Immediately after Hurricane Michael’s devastating impacts on our region, individuals and organizations throughout the region and beyond pitched in to help one another. They volunteered their time, space, goods, services, and money to help neighbors recover and rebuild. I set out to study the forms, motives, and coordination structures of this assistance, developing a survey protocol and action research course to collect data and observations across Florida’s panhandle. The College of Social Sciences and Public Policy, Askew School, Department of Research, and community partner the Institute for Nonprofit Innovation and Excellence all generously contributed funding and resources to support this new project. In the spring, student researchers and I launched the project and participated in a first round of data collection and engagement with those assisting in hurricane recovery.
Now, just past the mid-point of data collection, I had a mini-epiphany about the project. I anticipated being able to give back to the community with the products of this research, that students participating in the research would learn and potentially benefit professionally, and benefit the careers of myself and coauthors through publication. I had not considered the possibility that those sharing information with the researchers during data collection would benefit from doing so, and do so in ways that would bring much faster and potentially stronger benefits that I’d hoped for from research reports.
As scholars in the social sciences, we face strong barriers to having our research impact policy and practice. The incentives of academia favor publication in venues inaccessible to practitioners or at least rarely accessed by them. The time to gather data, conduct rigorous analysis, write, and especially undergo the processes of peer review means that our work is temporally disconnected from the phenomena we study and our potential audiences’ concerns. We even have often moved onto the next topic, or at least the next paper by the time our research is published. When we intentionally focus on having an impact, we also tend to do so with a bias toward our published research, such as by seeking to disseminate our research findings, giving interviews about our books or papers, traveling to give talks, and writing shorter, more accessible versions for broader audiences. In this, we overlook an earlier opportunity; having policy or practical impact through the collection of data.
While studying the region’s voluntary responses to Hurricane Michael, I began to observe several different ways that those who were giving of their time to participate in my research were benefiting from doing so. I had set out to develop a research design and protocol that would allow for early results of the research to be used to impact policy-making and implementation, would ensure participants were treated respectfully, and that used generally accessible language. But I had generally taken the perspective of my data collection as a potential burden for research participants that I should minimize, rather than a source of potential benefits. I was wrong, and should not have been.
This project collects data primarily through an online survey, but student researchers and I also administer the surveys in person, participate in events focused on various aspects of disaster response and recovery, and even host events for those contributing to post-Michael reconstruction. Those filling out the online survey often may have found it just to use up some of their scarce time, but for others it provided opportunities to reflect on the work they were doing, formalize their record-keeping, and take stock of how they were managing their efforts. In person activities magnify this potential. Participants reflect, celebrate, and share in ways that help them process the tragedy of disaster, frustration of working to recovery, and satisfaction of generous acts. Research participants have pointed these benefits out during events, noting their enjoyment of sharing their experience, appreciation of the chance to engage with one another, and desire to be involved in future events bringing members of the community together. This last desire emphasizes the most tangible source of benefits: the potential for new ties, collaborations, and access to information channels.
How do we as researchers maximize these types of opportunities?
Awareness of this possibility is a good start. When we design interview protocols and surveys, we already tend to include some elements supportive of participant learning and reflection. Starting protocols with personal or open-ended questions that get respondents engaged, leaving room for the unexpected, and field testing language to make sure it speaks to our potential audience. We can extend this by paying attention to the emotional reaction of pilot audiences to our protocols, and then adjusting our protocols to allow for deeper reflection and participant engagement. Being open to conversations beyond our data collection that allows for mutual sharing can also make the process more valuable to participants. For example, I made a point of introducing two groups of participants to one another because in conversations outside the data collection protocol they both mentioned complementary interests. Finally, our sampling choices can also help. If we cast a broader net that encompasses different communities, and particularly leads to the potential for them to engage with one another, it can bridge divides. This also includes us as a university, opening up the potential for student internships, course projects, and collaborations. For researchers, these unanticipated benefits may also help in gaining participant trust and cooperation.
Of course, these benefits can come with potential downsides. Costs and time requirements may increase, and for aspects of research that do not align with any formal or informal incentives. This approach can also challenge our views of research fitting into an objective scientist paradigm, and potentially introduce new threats to the research’s internal and external validity requiring additional tests, controls, or analyses. Still, being able to benefit research participants in the data collection, rather than having to wait until much later, provides a positive opportunity for research in the social sciences. As much as we push to maintain objectivity and distance, we study what we do because it matters and we hope to have an impact through our research.
Dr. David Berlan is an Assistant Professor in the Askew School of Public Administration.
The feature image is from WLRN.