Since May of 1998, myself and other members of the Anthropology of Pfiesteria Project at the University of Maryland, College Park, have been actively engaging Pfiesteria stakeholder groups (i.e, farmers, watermen, and environmental professionals) on Maryland's Lower Eastern Shore in order to determine their interests and concerns around Pfiesteria. The intent of this project has been to promote dialogue and collaboration between stakeholder groups addressing Pfiesteria by providing group members with a better understanding of the social and cultural frameworks each group uses to "make sense" of Pfiesteria, and to inform related responses. The following sections will provide my reflections on the first half of the project, discuss current activities, and will address the direction and scope of future project-related work.
2.0 Project Reflections
The scale of the Pfiesteria problem, in terms of the number of groups and individuals it has affected, the political/social jurisdictions it has encompassed (i.e., local, county, state, regional, national, etc.), and the significant economic impacts, both negative and positive, that have resulted (i.e., decline in seafood and tourism revenues and an increase in research dollars, respectively), has made working on this issue extremely challenging. Not to mention our difficulty in trying to articulate to stakeholder groups the importance of understanding the social and cultural dimensions of the Pfiesteria problem, when political, economic, and "hard science" issues and concerns are the standard. However, despite the atmosphere in which our project is situated, we have been able to accomplish much over the last three to four months. Interestingly, some of our best work has been done through the process of informing stakeholder groups about the project and in building rapport with them.
Throughout the first 2¸ months of the project, team members spent considerable time talking with Pfiesteria stakeholder groups in order to explain the project's objectives and relevance, and to seek their participation in it. Pfiesteria team members decided that it would be most beneficial to the project's success if we were to cast as wide a net as possible in informing and involving groups and individuals in our project. This plan was based on numerous accounts of individuals indicating their mistrust and disdain for past government sponsored Pfiesteria efforts, which they felt were not very inclusive. Stakeholders were contacted by telephone, email, fax, and chance encounters. The outcome of this effort has been personal communications and meetings with over forty organizations and agencies, including multiple contacts with individuals in various offices within these groups. In addition, team members have discussed project activities with over sixty farmers and watermen.
Through these project discussions with stakeholders, team members were given the opportunity to describe the human dimensions of the Pfiesteria problem; making groups and individuals aware that the social and cultural issues around Pfiesteria have as much influence in shaping the Pfiesteria debate as information from the biological, agricultural, economic, and political sciences. The state and federal agencies, as well as the environmental organizations we spoke with, expressed considerable interest in being able to better understand how farmers and watermen's belief systems informed their views and activities relating to the environment. Interestingly, many of the farmers and watermen also indicated that because governmental policies and regulations frequently seem to threaten their way of life, that they would like to better understand the values and belief systems of those who help create them. Several farmers and watermen stated that they couldn't understand why environmental professionals and policy makers would want to hurt them and their families, and that if they could better understand these groups, then maybe they could more clearly see their point of view.
In many ways, Maryland's Lower Eastern Shore is a very guarded community, where long term residents often avoid encounters with strangers, whose values, beliefs, and motivations may be viewed as contrary to their own. On the other hand, once some type of legitimizing connection has been made with community members, their hospitality and friendship is openly extended. One of the biggest obstacles project team members faced was building rapport with community members in a short period of time. We found that people were considerably more receptive to us if we were introduced to them by a friend, or if we could tell them that a friend of theirs told us to contact them. We had a few contacts on the Lower Eastern Shore who graciously introduced us to many of our current project participants.
In other cases, one or two long conversations with farmers and watermen, allowing them to judge for themselves our character, motivations, and agenda, was necessary before they felt more at ease with us. Our "soft" approacha combination of our humility, desire to listen to and learn from community members, and simply wanting to talk with them for 20 to 30 minutes about their interests and concerns around Pfiesteriawas well received, and most people enjoyed the opportunity to share their views on Pfiesteria. We definitely got the perception that farmers and watermen were unhappy with the current state of affairs surrounding Pfiesteria, and that they had strong opinions on the subject that they wanted to share with outsiders. The success of our rapport building efforts has been key to farmers and watermen's willingness to participate in the project.
