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Amateurs as Experts; Harnessing new knowlege for biodiversity networks
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Update on the research (September2003)


The first year of research has been divided between a range of different but connected activities. First, It has been important to familiarise ourselves with the relevant biodiversity science and policy domains and the associated literature. We have also been interested to explore the ways in which academic literature in the fields of Sociology of Scientific Knowledge, Science and Technology Studies and Anthropology of Science contributes to our understanding of the biodiversity science and policy domains in the UK and in particular to the EN-NHM knowledge harnessing initiative. The research has been dominated by multi-sited ethnographic fieldwork (participant observation and semi-structured interviewing), combined with the processing of some preliminary results and reflections in the form of academic papers . We expect to continue fieldwork into the second year, selecting certain salient issues for deeper, or broader, frames of analysis.


Participant observation at planned amateur/volunteer naturalist events:

  • British Bryological Society: Arable Bryophyte Survey Workshop (November 2002), Spring Meeting (June 2003) ,
  • River Fly Identification Workshops (River Test, Hampshire - June 2002, River Dove, Derbyshire, April 2003, River Leader, Scotland, July 2003)
  • Brambling identification meeting (Hampshire, July 2003)

Individual in-depth interviews with a selection of individuals contacted at the above events

Participation in a range of coordination and planning meetings involving the NHM, English Nature, Volunteer Naturalist Groups, Riverfly Interest Group, The Ramblers.

Interviews with individuals at the following science / policy institutions:

  • Natural History Museum
  • English Nature
  • Biological Recording Centre

Specific Issues Arising

This year of research has proved fascinating for the research team. The following bullet points present a number of reflections and questions which have emerged from the research so far. We expect the following year of research to focus upon these issues.

Amateurs and Professionals (knowing nature and biodiversity policy):
We have been intrigued by the multiple and overlapping identities of amateur naturalists and professional biodiversity policy actors alike. Some questions arising from this phenomenon are:

  • What defines the boundaries and intersections between the two domains?
  • How does expertise in the different domains differ?
  • What defines expertise in each (or overlapping) domains?
  • What expectations do individuals from both domains entertain regarding data contributions to biodiversity policy?

Upgrading Amateur Naturalists and Teaching Methods
One of the tasks undertaken by the NHM biodiversity coordinators has been to 'upgrade' amateur naturalists in a way which ensures that data contributed to the biodiversity policy domain meets the expected validation and standardisation requirements. As a group of social scientists interested in the coexistence of different and overlapping knowledge systems, we find ourselves asking:

  • By placing a particular emphasis upon teaching amateur naturalists with a visibly 'top-down' or scientific method, what status does this afford what we might call 'local' or 'lay' knowledge?
  • What might an exploration of such local knowledge hold in store for national-scale biodiversity knowledge and policy-making?

Data Validation and Standardisation:
During the process of understanding the UK biological recording network(s), our attention has been drawn to the importance of data validation and standardisation both within amateur societies and at the amateur/professional intersection as data is contributed to national level data bases and decision-making contexts. In order to attain a fuller understanding of the way in which data is collated, circulated and exchanged within and between amateur and professional circles, we find ourselves asking the following questions:

  • What role does data validation and standardisation play both within amateur society/recording and biodiversity policy circles?
  • Is the amateur concern with data validation and standardisation extended naturally to the policy domain or do standards and expectations change?
  • Does the amateur and professional concern with data validation / standardisation in any way serve an exclusionary function? In other words, do those data collators who do not reach expected standards not classify as contributing citizens/participants?

Biodiversity Data and People-in-Nature
The research initially highlighted the BAP process as the context within which harnessing new knowledge was important. It has become clear to the research team over the year that the EN-NHM partnership in fact extends beyond a preoccupation with biological records for the BAP. The partnership and the participtory exercise is partly about enthusing wider audiences in relation to biodiversity conservation in general. This realisation has led the research team to reflect upon the following questions:

  • What implications might the EN-NHM initiative have for future understanding and development of EN's 'People and Nature' programme?
  • How might BAP recording ambitions, on the one hand, and wider People and Nature aims to engage more people in a meaningful relationship with nature, on the other, overlap?

