IEA Training Manual - Module 4

3.1.2 Qualitative data

Besides the growing number of initiatives focused on quantitative measurement, there is also increasing interest in keeping track of qualitative ecological and socio-economic attributes that help provide a more holistic picture. Not everything can, or needs to be, quantitatively measured, so quantitative data alone could miss critical elements. Looking only at quantitative data and nothing else could lead to someone believing that the problem is understood in great detail, which may not always be true. There is a growing sense that environmental assessments could be strengthened by drawing on a wider range of information types and sources, and might be at their best when numerical, technical “hard” data are combined with socially-derived information that more relate to the practical “real-world” dimension of the environment.

Although socially-derived, experience-based information can be turned into quantitative, empirical data and scientifically scrutinized, it is usually gathered using qualitative methods and sources. This can be done, for example, through methods such as:

  • field observation;
  • interviews with people who live in and have direct experience with local environments; and
  • narrative, descriptive, oral histories and interpretive sources on issues such as how much water each household uses a day, how many bicycles or cars there are per household and who gets to use them, how people cope with changing environmental conditions, as well as opinions on environmental policy priorities, disaggregated by race, gender, age or ethnicity.

Qualitative information can complement numerical data and physical indicators by:

  • broadening the scope of environmental inquiry to include people’s experiences, perspectives and perceptions;
  • making use of critical environmental information long before it shows up on the scientific or public radar;
  • integration of certain indigenous or other groups into formal environmental discussions and decision making; and
  • acknowledgement of the fact that human responses to environmental conditions are often based on perception rather than externally-validated facts.

Working with qualitative information poses many challenges in terms of validation, verification, reliability and comparability. For example, individual narratives or small-scale observational field notes can produce highly idiosyncratic and unreliable information. Local and subjective knowledge may not be comprehensive, reliable or correct. People’s perceptions and memories can be distorted, and interviewers’ interpretations of what is said can be skewed.

It is very challenging to integrate qualitative and quantitative information into a holistic view of the state of the environment. Scale problems often mean that scientific assessments and experiential “bottom-up” information are not really examining the same environmental area or problem. Furthermore, it can be difficult to reach across the multiple variations in the form and presentation of information: scientific information often can be presented in a series of data tables, while qualitative information may require long narratives and nuanced interpretation.

Addressing these issues and figuring out how to integrate “hard” quantitative data and “soft” qualitative information in a science-based assessment is increasingly challenging when it is recognized that both approaches can complement each other and together enrich assessment results. A growing number of case studies point to the successful combination of technical-scientific and social science approaches to environmental assessment. Several governmental and inter-governmental agencies are developing capacity for integrating these approaches. In the end, the goal may not be to “integrate” these apparently different forms of environmental information, but rather to make use of their complementarity. Side by side, these different kinds of environmental data and information can offer a broader field of vision than either does alone.

Discussion Questions 

The following discussion question is intended to identify potential sources of qualitative data, as well as explore other aspects of collecting this type of data.

Scenario: Part of your assessment includes a segment on water quality. In addition to using available water quality measurements from monitoring stations, you have decided to incorporate qualitative data into your research because you would like to have a better understanding of local perceptions and experiences related to water quality for the region in which you are working. What might you ask community members in order to understand their perceptions about water quality? Consider different segments of the community, such as local, indigenous community members, non-profit groups, local policy-makers, children, youth and the elderly.

Materials needed: Worksheet listing including blank spaces for adding others.

Alternative questions:

  • What has been your experience with collecting and using qualitative data?
  • What practices or approaches have worked well?
  • How did you use this data in your assessment?
  • What are some of the challenges in collecting, using and presenting qualitative data?

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