Hidden indicators for a landscape under stress

By Maraja Riechers

Sometimes the landscapes around us change faster than we think. Be it through rural flight and urbanization, industrialization of villages or agriculture, land grabbing or degradation of nature, the landscapes we live in are changing gradually or rapidly.

In some areas, fast landscape changes outpaces our ability to adjust and leaves us grappling with our sense of place of the landscapes we used to know. In some areas, it may be hard to pin point what changed exactly but we cannot help but feel alienated in a subconscious way. Inhabitants of such changing landscapes might feel disempowered as their own ability to influence landscape changes diminishes in this increasingly complex system. These and many more factors might lead to inhabitant’s having different understandings about the challenges and contrasts of that landscape. When a system is difficult to understand, it can become easy to blame actors that one deems to be responsible, or focus on changes that are very visible instead of those behind the curtains.

In one of those changing landscapes I was happy to conduct my research. I actively chose this landscape as it has experienced a relatively rapid change in the last 30 years. Even though I identified some challenges through my research there are some aspects that I uncovered that cannot be translated into concrete results or articles. The landscape changes in the region created tension that was difficult to grasp. But I could see hidden indicators that clearly pointed to a conflicting situation in the region. Yet to see and understand those indicators I had to read between the lines, pay close attention to communications (verbal and non-verbal before and after the interviews): All rather hard to grasp with the usual methods of social science research. Let me give you an example: On my question if they would be available for interviews, I got e-mail answers that read like a harsh statement on why researchers are no longer trusted. They claimed that they would anyway be blamed as the bad guys in the end and that I might take a normative stand point “against them” in my final results. It took me a while to get access to the quite separated group of actors of the regions and often needed the help of some trusted key players that opened the way for me in.

When they finally trusted me enough to talk to me I often found out that they thoroughly researched me beforehand. “You did your PhD at the Agricultural Faculty of the University of Göttingen. That is a rather conservative faculty, right? In which group did you study there?” I have been inquired about my normative stands on nature conservation or the influence of agriculture on nature or intensive agriculture in general. I had to constantly justify and explain myself to conservationists and farmers alike, to highlight my neutrality – or better, my being on “their side”. In another case my colleague and I had to change the location of a joint transdisciplinary workshop because some of the participants would have cancelled their attendance due to the political and nature conservation attitudes of the owner of the workshops location.

On other instances, I was happily welcomed as a conversational partner. “Finally” someone listened to their complaints, which they felt were just not heard (or they felt misunderstood). One interviewee prepared three full computer written pages of bullet points about problems he sees around him with regard to social-ecological landscape changes. It was an easy interview, as it started with a 45 minute monologue (all very fitting and informing for my research).

Such hidden indicators cannot be translated into direct research results but clearly influence the way I had to communicate with people and proceed in collecting my data. It required utter awareness and a careful approach towards topics and values in the interviews. In many moments, when interviewees made statements on topics they felt were controversial I was carefully scrutinized for every single indicator that would convey my opinion. For me it is important to establish trust and show respect towards my interview partners. Otherwise I am quite sure I would not have been able to get honest statements. I experienced that the first few minutes of the interviews were crucial to establish this trust. This research situation was one of those clear cases on how I as a researcher with my personal history (me as a German, blond, young female university employee with a PhD, from a little German village and a farmer in the family) has an effect on my data collection. I consider this reflexivity and the acknowledgement of my own role and influence on my research process quite important.

Landscape changes can influence us subconsciously in many ways. Some of the changes are visible to us, some only through comparison on how it was some decades ago. In some cases, landscape changes might lead to a loss of sense of place or connection to the landscape. In other cases we as researchers can only guess some of the effects landscape changes have to the residents and actor groups within it. Many of the implications of the changes, such as emerging conflicts, are hard to measure as they require reading between the lines. For me it meant to be care- and respectful, rely on my honesty and sensitivity and skillfully navigate towards emotional topics and contrasting viewpoints.

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