Knowledge ownership and control
Our attention has been increasingly drawn to a concern shared by some but not all naturalists regarding knowledge ownership and use. We are interested in the way in which knowledge is and has historically been exchanged within the amateur/volunteer naturalist domain and by the way in which an 'ethics of reciprocity' may, or may not, be altered as naturalists pass their data into professional biodiversity policy circles. As part of a more general concern with knowledge ownership, some naturalists express anxiety over 'losing touch' with the knowledge they contribute to policy and especially with the ends to which their knowledge may serve.

  • In a context of knowledge exchange, what do naturalists feel they receive in return for their data contributions either to the BAP or other policy uses?
  • In a context of internal naturalist knowledge exchange, which elements of a reciprocal exchange network may be defined as sustaining the network?
  • Would EN and other policy actors be interested in exploring ways of engendering a sense of knowledge ownership amongst contributing naturalists in a way which would make explicit the way in which the data is processed and used?
  • Is there a role for data producers (volunteer naturalists) at the level of decision making involving the data they have produced?

Knowing Nature - what will and will not be included
As we become more familiar with naturalist circles, we are drawn into understanding the very different ways in which naturalists could be said to 'know nature'. These include an interest in systematic biology, perfecting visual observation skills, relationships of apprenticeship between novices and experts, affect (belonging, wonder, passion), and a concept of a human-nature contract which implicitly binds human 'knowers' to preserving the natural environment. As researchers also interested in the policy uptake of amateur knowledge we ask:

  • What are the various ways of knowing nature? Which ways of knowing nature are exclusive to particular communities, and which are shared between communities?
  • What elements of amateur ways of 'knowing nature' are deemed appropriate and of use to the policy context?
  • What happens to the aspects of knowing nature which are not deemed policy-relevant?

Multi-Sited Ethnographic Research Methods and our role in Triangulation
Our role as multi-sited ethnographers exposes us to a range of perceptions of the biodiversity amateur and professional worlds within which we are moving. We realise that this potentially places us in an important position from which to triangulate information between all the parties concerned. As of yet, mechanisms for such triangulation have not been fully established. We expect during the following year of research, together with the NHM and EN to find the most suitable and fruitful ways of sharing our observations with the range of actors involved in the research project. This may involve writing more joint pieces with our partners and publishing more in the natural science/natural history /conservation journals and periodicals involved.

Future Plans


  • In the coming year we hope to build on the initial fieldwork we have done, deepening our knowledge of volunteer naturalists and the societies to which they belong. This will mean extending the breadth of our analysis to societies we have not yet been introduced to. We aim to do this in both the invertebrate and cryptogamic plant domains.
  • Building on the work of the NHM invertebrate co-ordinator, Bridget Peacock, we hope to trace the progress and negotiations between the NHM and the Ramblers Society in their collaborative work on Elm-Map. We would like to build in some triangulation of our observations from fieldwork so that we might play a role in 'feeding back' Ramblers' experiences of monitoring elm trees into the evolving design of the process.
  • We hope to continue our work in understanding the interactions and relationships being successfully built between the NHM and river fly recorder partners, on the one hand, and angling communities on the other. We are interested in issues of 'scale' in this process, the role of manuals in increasing the scope of the field-based exercises, and in issues to do with anglers' understanding of the rivers they fish - how their knowledge can be elicited and used.
  • New societies we hope to do fieldwork with are the British Lichen Society and Entomological Society as well as the North Lancashire Naturalists Society. Amongst the issues we will be exploring with individuals in such societies is the question of data creation: what naturalists create records for; how, and with which technologies, they store data; and which bodies naturalists are happy to hand data over to. This has implications for the NHM-EN approach as well as for related data issues arising in, for example, the National Biodiversity Network (NBN).
  • It will also be important in the next year to continue our discussions with NHM, English Nature, the BRC and NBN and to deepen our understanding of the national/international picture through interviews with JNCC and DEFRA.

Networking , communication and research planning

  • A research meeting is planned for the EASST/4S meeting (on social studies of science and technology) which will be held in Paris in 2004. This meeting will bring together researchers from the UK, Europe, USA and Australia to talk about naturalists and other social groups and their involvement in record-creation and policy making.
  • Discussions are underway with Natural History Societies in other EU countries (Germany, Sweden, Netherlands) to create a research network on the experiences of enrolling naturalists into broader policy frameworks.
  • A proposal to discuss Biodiversity Science at a conference in London, 2005, has been sent to the Royal Society.
  • Plans to investigate potential relationships between farmers and ecological scientists in Cumbria are being prepared in the form of a research proposal to a combined research council programme.




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