic research, environmental studies scholars can listen to a variety of individual experiences in different contexts.

Environmental scholars have relied on qualitative research for public legal matters since at least the Buffalo Creek flood in 1972. The natural disaster was caused by negligent strip mining, and it left thousands of people homeless, killed nearly 175 individuals and deeply shocked the people of the nearby Appalachian towns. The plaintiff’s lawyer in the subsequent legal hearings requested a qualitative study from Kai Erickson, an environmental sociologist, to help the court better understand the impact of the disaster. The result was a book-length project entitled “Everything in Its Path” that captured the physical and mental effects of human-created disaster in a specific cultural, historical and social context.

Today, environmental studies professionals use qualitative research methods to explore topics such as physical activity in rural adults and vulnerability among people living near oil extraction sites in Venezuela.

Conducting Qualitative Research

Environmental professionals need to collect, interpret and analyze qualitative data in order to equip decision makers with the information they need to address the human impact of environmental factors. Skills in quantitative research equip environmental sociologists, economists and political scientists to conduct groundbreaking studies, influence public policy and pursue doctoral-level education.

Students in the online environmental studies degree program (B.A.) at Virginia Wesleyan University take courses such as environmental policy analysis and humans, the environment and sustainability that make use of qualitative data. Plus, these students engage in an environmental internship that can equip them with needed qualitative research skills.