Social science methodologies in conservation: a response

Today we published a response to an article which purported to respond to a special issue of papers on the use of qualitative methods in conservation science (Methods in Ecology and Evolution), which I had been involved with. To be clear, the response paper from Moon et al. is less of a direct response, for it mainly criticises the special issue for not doing what it never claimed to do (ah good old academia!), but is nevertheless a useful additional paper for those wanting to use social science methodologies in conservation. But straw man alert, straw man! Many of the criticisms of Moon et al. erect a straw man – they criticise the special issue for only providing a limited number of social science methods and say it risks narrowing the field. No, the special issue never claimed to be comprehensive. It is unclear why anyone would think it was, unless as Moon et al. have done, it’s used as a tactic to create a false argument that can more easily be knocked down. I’m off to find a paper on tigers so that I can critique it for not talking about lions.

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The purpose of the original special issue, led by the dynamic Nibedita Mukherjee and others, was to present a how-to guide for conservation scientists about a range of qualitative methodologies, which we accept may have been better termed ‘social science’ methodologies (as some of the methods could produce quantitative data). The audience of Methods in Ecology and Evolution are generally natural scientists who will have received less social science training than others who you might expect to be using these methodologies in conservation. As such, we didn’t want to bore readers with discussions of philosophy, which would feel out of place in an instrumental journal, but we wanted to provide accessible guides to help build knowledge of how to perform the methods. From initial feedback to the special issue, I am comforted that the papers have been useful for those who haven’t, for example, used interviews or focus groups before, which can be powerful methods for conservation decision-making. The focus group paper has been highly cited for example. Social science methodologies should be accessible to all regardless of disciplinary background and should definitely not be the sole haunt of a ‘properly trained’ social scientist (whatever that is). We never said philosophies weren’t important, but that is a discussion for another day, something which Moon et al. now provide.

From the tone of our response, you may have gathered that I wasn’t best pleased with having to respond to an article that was more of a supplementary paper to the special issue (but submitted under the guise of a response), rather than being a direct response. We all could have done far more useful things with our time! {in response to a comment, I am happy to clarify that the time-wasting comment is more me being disgruntled with the process used by Methods in Ecology and Evolution, which asked us to do a first response, and then a second response to a significantly changed second version of their response. It would have been better for MEE to wait for the final response before asking us to respond. We did not have to respond but did so to highlight the original purpose of the special issue and to identify areas where we felt Moon et al. had misunderstood its arguments}.

My favourite thing about the Moon et al. ‘response’ is definitely when they criticise the special issue for using the terms ‘social science’ and ‘qualitative’ interchangeably (a fair point), but then insert the word ‘social science’ into a former quote by one of the author team, replacing the original word ‘qualitative’ in the process. It’s obviously easy to do!

Indeed, I question the response mechanism used by Methods in Ecology and Evolution in this case, which seemed to allow Moon et al. to see our initial response to their response, and then change it based on seeing reviewer comments, but also having seen our response to their criticisms. Now I am all for criticism, but I draw the line at helping others to criticise my own work. Essentially, this is what such a system does – if responding authors are able to see the original authors’ response to their response, change their line of attack because they realise it was initially bonkers or easily defended against, then the original authors end up giving ammunition to the responders. Madness! Next time I face such a scenario, we will say nothing of substance in our initial response to the response, so as to give nothing for the other set of authors to work with, and then throw something sassy in at the end. A much better system, instead of going through various time-consuming rounds to improve the initial response, would be simply to reject the initial response if it isn’t very good. Or disallow it for not being a response.

Anyway, enjoy our fairly pointless response to the non-response! I’m off to do something useful…

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