Trying New Things: Expanding my Interdisciplinary Training with Social Science Methods in Ecology

Trying New Things: Expanding my Interdisciplinary Training with Social Science Methods in Ecology

By Jake Marinkovich; Undergraduate student in Ecosystem Sciences and Sustainability

Key Words: Ecology, Social Sciences, Fuzzy Cognitive Map, Ethiopia

Figure 1: A focus group session conducted during our research

Everyone has their comfort zone. That area right in your wheelhouse where you know you have a complex understanding of the issues, and you’re confident you are the one who can best address them. Once you find that zone, it can take a big push to get out of it. My comfort zone was the nexus of numbers and nature.

Quantitative methodology was where I spent the majority of my time, and where I felt I belonged. However, I knew there were other methods and disciplines to integrate, and that what was out there could be relevant for me. I wanted to try something new this year and get outside of my usual bubble, but I just needed the right push.

Starting  a New Project

          Although my major did include some social science perspectives, my original path took me on a much more quantitative route. Carbon emission equivalencies, nitrogen cycling, and population growth models were the areas I felt most comfortable learning. That started to change last summer when I took a trip with some CSU professors to South Africa. My hope was to get first-hand experience in different conservation methods, and while that hope was fulfilled completely, the biggest take-away I had from the trip was the people. Being able to personally interact with the people whose lives are directly influenced by these conservation decisions was something that stuck with me because I had never actually talked with the stakeholders of a conservation project. I was able to see the humanity behind the numbers and papers.

Then, through a research program designed to facilitate undergraduate participation in collaborative conservation research, I was given the opportunity to work on a social-ecological project focused on the Menz-Guassa area of Central Ethiopia. Being fresh off of my trip to South Africa, I saw this as a natural continuation of that project, as I was able to learn more about social-ecological challenges and work in a new (to me) and interesting place in Africa. This new project, however, would prove to be a lot more involved, and not include my actual presence in Africa, unfortunately. My mentor, Cara Steger, conducted surveys in the Guassa area, and I analyzed the data upon her return.

The Central Highlands of Ethiopia    

Figure 2: An Ethiopian wolf standing amongst guassa grass

The Menz-Guassa area is a high alpine grassland located in the Central Highlands of Ethiopia. The guassa grass, which gives the area its name, is important both economically and ecologically to the people that live in the area. The grass is used for thatching roofs, making traditional clothing, and as a means of income. The grass has been managed communally for over 400 years. The specifics of the governing body have changed, but today, the Guassa Committee manages the area. The Guassa Committee is comprised of representatives from every kebele, local administrators, and conservation area experts. Together, they decide the timing of the guassa harvest in that season.


There are a multitude of threats facing the inhabitants of the Menz-Guassa area. Drought is a primary concern for residents. A severe change in rainfall threatens both agricultural production of the subsistence farmers and harvesting of the guassa grass. Another persistent threat is shrub encroachment in the grassland, which is invading the habitat of the guassa grass. Political shifts and instability also seem to be a concern for many residents for its threat to local well-being.

Cognitive Models for Change

          When Cara returned from her trip to Menz-Guassa, she had thirty-five paper copies of survey data that she handed off to me. My role was to convert the hard copies

Figure 3: An example of an FCM. This is a simplified version of the FCM constructed for the Scientist Demographic of our research. The red arrows indicate a negative relationship, and the blue arrows represent a positive relationship.

to digital, validate and aggregate the data, and run simulations with the data at Cara’s direction. We compiled the data into Fuzzy Cognitive Maps (FCMs), investigating similarities and differences across different demographic groups. If you don’t know what cognitive models are, don’t worry! I didn’t either until eight months ago. Essentially, fuzzy cognitive maps are a way of bringing our mentally constructed view of the world into physical form. You take the most important variables identified by the respondents and determine the sign and strength of their relationship to each other through survey data. As the example of a fuzzy cognitive map shows (Fig. 3), these models can be complex! They are an emerging tool to help researchers quantify and relate qualitative data to find emerging patterns and trends that are otherwise difficult to see.  It took me considerable effort and research to get a handle on this kind of data analysis – you can find out more information here:


I had never had any exposure to cognitive models before. I knew I was out of my comfort zone when I was reading literature from publications like The International Journal of Intelligent Systems. I found myself thinking: “What!?? This journal doesn’t contain the words ‘Ecology,’ ‘Ecosystem,’ or ‘Environment’ in it. Am I even allowed to read this?” While many professors have emphasized the importance of multidisciplinary approaches, I realized when reading about this new field of research that it is a feat easier said than done. The barrier to entry just seemed too high.

Not to be deterred from learning something new, I forged ahead into these new journals. Despite my initial trepidation, I began to understand them. Not only was I learning a new discipline, but I was getting excited at the prospect of practicing that discipline. I felt like I was adding a piece of a puzzle that I hadn’t even realized was missing.  I remembered back to my trip to South Africa, when my professors kept bring up the “human variable.” I understood what they were saying, but I don’t think I fully appreciated how important it was to understand peoples’ values and worldviews until I actually started studying them.

Thanks to a lot of encouragement and good mentorship, I found that interdisciplinary work, while intimidating at first glance, can open doors that you hadn’t even seen before. I now plan to continue conducting multi-disciplinary research in the coming years. I also hope to continue trying new things!