Mattole Trip Part 8: Of Research Questions and Tanoaks

Tanoak by LostDogPhotos. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Tanoak by LostDogPhotos. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

We now come to part eight of the retelling of my introduction to social science field work in the Mattole watershed. To read parts one – seven, search for ‘Mattole’ in the search bar to the right.

Once my cohorts and I reluctantly said goodbye to Bob Stansberry, we left his ranch and returned to our camp. All that week we had been collecting information, and now it was time to use it.

As enjoyable as this trip was, we were there to learn about conducting field work. Therefore we were given an assignment to sort through our notes and develop basic research questions.

Simple though this task was, it was also important. One’s research question(s) guide the rest of their study, and largely determine the sorts of methods they will use. This means that a good research question must be specific enough to be workable, and yet broad enough to allow for meaningful analysis. We were also using an inductive approach for this assignment.

There are at least two major forms of social scientific inquiry: deductive and inductive. Neither style is inherently better than the other, they just build knowledge in different ways. Deductive approaches typically generate a hypotheses based on existing theories. They then test this hypothesis – which is itself a test of the guiding theory – by collecting data.

Inductive approaches take the opposite route. They start with data collection, and the researcher generates a theory based on the information they obtain. It is perfectly acceptable to use a pre-existing theory: it just has to fit the data. Since my cohorts and I were designing a research question based on four days of interviews and focus groups, we were using the inductive method. This presented challenges for me.

I do not think any censuses have been performed recently, but mountain lions (Puma concolor) appear to be plentiful in the Mattole. TD Mountain Lion-414-Edit-Edit by Frank Weigel. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
I do not think any censuses have been performed recently, but mountain lions (Puma concolor) appear to be plentiful in the Mattole. TD Mountain Lion-414-Edit-Edit by Frank Weigel. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

I do not wish to shock anyone, but I rather like wild felids (cats). As such, I was hoping to design a research question pertaining to mountain lions (Puma concolor). Unfortunately, they rarely came up during our discussions. The majority of our conversations dealt with marijuana, which I have no interest in. Therefore I generated the following research question: “How do people in the Mattole feel about tanoak (Lithocarpus densiflorus) trees?”

I am only slightly more interested in tanoak trees than I am marijuana. However, I had noticed that the people we spoke with seemed to have divergent views of this species. Some regarded it as an important part of local ecosystems and indigenous cultures; whereas others stressed its low value in timber markets. Probing deeper into these attitudes would allow me to practice some of the methodologies I would likely use when studying the human dimensions of wild felid conservation.

So when I crawled into my tent that evening, I felt that I had a research question I could work with. I would have been happier if it had dealt with mountain lions, but I did not think that was feasible. Luckily that would all change the next day.

I am finally ready to release my final post about the Mattole. I will have it up as soon as possible! I realize it is taking me a long time to describe a one week trip, but this blog is primarily about wild cats. So I am trying to intersperse my personal posts with more cat-related ones.

2 Thoughts

  1. Some of your readers might be shocked by the fact that you like wild cats?!
    Looking forward to seeing how the subject of your research moved away from tanoak – which we don’t have in the UK, except perhaps in collections.

    Liked by 1 person

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