Asking social science questions in conservation
From design to reporting

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 26-30 April

  Management of natural systems is about influencing people’s decisions and changing their actions.

Accordingly, researchers should pay more attention to the human side of ecology and conservation (St. John et al 2014).

Conservationists are increasingly using tools and techniques developed by social scientists in their research, and seeking training in social science research techniques in order to avoid common pitfalls.

This workshop aims to get participants to the point where they can design robust social science studies with a focus on questionnaires as a tool for data collection.

We believe that good social science research requires the same level of care that is commonly given to ecological research and shares many of the same principles.

Throughout the course we will work step-by-step through the research design process from the first step of defining an overarching research question all the way through to collecting, analysing and reporting your findings.

What does it cover?

We will begin with the basics:

  • Steps in social science study design: from conceptualisation to reporting
  • An overview of common data collection methods from the social sciences

Questionnaires are perhaps the most widely used type of survey instrument in conservation, so we will spend time learning how to use them successfully:

  • What is a questionnaire? Strengths and pitfalls
  • Different question formats commonly used in questionnaires
  • How to write questions
  • Questionnaire design and piloting

A well-chosen sampling strategy is important to ensure that your study can tell you about the population you’re interested in, while choosing the right analysis is crucial for understanding the data you collect. We will explore both of these problems and work through practical examples in computer-based exercises using R:

  • Implementing your study in the field
  • Sampling strategies
  • Data analysis

Many of the behaviours that we want to study in conservation and natural resource management are sensitive, perhaps because they are illegal or taboo in the society where we are working. Asking people to report their involvement in illegal or otherwise sensitive topics directly using a standard questionnaire can result in under-reporting. However, there are specialised methods for asking sensitive questions (Nuno & St. John, early view). In this last session we will introduce you to a couple of these methods.

  • An introduction to specialised methods for asking sensitive questions

All participants should come with a laptop computer with recent versions of R installed.

Who are the facilitators?

The lead facilitators will be Dr Freya St. John from the Durrell Institute of Conservation & Ecology, University of Kent, and Dr Aidan Keane from School of GeoSciences, University of Edinburgh.

Freya’s research focuses on understanding drivers of human behaviour with a particular focus on investigating illegal and sensitive behaviours in conservation. She has carried out research in Tanzania, Taiwan, UK and South Africa and has authored a number of publications using specialised questioning techniques for investigating sensitive topics such as illegal carnivore persecution.

Aidan studies the links between conservation and human behaviour and has worked in Tanzania, Kenya and Madagascar. He’s particularly interested in understanding the effectiveness of different forms of community-based conservation and ranger patrols around national parks in changing patterns of resource use.

Freya & Aidan have written a book chapter together on the importance of understanding human behaviour in the 2nd edition of Key Topics in Conservation and co-authored papers in the Proceedings of the Royal Society and Journal of Applied Ecology.


St. John, F.A.V., Keane, A.M., Jones, J.P.G. & Milner-Gulland, E.J. (2014) Robust study design is as important on the social as it is on the ecological side of applied ecological research. Journal of Applied Ecology, 51(3), 1479-1485. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/1365-2664.12352 (Open access)

Nuno, A. & St. John, F.A.V. (Early view) How to ask sensitive questions in conservation: A review of specialized questioning techniques. Biological Conservation, Online early view. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.biocon.2014.09.047 (Paywall)

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Page updated 1 Dec 2014 by Mike Meredith