Narrowing the gap: ICES course to equip natural scientists with social science skills

Have you ever wondered what it’s like on the other side of the fence? A training course in May, in what is a first for ICES, will open up a world of social science methods for natural scientists.
Published: 4 September 2014

​As the saying goes, ‘It is not the fish that need managing but the people that make up the fishery’. It’s a crucial point that reflects both the increasingly interdisciplinary nature of marine science and the focus of the ICES training course ‘Social scientists methods for natural scientists.’

Course instructors, Marloes Kraan, social scientist at IMARES Wageningen University, and Maiken Bjorkan (Rana Innovation Company, Norway), first delivered a similar workshop for the EU-funded GAP2 project, itself a meeting point for cooperative study between those from science and the fishing industry. 

"One of the GAP2 deliverables was a methodological toolbox for helping researchers design a collaborative research project," describes Kraan. "However good the idea we did not like the idea of a 'toolbox' where natural scientists could just pick out whatever they wanted to use. As if methods are neutral tools; they require training, and as if the 'information extracted' would automatically be handled properly. So we offered to develop a course where people less familiar with these tools could practice using them, and get feedback and tips. But we also wanted to give the participants an understanding of the social science context in which these methods are used. In social science people are studied; and people can give meaning to their world. So studying them really is about studying their perspective".

Best of both worlds

Both the GAP2 course and the upcoming ICES one reflect growing demands placed on scientists to move towards more integrated approaches. Those involved are thus required to cultivate skills in new areas such as interdisciplinary working and stakeholder involvement. It’s a trend that is at the heart of the training workshop, the confluence of two fields of study which is, as Kraan puts it, “the need for social and natural scientists to understand the theories, concepts, and methodologies of each other’s work.”

“The idea is not to make social scientists out of natural scientists, but to explain to them what social science is about and give some good instruction on how it works,” she says. “Social scientists are basically just starting to enter the field (of marine science), and the same is true there: they need to open up to the field of economy and to natural sciences.”

Practice makes perfect

But, according to Kraan, there’s more to taking up social science practices than natural scientists might bargain for.

“I’m a little bit wary that natural scientists might underestimate what social science is about. This whole idea of ‘oh I can just add some interviews and then I’m a social scientist’. It’s more than that.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by course participant, Saša Raicevich, who writes on his blog, “The workshop was very effective and showed us how we can learn from each other and that social science should be handled with care. There is a difference between studying methods and applying them!”

The art of interviewing

Although such social science techniques as observing, filming, and mapping will be explored by students during the ICES course it is the practice of interviewing that be one of the main points of focus. Adhering to a ‘learning-by-doing’ philosophy, participants will find themselves actively rehearsing scenarios to gain some experience by doing it, as well as learning from each other. 

For Kraan, one thing that will be addressed is the very notion of what constitutes an interview.

“Many natural scientists don’t really realize that talking to someone could be seen as an interview and that there’s a lot of information they can get out of it, if they do it in a systematic way. That’s one of the skills we’d like to teach.”

“Interviewing is really about you talking to someone and wanting to learn from that person. How do you do that? How do you create an open atmosphere? What kinds of questions do you ask? As scientists we are used to being experts, so almost by default we talk rather than listen; we tell stakeholders what we do and know, whereas if you’re interviewing you’re actually interested in the stakeholders’ experience and knowledge. This mistake is also often made at stakeholder meetings. Often these are not so effective in terms of getting feedback from them, as most of the time is spent on explaining our models.” 

“Where natural scientists tend to focus on extracting data and information from fishers, social scientists will focus on the joint construction of information and as a learning process,” adds Martin Pastoors, speaking on his course blog. “By carrying out an interview, you are entering into the lives of people. And by entering into the lives, you may also be changing the system that you intend to study. The awareness that the role of the researcher is not neutral within the social context that you are operating is an important lesson for natural scientists.”

Communication lowdown

As well as equipping scientists with extra tools, the training course also ties into the bigger picture of ICES involvement and interest in social science, a field in which the organization is making further strides. However, it’s the fundamental ability to successfully communicate with those in other disciplines that will really drive the course.

“The course will help you with interdisciplinary work and use and understand social science methods in your work. But also if you’re just interested in going out there’ and discussing your work with stakeholders in one way or another. I mean, it also teaches you about interaction with people and how to do that more effectively,” explains Kraan.

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​Particpants get stuck into the GAP2 training course; ©Tomaso Fortibuoni

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Narrowing the gap: ICES course to equip natural scientists with social science skills

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