October 26, 2012 Leave a comment
Dudick, A. & Mitchell, B. (2003). Learning, Public Involvement and Environmental Assessment: A Canadian Case Study. Journal of Environmental Assessment Policy and Management, 5(3), 339-64.
Dudick and Mitchell took on a case study that looked at the learning outcomes of an environmental assessment of a major hog processing facility built on the Assiniboine River in Brandon, Canada. The authors supplemented their goal by breaking down their topic and focusing specifically on the design of the environmental assessment (EA) process and the incorporation of environmental sustainability as key objectives. The case study used qualitative data about the EA that was gathered through interviews and then triangulated their analysis using internal methods (participant checks and reinterviews, peer reviews, audit trails)as a means of reducing bias (p. 342). The analysis showed that different stakeholders achieved different learning outcomes depending on their proximity to and relationship with the situation. As Dudick and Mitchell observe of the assessment, “this was a classic case of ‘decide-announce-defend’ that saw little or no input from members of the community beyond the political and business leadership” (p. 360). Community members in opposition to the installation of the hog facility felt community meetings were staged and merely bureaucratic in nature while supporters felt pleased with the amount of involvement from the community and local government. Local government officials also based their assessment of the process on their support or opposition to the plant’s installation. Ultimately, Dudick and Mitchell reach the conclusion that environmental assessments, as they are currently designed, are inherently flawed: the design does not encourage communicative or participatory learning, nor does it allow for early involvement from community members. Reworking the design of EA’s to be more inclusive would ideally make the process more inclusionary and encourage participatory learning.
In order to gather their qualitative data for the Brandon hog facility EA, Dudick and Mitchell used purposeful, stratified sampling in order to “capture the heterogeneity within…various public sectors” (p. 341). The public sectors that the authors targeted were not random though, and included “key publics who participated in the EA” (p. 341), although the exact “publics” are not provided in the article. What is stated about the specific areas targeted is that they included “project proponents, federal and provincial government officials, environmental non-governmental organisations, local businesses, and academics” (p. 341). From these groups, 27 individuals were interviewed using semi-structured personal interviews, over an 8-month period. The interviews sought to gather information regarding “what they [the interviewees] learned at specific events in the EA and from the case as a whole” (p. 341). As supplement to the interviews, Dudick and Mitchell conducted a document review, including “viewing over 30 hours of videotapes from ten public information meetings” (p. 342), and participant observation at three public meetings (p. 341).
Analysis and Conclusions
The authors chose to analyze their data by coding it and using thematic sorting. Both of these methods of analysis allowed Dudick and Mitchell to identify patterns and areas of overlap in the data. From these analyses emerged two major categories, instrumental and communicative learning, which were further broken down into secondary and tertiary categories. The first category, instrumental learning, was broken down into four theory based, secondary categories: scientific and technical knowledge; legal, administrative, and political procedures; social and economic knowledge; and potential risks and impacts. From this secondary group, tertiary (grounded) categories were developed, each of which broke down the secondary categories into more specific units, e.g. “waster treatment”, “not rocket science”, “control of the process”, etc (p. 346). The second primary category, communicative learning, was also broken down into four secondary categories: insight into one’s own interests; insight into the interests of others; communication strategies and methods; social mobilisation. As with the first collection of secondary, theory-based categories, a collection of tertiary, grounded categories was developed, e.g. “personal, family fears”, “community fears”, “personal objectives”, etc (p. 351). Each categorical level contributed to the arrangement of the article, with levels broken down into analysis sections (primary), subsections (secondary), and individual examples (tertiary). The authors used interview excerpts to exemplify each tertiary level item, therefore creating a larger narrative for both sides of the argument for and against the Brandon hog facility and the EA.
After conducting their analysis, Dudick and Mitchell determined that the EA conducted on the Brandon hog facility was poorly designed and ineffectively implemented. The EA was split into a variety of projects and stages, diving the hog facility and the wastewater treatment facility required by the plant to handle waste, and splitting the process into preconstruction, construction, and operation (p. 344). The EA consisted of an assessment of each project and stage, making community involvement difficult at best. The divided public outreach program as well as the slow,non-participatory community-education process, did not lead to any changes in opinion of those who supported or opposed the plant’s installation. As Dudick and Mitchell state, “technical and scientific information was inaccessible to many members of the public, and the predominance of technical discourses likely constrained broader involvement” (p. 356). These obstacles kept the public from reaching any constructive learning objectives.
The case study conducted by Dudick and Mitchell is well designed and executed. The time period was eight months, long enough to gather enough material for their analysis, but not so long that the case study broke conventions of the genre. I found it surprising that the entire EA and public outreach process took only eight months though, especially considering the impact that the hog facility was going to have, not just on Brandon, but on other towns downstream. Of these other towns, all that is mentioned of their them was that there were concerns expressed by “downstream communities that obtain their drinking water from the Assiniboine” (p. 344). Looking at the the data that was collected substantial data was collected from observation and by interview, but there was another layer of data that was critical to the author’s set up and analysis of the case: municipal data about budgets, revenue, and environmental statistics. Although this data was secondary to the qualitative data that the researchers gathered, it helped them provide an overview of the situation that was seemingly unavailable through their other research methods. They may have asked for the data during interviews, but relying on scientific and federal sources for the indisputable data added to the authors ethos and strengthened their analysis by adding an objective data set to inform their analysis of subjective experiences of that data.
Dudick and Mitchell also did an exemplary job of maintaining the anonymity of their research participants. As a primary concern in any case study involving human participants, anonymity can be difficult to maintain, especially when addressing individuals with titles or public positions that can be learned through simple research of the situation. In the case of the Brandon hog facility EA, the names of officials or key members of the community, some of which were apparently interviewed during the study, could likely be easily dug up. The authors referred to their participants only generally when excerpting interview responses. The structure of this article, and the way in which the interviews were included into the report while maintaining participant anonymity are both great examples of a case study that was designed and implemented well.