Shimul Bijoor, Dakshin Foundation

This summer, I worked at the Andaman and Nicobar Environment Team (ANET) as an intern, to study the governance and management of marine protected areas in the islands. As a recent graduate in Environmental Studies and Policy, my field of interest is in the social sciences, which means studying human society and relationships between different groups of people and their environment.

ANET has seen a flood of biologists coming in year after year, studying marine and terrestrial ecosystems of the Andamans. These scientists travel the islands, conducting fantastic research that has helped people understand these island ecosystems better. Their interactions with local communities during the course of their studies has made ANET well-known among islanders as “The Company” of scientists.

However, in this flood of biologists there is an occasional social scientist. Our work differs from the natural sciences in that we don't always have quantitative datasets, fixed measurements, and fixed explanations for phenomena. For instance, my project aimed to understand why it's so difficult for different groups of people to work together and develop an effective system for managing natural resources in marine protected areas. After one month of research in the islands, we don't yet have a singular and solid explanation for this, and probably never will. But our outcomes are more along the lines of identifying patterns in how groups such as fishermen and the government interact with each other, and where their perspectives diverge such that they have a hard time cooperating.

This is perhaps why I felt a little out of place when I first came to ANET, as my skill-set and work was so different from a majority of the researchers there. It's almost intimidating when your work often elicits questions like,

“Come on, it's not a real science. Is it?”

“You get grant money just to travel the islands and talk to people?!”

Of course, most of this is only banter, and any intelligent conservationist knows the importance of integrating human dimensions into research to improve conservation outcomes. As such, any conservation program cannot be implemented effectively without first knowing the various people or stakeholders involved, how they interact, and at which points the project could lead to either conflict or benefit.

Even though this may sometimes seem obvious, it's still very difficult to explain social sciences to someone with a vastly different ideology or background. Most of why I find it so difficult to explain, is that social science methodology is more about figuring out all the reasons why you can't make certain explanations. For instance, it may have been easy to assume that the reason why Protected Areas don't have management systems in place is due to the negligence of concerned authorities, but only after delving deeper can you know exactly why making this inference would acknowledge only a very small portion of the complications that actually stand in the way of developing effective management systems in marine spaces.

But this uncertainty is also what makes it all the more engaging for me. Each conversation we have unveils a new layer of complexity and changes our understanding of a particular phenomena. Speaking to different groups of people (or stakeholders), listening to their stories, and identifying patterns, conflicts, and consistencies among all of their stories is awfully exciting.

My work involved talking to various groups of stakeholders, including officials from the Forest Department, Fisheries, Tourism, Revenue, and Agriculture Departments, the Directorate of Shipping Services, the Andaman Lakshadweep Harbour Works, and, most importantly, local islanders such as fishermen, farmers, shop owners, vegetable vendors, school teachers, and retired government workers. Together with my project partner, I spent each day on field moving from one house or office to another. We spoke to each person with the intent of understanding how they use marine spaces in and around protected areas, what they felt about the designation of these areas for conservation, and how these Protected Areas affected their daily lives and occupations.

Sometimes a single conversation would occupy an entire day, and sometimes they would last only a few hours or minutes. Sometimes we would have to sit upright and nervous in the office of a high ranking official, and sometimes we attempted to shout above the noise of a running motor while interviewing a fellow passenger on a speeding dunghi (a small wooden dugout motor boat).

“How do you get actual analysable data from just hearing stories?”

After the fun part of hanging out with different people and collecting their stories, came the flummoxing question of what to do with all of these stories, and then eventually the stage of sifting through them to conduct some analysis. This meant transcribing each conversation, rereading them several times, and highlighting repeated themes, unusual comments, or leads for further reading. This initially sounded like the most boring part of the whole process, but it turned out to be my favourite. On field, I sometimes felt flustered, as there were so many parallel conversations happening with different stakeholders, that it became difficult to always keep track of how each story connected with another. But once I was off the field and had 'coded' all my field notes, things started to fall into place, and putting everything down into a coherent report seemed a lot less daunting.

Putting together the findings of our fieldwork helped us understand the larger picture regarding complications faced by the administration of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in establishing management plans for marine protected areas. This can potentially be taken forward to design interventions to help overcome some of these challenges. 

Historically, conservation research and implementation has largely been restricted to the natural sciences, and only recently have the social sciences been gaining a wider audience. As a new participant in a relatively new field of study, my internship has been not just an exploration of the subject itself but of people's understanding of it, including my own. So perhaps the next time I go on field, we will have to worry less about whether “social science” is just an oxymoron or not, and more about how every scientist can best apply their chosen scientific method to understand the world we live in.