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Pleng's Summer Reflection: The complex beauty of qualitative research

Updated: Oct 2, 2023

This summer, as intern supported by the Stanford Earth Summer Undergraduate Research Program (SESUR), I had the opportunity to work alongside the members of the project team based at Hopkins Marines Station in Monterey. I am very grateful for the opportunity I had to be a part of Equity & MPAs project, which allowed me to gain first-hand insight into the obstacles surrounding efforts to address the needs, rights, and livelihoods of vulnerable coastal communities in resource management.

My main focus over the summer was conducting semi-structured interviews with Bay Area recreational and subsistence fishers and analyzing the resulting qualitative data. One of the main takeaways from this experience was my exposure to the complexity of conducting qualitative social science research and the necessary interpersonal skills it takes to conduct interviews effectively. For example, even in the initial, seemingly trivial stages such as reaching out to online fishing groups, it had taken me and my research partner almost an hour to craft a "perfect" message. We wanted to maximize responses, changing singular words here and there to adjust the formality and tone. However, even after taking the time to send a thoughtful message and contacting several fishing communities, only a handful responded. This was the same experience I had when I went out into the field. After attending a Fish Festival in Santa Cruz and collecting contact information from many individuals, only a few replied back. Hence, the first lesson I quickly learned: it is difficult to gain trust. However, what we thought may have been a hindrance to our project was a worry that dissipated after our first interview, in which our snowball sampling began, allowing us to meet individuals who took a genuine interest in supporting our work.

Initially, my supervisor provided a template of pre-written questions that me and my research partner used as a launching pad for our interviews. I remember feeling a mixture of excitement and nervousness as our first interviewee popped onto our Zoom screen. At first, we were very dependent on these questions, following the document top-down without pausing to really reflect on what was being said or how we could dig deeper. However, after every interview, I gained more confidence and became better at noticing small nuances. I began to learn the art of leading effective conversations, directing them to more productive and fruitful avenues. I learned how to better navigate the realms of subjectivity and bias, regulating my own personal emotions in order to produce valid results. Most importantly, I learned how much more of a conscious mental practice it takes to successfully interact with human beings and appropriately glean relevant information. Unlike quantitive experiments, the independent variables (human subjects) can be vastly different from one another. Hence, I couldn’t repeat the same methodical procedure and derive close to the same result every time. Instead, I needed to uniquely tailor my approach in real-time. Interviews are a completely immersive experience, and I was constantly adapting and learning something new. Through this, I gained informative insights that added value to not only the research project but value to my growth as a more empathetic individual. Furthermore, these conversations reinforced my belief that despite coming from all different walks of life, human beings are not all so different. We are inherently good. All of the fishermen were attuned to the roles they could play to help prevent the devastating effects of climate change and many were eager to take collective action, cooperating with different user groups to help preserve and protect our shared ecosystem.

When the root cause of so many of the issues our world faces comes from our own actions, qualitative research allows us to start addressing these problems at their core: human beings. Qualitative research is so vital because without the cooperation and empathy shared between researchers, policymakers, fishermen, law enforcement officers, etc. it will be impossible to pave sustainable and inclusive solutions. Without the integration of human will and human systems, quantitative discoveries may never be relevant. Qualitative research will always remain subjective, emotional, and complicated, but that’s why it enables us to encapsulate the colorful kaleidoscope of the human experience, and begin a path toward paving effective solutions.

Pleng interviewing a law enforcement officer from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife

Pleng in front of the Stanford Hopkins Marine Station

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