Spotlight on an ISECN Researcher– Wanda Martin, RN PhD(c), University of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada
Interview by Emily Fisher
Wanda’s involvement with nursing students in the campus community garden led her to become interested in linking individuals to food security. She started to become curious about a broader, systemic question: “How do you engage communities in this type of work?” During this time, her colleague and future supervisor, Marjorie McDonald, received a grant with the health authority partners in British Columbia looking at implementation of core public health initiatives with the goal to discover “How do health policies translate to the ground?” Specifically, McDonald’s study was focused on the food safety core program. The intersection between food safety and food security became the focus of her dissertation.
As a background to Wanda’s project location and the local culture around health policies, it is important to know that recent food policy changes caused noticeable tension between food security and food safety public health core programs. While both programs share a common goal of access to safe food supply, the programs hold different perspectives on safe food production:
- The food safety core program is highly regulated under the Public Health Act, with Environmental Health Officers focused on inspection, education, and surveillance.
- The food security core program is primarily community-based with a Food Security Coordinator providing support through resources, advocacy, and leadership.
Wanda’s work explores these tensions through the lens of complexity science and novel research methods Complexity science focuses on systems thinking, looking for patterns of self-organization, emergence, collective behavior, and non-linear dynamics, among other things. For those of us new to complexity science, her current PhD project is the perfect case to explore this complicated research strategy and its tools: social network analysis (SNA), situational analysis (SA) and concept mapping (CM). She is using these tools to analyze the following four food security cases: community kitchens, raw milk, urban chickens and farmer’s markets.
SNA lets researchers describe social structures in terms of networks, which allows them to try to understand and interpret the behavior of different individuals based on their position within their social structures (Marsden, 1990). SA is a grounded theory approach which frames basic social processes and represents complexity through mapmaking (Clarke, 2005). The approach provides a way to categorize and then map the key human and nonhuman elements of a situation, emphasizing relationships, positions, social worlds, and discursive positions. The explanatory maps resulting from this analysis give researchers new views of collected data that may be unique to the situation: the goal of this is to produce a ‘truth’ or possible ‘truths’ (Clarke, 2005). CM is a type of structured conceptualization consisting of six phases geared for systems thinking (Trochim, 1989). This method uses a focused question to allow a target group to describe their ideas: the responses are then translated to maps for visual representation (Trochim et al., 2006).
While this short article cannot capture all the elements of Wanda’s complex approach, we can try to learn more about the process through exploring how Wanda approaches one element of the project, concept mapping. Wanda begins the CM approach by asking individuals, all who are upper level food security activists, managers or educators, the open-ended focus question, “A way to maximize understanding and collaboration between those working in food safety and food security is…” She reviews their responses, distills the answers to make sure there are no duplicates, and sends the distilled responses to 50 people: 25 members of the food safety group and 25 members of the food security group. They are asked to sort these statements into piles to categorize into what they think groups together best. They also rate the responses according to their perception of feasibility and importance within the current system. Wanda uses Concept Systems computer program for mapping the concept through multi-dimensional scaling and cluster analysis. She is then able to see how often individuals assigned the same statements to the same groups. Then she decides at what level she wants to organize these statements together to group into broader concepts. Through this process she hopes to identify specific ways to move intersectoral collaboration forward and bring study findings to action on the ground level.
Wanda was fortunate with this project, in that her colleagues had already formed good relationships with those working in the health authorities: this has made the complex project doable and ensured that the results will be valued and considered when officials think about making changes. However, one of the major challenges she is facing is that with these novel methodologies is that there is not a lot of first-hand experience for guidance. There is a lot of complexity science literature and examples from other fields, but when applying these methodologies to nursing or health promotion, there is potential for complications. She is fortunate to be part of a strong and supportive research team to overcome the challenges. Together, they are currently working on a knowledge synthesis of complexity science to identify how it has been applied in various disciplines and what methods have been used when approaching research from a complexity lens.
Wanda’s overall project goal is “safer, more-accessible, and healthy food supply in British Columbia.” She hopes that with this project she will facilitate the alignment of the two public health programs, food safety and food security, as they are laid out from the ministry level for this purpose. To her, “It is all about intersectoral collaboration and communication:” oftentimes this type of collaboration needs a catalyst and a mediator for change, and this project is a healthy start to that process.
Wanda is funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.
To read more about the methods, try the following resources:
- Marsden, P. V. (1990). Network Data And Measurement. Annual Review of Sociology, 16(1), 435-463.
- Clarke, A. E. (2005). Situational Analysis: Grounded Theory After the Postmodern Turn. Thousand Oaks: Sage.
- Trochim, W. M. (1989). An introduction to concept mapping for planning and evaluation. Evaluation Program Planning, 12, 1-16.
- Trochim, W. M., Cabrera, D. A., Milstein, B., Gallagher, R. S., & Leischow, S. J. (2006). Practical challenges of systems thinking and modeling in public health. American Journal of Public Health, 96(3), 538-546.
Published: June 2011