Selecting methods [part 4]


Surveys allow you to ask specific questions with anticipated types of answers (if you ask how much you will get a number) to a much larger audience than interviews (assuming surveys are shorter and easier to get people to do). However, especially if you don’t do the survey in person, you must grapple with the fact that it is “secondary data”. That is, you are assuming the person answering the survey is not only truthful, but actually accurately knows the answer you want.

Key point I look into consideration for SFA:

  •  Can allow for large collection of quantitative data (which is important when doing a city-wide study), depending on the delivery method (e.g., online vs in person)
  • People may have a hard time accurately recalling quantitative data on UA because they do not systematically collect them.

Key points I look into consideration for local context:

  • Can be helpful to determine certain variables I think might be important in how P is cycled such as type of organization or individual who run the UA I look at.
  • Can be a good way to collect data that verifies if my survey sample is representative of city averages I use for some of the local context factors.
  • Again, because surveys are not as in-depth as interviews, there can be problems with how someone interprets the question and thus get “off-topic” answers.
  • Can’t really get to the “why” people do what they do.

Urban garden in Melbourne Australia. An example of a place one might go to survey urban gardeners.


Selecting methods [part 3]


Interviews are a wonderful way to get in depth understanding of a system from the point of view of the participants in this system. Still, they are very time-consuming to conduct but most importantly to analyze properly.

Key points I take into consideration for SFA:

  • May not be that helpful over a well done questionnaire as in SFA I am really interested in the numbers.

Key point I take into consideration local context:

  • Very relevant to identity motivations for practicing (or not) UA, and waste management.
  • Considering the time investment however for proper analysis it may be beyond the scope of my project. I can look at context at the city scale, and not the individual actor scale and still answer some interesting questions.

Jean-Talon market in Montreal. One of the locations where I could conduct interviews and surveys about the local food system.

Selecting methods [part 2]

There are pros, cons, opportunities and limitations with every method or combination of methods. In the next few post I will explore some of the big ideas I have been considering in order to focus my methods and make sure I will report what I am actually measuring.

Case Studies:

At my comprehensive exam a professor suggested I read a book entitled Case Study Research: Design and Methods by Robert K. Yin. As this committee member is by far better versed in social science methods than I am, I took his advise.

The key points I took out of the book:

  • It is better to have more than one case study site if you can
  • Don’t over generalize your findings
  • Be sure you are taking very good notes as you go along
  • Control when possible and ALWAYS report sources of bias (more on this in another post about sources of bias although you will see me talking about limitations of certain methods and these can be sources of bias)

As mentioned in post “Selection methods [part 1]” in each case study city I am then using SFA to look at P flows and I also need to look at local context factors if I want to compare cities or even glean about what might facilitate of constrain the future role of UA in sustainable urban P cycling in a single city. For each “method” I try to look at key points about their use for SFA and local context.

Toronto, one of my possible case study cities. Photo credit: Allain Barnett

Literature review:

I think it is wonderful (and necessary) to build on work that has already been done. That said, when its not your own work you don’t know where the mistakes are (we have the peer-review process for quality control as well as supplemental materials to give more detail on methods, data, and analysis but you are often still left with a certain level of “mystery”).

Key points I take into consideration for SFA:

  • The reference year might be different than your target year. Urbanization does not only change the magnitudes of flows, but can also change the relative magnitude of flows through technologies, preferences, and management of the city as it changes. Having data from different years, although often necessary, can lead to error.
  • The objectives of the cited study may be so different from your objectives that using the data in your context is inaccurate
  • The data might be better and more accurate than what you could collect yourself (even if it is on a slightly different scale or system that you are looking at)

Key points I take into consideration for local context:

  • Particular advantage on the possibility of better data and analysis than what I could do because there are articles that focus solely on collecting data about biophysical variables or motivations about participation in UA practices.
  • May still represent some issues, as with SFA, about note knowing the exact research design and about differing goals.

Art-Science Collaboration

Ok here is a little break from linear method’s talk!

As you may have guessed from the title of this blog, I identify myself as both a dancer and a scientist. I graduated from professional ballet school at the age of 17, and although I decided to “refocus” on science, my creative and artistic mind really never went to rest.  At first, I saw parallels between dance and some of what I study (the movement of an element through space and time), as well as parallels with regards to the development of a project. Both a choreographer and a scientist first study and learn the vocabulary and techniques of the field, and later on have use what they have learnt to push the boundaries. I was using my dance experience more mentally than physically.

One summer however, in kind of a productivity slump, I stumbled across AAAS Science Dance your PhD contest ( there is also a TED talk about it). I decided to use some of my dance background to explore my research themes and try to explain my work to my friends, and the wider public, physically. I found the experience to be quite fulfilling. On the one hand it allowed me to get over my productivity slump because I was exploring my research ideas in a non-computer and non-linear-thinking manner. On the other hand it allowed me to engage with a lot of people who might not have heard about my research otherwise. Even if every phrase in the choreography might not seem self-evident to every viewer, the short video was a wonderful way to start talking about my research with viewers. I was the runner-up for the social science category in the Science contest the year I entered and I was in Science magazine!

I then got the opportunity to even further explore P sustainability through art because the organizing committee at Arizona State University for the Sustainable Phosphorus Summit conference decided to pair artists and scientists for an exhibit at the closing ceremony of the summit. I had the opportunity to collaborate with Joshua White, a photographer. We did a spin of the “Got Milk?” commercial. Bones are made up of Calcium (which is in milk) but also phosphate (here is the piece). I also worked on a multimedia piece with Edgar Cardenas and Sandra Rodegher using images across the USA to show both the natural and human alteration of the P cycling, dance to represent how P moves in both natural and human dominated systems, and an interview audio track about what kids in the US knew about this essential resource (here is the piece).

I am not the only one to see parallels between the creative process in the arts and science (here), or the benefits of art-science collaborations to better engage with the public (here and here).  In fact, my friend Edgar Cardenas is formally studying the role of art in sustainability for his PhD, and is collaborating with a diversity of scientists along the way. I have used examples with regards to environmental issues, ecology, and sustainability, but such collaborations also arise in biology, neurophysiology, anthropology, and many other fields.

Although there are many mediums for art-science collaborations, I have my particular affinity for dance. If you listen to the first opening words of choreographer Wayne McGregor, you can see how dance is also like creating a paper for academics!  And later in the same little video clip we see parallels with the collaborative process (again a lot of parallels with interdisciplinary collaborations in academia), and to top it off, his piece is called CARBON life!!!! He also gives a great TED talk.

Blue-Green ribbon represents P and dancers can use it to show how we are linked through P cycling and how P flows between different actors in the food system and in ecosystems
Photo credit: Eve-Marie Beauchemin

Since the fall of 2011 I have been working on an even larger project. I have conceptualized a 45-minute piece with a narrator, 6 dancers, 1 composer and 2 pianists to really explore P cycling and sustainability. The longer piece can also be broken down into smaller pieces with altered narration text to be accessible to elementary, secondary, and university class settings. The goal of the P is for Play project is to inform the public about P cycling and management in a way by which they can engage with the information in an intellectual, but also an emotional, visual, and auditory way. This alternative multi-sensorial approach will allow a larger public to become cognizant about the importance of P and will permit a public already familiar with the P problematic to engage with the information in a different way, allowing them to conceptualize problems and solutions in a new way. Considering P is neither static in the environment or immobile in our food system dance is an interesting and appropriate medium to communicate the complex and mulch-scaler dynamics of P. I don’t have funding yet, but the plan exists and I will move forward with the work once the time is right (here is a teaser trailer for the project in English and in French).