Scotland-Vietnam collaboration on climate change and coastal communities – Hanoi Workshop Day 2

Today may best be titled ‘When Epistemologies Collide’. We came to a consensus in the end, but it was a full-on day.

Natascha started us off with a rich and theoretically-driven lecture on the social dimensions of science and the positionality and values of the researcher. Thomas Kuhn, Karl Popper, Science and Technology Studies. Now when I was taught this kind of stuff at uni it tended to be done in a fairly abstract way, with a big pile of theory and some historical examples. Those that got it got it, and those that didn’t went on to have fruitful and meaningful research careers (just to be crystal clear, that is intended as a joke).

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We, by contrast, decided to go from the super-theoretical to the hyper-empirical by then launching straight in preparing the interview schedules for tomorrow’s field trip to Nam Dinh Province (the location Dr Nguyen Song Tung and Dr Pham Thi Tram told us about yesterday). Our visit will have something of a dual purpose – one, to build the RGU team’s familiarity with the field site as preparation for comparative case study-based work in the future; and two, to give some of the younger researchers in IHGeo experience in interview techniques.

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Team making good progress

Now it may be considered folly to attempt such a wide-ranging plan, but there was method(ology) in our madness. Namely, to work together and use the preparation of an interview schedule as an end goal to think through what kinds of social issues around climate change we want to understand, what sort of data we need to do so, and crucially what the questions are we need to ask of our participants and of ourselves to get this.

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By lunchtime the two working groups had made good headway, and we enjoyed a filling lunch of meat, greens and rice in the Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences canteen, a notably healthier and more reasonably-priced eatery than its RGU counterpart. Then we returned to the meeting room and creative chaos ensued. How can we focus in from social impacts of climate change in coastal communities? How can we start to make questions when we don’t know exactly what social factors we want to look at? But can you think of a way to phrase that so that you get a deeper response? We were, in short, coming at the problem from very different methodological traditions – the three sociologists from RGU approaching from a tradition where one approaches the problem in an open-ended way and, guided by underpinning theory, draws themes out of the data; and our IHGeo colleagues thinking more in terms of interviewing to extract information towards the purpose of understanding problems and serving particular policy goals. The reason I write this is not to say that one of these approaches is ‘right’ and one is ‘wrong’, but again to raise the point that making space at the start of a collaboration to understand each other’s approach to ‘science’ is just as important as knowing the techniques we can use and the data we can generate.

This discussion lasted the whole afternoon, and whilst it had tired us all out we all agreed it was productive. Once everyone had got over the hurdle of realising that even within the confines of the term ‘interview’ there were wildly differing understandings, it was plain sailing towards coming up with a topic guide that balanced our different ways of thinking and will (hopefully) give us a line of enquiry that allows specific insight into climate change within Nam Dinh and the responses across levels, but at the same time doesn’t close down the line of questioning too much or make too many assumptions about what we think is going to be important to our respondents. Interdisciplinarity is never easy, but when you do have moments of understanding each other it is very rewarding.

Tomorrow we head to the field, with a 6am departure from Hanoi to reach Nam Dinh Province by 9am. Given the energy required for today’s work and the early start tomorrow, my Wednesday post just might be a little more photo-based…

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Thanks again to the British Academy for their generous support!

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