Good research could go a long way toward successfully addressing environmental issues. But what is good environmental research? In the ENVS Program at Lewis & Clark, we answer the question like this: get situated! Situated research brings environmental issues into a geographical lens, examining a wide range of processes and perspectives at multiple temporal and spatial scales as they converge at a particular location, region, or network of locations—in other words, places (see background on studying places here).
Situated research, in short, grounds interdisciplinary environmental research in a real-world context. It helps bring big, often abstract environmental issues down to earth, in a manner open to their full complexity while offering focus. It makes your research both doable given this focus, and broadly relevant given how you establish this focus.
Situated research takes the rather general argument introduced here—that environmental scholarship is best grounded in the concept of place—and operationalizes it into a way of doing high-quality interdisciplinary scholarship. We summarize this for our students in the ENVS Program via what we call the hourglass.
Situated research is a process. Think of it as starting from the top of the hourglass at right, then proceeding to the middle and the bottom. Situated research thus involves zooming in and out, working at multiple conceptual scales. At each step, there are particular things you do, summarized by this diagram and elaborated in the scoring rubric below.
Situated research thus often proceeds like this:
- Start with a broad environmental issue (top of the hourglass or TOH) and pose one or more general framing questions, then…
- Zoom in to a particular situated context (middle of the hourglass or MOH) and pose a focus question to guide your research, from which…
- You’ll zoom out again (bottom of the hourglass or BOH) to consider implications, followup research, etc. for your broad issue. Here is a helpful worksheet prepared by Prof. Liz Safran spring 2019 to help students explore potential BOH content.
If all you do is discuss broad issues, that’s just the first step. If you only focus on a specific focused question, that’s just the second step. The real mark of useful scholarship is to zoom in and out like an hourglass, connecting the major environmental issues of our time to specific, researchable situated contexts—places.
Framing and focus questions
Framing and focus questions anchor situated research in a good hourglass approach, so they become some of the most important pieces of the puzzle. The two relate in various ways: (a) sometimes a focus question is just a much more specific, situated version of the framing question; or, (b) sometimes a focus question addresses descriptive/explanatory dimensions of the more evaluative/instrumental framing question (for types of questions, see here). But they play significantly different though complementary roles in situated research. Below is a handy table comparing framing and focus questions:
|Characteristic||Framing Question||Focus Question|
|Language/Style||Generally popular||Generally scholarly|
|Question Types||Often evaluative/instrumental||Often descriptive/explanatory|
|Answerability||Often too general to answer||Intentionally designed to be answerable|
How can you know whether you are going good situated research? Here is a scoring rubric you can consider using. To assign scores, read each component element in the table below (six total), then decide which of the below applies (30 points possible):
- 5 = All elements
- 4 = Many elements
- 3 = Some elements
- 2 = Fewer elements
- 1 = Very few elements
To download the entire scoring rubric with the hourglass diagram so that you can print it and score a situated research project, click here.
|Hourglass||Component||Elements Required for Full Credit|
|Top||Background | Framing Question | Thesis Statement||Comprehensive, relevant, readable background to research topic, building on and weaving together related scholarly and popular discussions; introduction and justification of broad, significant, understandable framing question(s) emanating from this background; and clear, argumentative thesis statement building on this background and summarizing entire hourglass process below, offering provisional answer to focus question(s) and important perspective on framing question(s).|
|Top||Situated Context | Key Actors/Processes||Clear and compelling introduction (with map) of geographical context(s) for research on topic, including vertical (general type) and lateral (comparative) justification; broad overview (including text and concept map) clarifying, and specifying relations between, key actors/processes in chosen context(s), and their potential relevance to topic and framing question(s).|
|Middle||Focus Question | Methodology||Clear summary and justification of empirical research focus question(s) to be answered for topic in situated context(s), including relevance to framing question(s) and doability in given context(s); step by step summary of each methodological element by which focus question(s) to be answered, with justification (including related studies) of each methodological element as well as data sources, ethical concerns if applicable, and other considerations.|
|Middle||Analysis | Results||Step by step procedure of analysis as above methodology implemented, including changes in response to research challenges; specific results, in narrative, chart, and table format as appropriate, obtained from analysis of each methodological element, with clear and direct reference to how these results answer focus question(s).|
|Bottom||Comparison & Generalization | Relevance to Framing Question||Clear and defensible broadening of results, starting with summary for focus question(s) in given context(s), then (lateral) comparison to other (similar or different) situated contexts based on existing literature and/or reasoned guess, as well as (vertical) generalization of possible larger patterns relevant to topic; clear and provocative application of specific results and larger comparison/generalization to shed fresh and important light on topic framing question(s).|
|Bottom||Next Steps | Further Research||Understandable and compelling application of entire hourglass argument above to derive next steps for consideration or action on chosen topic, including practical/policy options, potentially with reference—but not limited—to chosen situated context(s); clear and doable recommendations for further research building on (or perhaps deviating from) this situated research project.|