Despite team members' ability to discuss the project with Pfiesteria stakeholders, and build rapport with them, it has been an uphill battle to get sufficient numbers of stakeholders to participate in the project. Many factors played a role in this outcome: (1) the recruitment of project participants and the collection of information was primarily conducted by one full-time, and two part-time team members; (2) team members had to contact each potential participant individually; (3) the project sought to recruit ninety participants total from the farmer, watermen, and environmental professional groups; (4) farmers and watermen are extremely busy in the summer and fall months, and have irregular work schedules; (5) farmers and watermen have felt little pressure to return project-related telephone calls within a week or two, even though they may be interested in the project; and (6) stakeholders work and live over a large geographic area, covering the Lower Eastern Shore, Annapolis, Baltimore, and the Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Area. The result thus far has been the active participation of around thirty-two farmers and watermen, and a delay in working with the environmental professional group. We should not fail to mention that some Pfiesteria stakeholders have declined to participate in the project. However, the six factors listed above have had considerably more influence over project participation rates than the fact that some stakeholders have declined to participate.
In terms of gathering project-related information, several different methods have been employed thus far, including: participant observation, informal interviews (both hand and tape recorded), free lists, and text analysis. Team members have taken over 350 pages of formatted field notes, which includes seven transcribed interviews. The majority of the information collected describes various aspects of the poultry and seafood industries, and watermen and farmer's perceptions of the environment and environmentalism, life on the Lower Eastern Shore, Pfiesteria, and nutrient management regulations. All of this information will be used to help project team members determine various components of the cultural frameworks used by stakeholder groups to address Pfiesteria.
The Pfiesteria Project is progressing slower than originally anticipated, due to some of the constraints listed above, but it is growing in momentum in terms of stakeholder interest, and willingness to participate. The longer that project team members have maintained a presence on the Lower Eastern Shore, the more legitimacy this effort appears to have gained. One explanation of this phenomena may be that the Lower Eastern Shore stakeholders' "slow" paced lifestyle, as described by many project participants who live there, prompted them to take their time in assessing our effort, and in deciding to participate. This type of situation may present similar problems for those trying to conduct rapid ethnographic projects.
3.0 Current Activities
At present, team members have been analyzing fieldnotes, transcripts, and free list exercises to determine twenty or so key domain areas that will be further explored through successive pile sorts or triad tests. Once we have determined our key words and appropriate interview instrument, we will begin an intense information gathering phase with farmers and watermen, starting September 11th, and ending September 25th. We hope to interview approximately twenty or so farmers and watermen each by the end of this period. The information that we collect will be the centerpiece for discussion at the project's planned group forum, which will be mentioned in the next section.
Simultaneously, we will also be re-engaging our efforts with the environmental professional group. We are currently working out the details to do free lists and triad tests with this group via email. Do to the public, professional nature of the work done by the environmental professional group, many potential participants have access to email, and the knowledge to use it. Team members will be contacting individuals in this group to make them aware of this activity. We previously received comments from some in this group, indicating that email would be a great way to elicit information from them. We have high hopes that this approach will allow us to get quick responses from 30 or more environmental professionals.
4.0 Future Plans
In early October, we will seek the assistance of several project participants in each of the three groups to help us interpret the results of the pile sorts or triad tests. This process will greatly enhance team members' understanding of exercise results. Team members will primarily use the month of October to analyze all project data, and write-up findings. In addition, plans for the Pfiesteria stakeholder group forum will also be formulated in October, to be held probably in early November. Forum planning will include among other things: securing a meeting area, organizing project findings for presentation, choosing appropriate facilitators, and sending out invitations to project participants and selected guests. The forum will be tape recorded, and possibly video recorded, so that it can be analyzed to the fullest extent possible. My SfAA/EPA Environmental Fellowship will conclude near the end of November with a Write-Up of this forum and a presentation of my work at the upcoming SfAA meetings in Arizona.
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