Surveys take longer than you think! Or: taking your time has benefits for data collection

Image by nile from Pixabay

This post is from Sophie Payne-Gifford. Sophie is a social scientist at the University of Hertfordshire. She completed her PhD part-time from 2010-2016, mostly because she only won part-funding and had to keep her day job at NERC UKRI, a great job which had its definite advantages. She tweets at @GiffordPayne on food, environment, agriculture and research design.

Introduction

In this post, Sophie describes implementing a survey late in her PhD to demonstrate one of the advantages of doing a PhD part-time, the added time benefit. You know that saying, one woman can produce a baby in nine months, but nine women can’t produce a baby in one? It’s a similar tale, some processes can’t be sped up, even with additional resourcing.

Phase 1: Qualitative fieldwork

I started my social science PhD on agricultural innovation with a qualitative research design and conducted fieldwork from 2011-2013. I interviewed agricultural scientists, agrochemical companies, food processors and agricultural consultants and observed at a number of agricultural events. I was exploring what replacements for pesticides were available in the scenario that many were to be withdrawn under a proposed change in pesticide legislation.

After this round of fieldwork, I had a working conclusion: that many farmers were locked in to the regular spraying of pesticides and were unable to change their agricultural practice. However, I had made that conclusion based on conversations with only a few farmers and my theory was based on many other people’s opinions on what they thought farmers would do. I didn’t think this was fair, reasonable, or rigourous and to address this I wanted to talk to more farmers. But British farmers are geographically distributed, and I didn’t have time to traipse around the country again. Also, I had a simple-ish quantitative question that did not need me to visit their farms to answer:

If fungicide mancozeb is withdrawn, will you

  1. Use the other chemical fungicides available?
  2. Use genetically resistant seeds?
  3. Use biologically-derived treatments?
  4. Use mechanical methods of control, such as removing infected plants?

Phase 2: Being patient

In February 2013, around the same time as making this conclusion, I was at an agricultural event and met an industry organisation’s head of communications. I floated the idea to her: would she like to collaborate on sending a fungicide usage survey to the organisation’s ~1000 members? She was vaguely positive, so I emailed her in the Spring to start the planning process. Little did I know that getting approval and buy-in from the industry organisation would take months!

At some point in the Autumn of 2013 the Head of the Organisation needed to discuss the survey. I don’t remember what we discussed in detail, but I remember that it was an uncomfortable conversation. In hindsight I think she was checking my ‘politics’ were okay and in line with the needs of her organisation. She might have been checking whether I was pro- or anti-pesticide (I’m neither). She might have been checking who I was funded by, whether I was funded by a university, pesticide company or campaigning organisation and therefore what my agenda for the research was. She wasn’t alone, an agricultural consultant I approached for interview checked who I was funded by, before agreeing to an interview. I now know these kinds of checks are common when working with external organisations, but at the time it was confusing. However, apparently I passed the test, and got the go ahead.

The survey itself was ready to go by the Winter of 2013, and still I had to wait. This time, it was because the industry organisation wanted to put the chemical companies that made the fungicide on stand-by to give them an opportunity to respond to a finding that could potentially positively or negatively affect their business interests. The organisation wanted to act in the interests of its members, and so I waited until this communication had been issued.

A year after it’s conception, the survey was launched in February of 2014!

Reflections

What did I do to overcome these delays? In the main, I just waited. I had the extended part-time timeline working in my favour. No amount of extra work could make the bureaucratic processes move more quickly. As I still had another three years until I had to submit my PhD thesis, I knew I had time to wait for the collaborating organisation to be satisfied. And throughout this process of waiting, I had plenty to keep me busy as I was transcribing and analysing the data from the previous qualitative fieldwork, as well completing a new ethics application. There is much to be said for planning a project where the different workstreams overlap rather than become dependent on one another.

Plus, I was also (and still am) a confident and unapologetic qualitative researcher and at the time wasn’t worried about the prospect of not implementing the survey. I know how to construct a qualitative argument, draw on theory as well as use the requisite phrase in research discussions: “more research is needed…”

My waiting paid off, however. Nearly 80 farmers confirmed that, yes, they would continue to use fungicide mancozeb because market and environmental conditions lock them in to using chemical methods of crop protection. Had I been a full-time student nearing the end of my fieldwork, I couldn’t have waited a year to implement a survey. The benefit of stretched time had allowed me to conduct more rigorous research.

Not only did conducting a survey allow for quantitative data collection, it allowed for additional qualitativedata collection. Through widespread use of free-text boxes, growers were able to tell me why they needed to continue to use the fungicide mancozeb, adding invaluable additional insight.

Recommendations

If you’re thinking of supplementing your research with a different type of data, remember that collaborating with an external organisation may take longer than you want.

Also, if you were to do the opposite to me and start with purely quantitative data collection and decide near the middle or end of your project to collect qualitative data, that it is equally time consuming, as you will need to:

  • submit a qualitative ethics application (another potentially long bureaucratic process);
  • recruit participants;
  • schedule interviews (for example);
  • transcribe, analyse and write up qualitative data.

Data collection is always time consuming if done properly, and more so if done in partnership with others. Remember that next time you think “oh, I’ll just send out a little survey.”

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