Challenging the extractive paradigm in field work: suggestions from a case study in community engagement

by Matt Sehrsweeney and Jack Robertson


View of the St Elias Mountains from the Kluane Red Squirrel Project field site. Photo by Jack Robertson

(For ease of reading, this post is written from the perspective of Matt Sehrsweeney)

Though we generally fail to acknowledge it, ecological research has extractive tendencies. You might be familiar with the term “parachute researcher1,” used to describe the scientist that drops out of their ivory tower into their field site—often in a less developed region of the world—extracts data, and zips back to their institution to analyze and communicate their results to their fellow academics, without engaging the people living in the region in any meaningful way. This paradigm is far more widespread than most of us would like to admit, and it’s a paradigm that needs to be challenged.

Traditional ecological knowledge, with its own rigorous systems of discerning truths, should be more deeply integrated into academic ecological research, and the community based participatory research model is useful toward this end2,3,4. But this is not what I wish to (or am qualified to) discuss here. As ecologists, we have a moral obligation to cultivate generative and mutually respectful relationships with the often rural and isolated communities residing on the land we study. This is particularly true in the context of settler scientists working on Indigenous lands: meaningful engagement with the communities around our field sites is imperative if we seek to decolonize our research practices, independent of the benefits traditional ecological knowledge can provide us.

For two summers I worked for Ben Dantzer at the University of Michigan as a technician at the Kluane Red Squirrel Project (KRSP), a nearly three-decade long study of North American red squirrels in the boreal forest of the Yukon. I joined the project curious about both the ecological work and also how the field site figured in the context of northern life, a land with a deep Indigenous history, and a shorter—but consequential—history of white colonization and exploitation. When I joined, grad students and PIs alike were seeking to expand KRSP’s engagement with Haines Junction, the nearby town of about 600 residents that provides essentially everything need to keep our camp running—water, gas, propane, and wood, to name a few. We have many friends in the Junction, but at the time we had little idea of most residents’ perception of the project. With guidance and consultation with my mentor Ben Dantzer and KRSP graduate students (along with funding from the Graham Sustainability Institute at the University of Michigan and Institutional Review Board approval), I designed a survey for residents of the Junction to assess these perceptions and explore opportunities for improvement, which we delivered to all P.O. boxes in town.

Of the 319 surveys we sent out, 49 were returned, giving us a respectable 15.3% response rate5. This was a small sample, and not perfectly representative; most respondents were women, and most had lived in Haines Junction for over 15 years. Any extrapolation to the population at large, or analysis of detailed feedback, wasn’t possible, but we could get a sense of prevailing attitudes from some common responses. We were happy to find that the great majority of respondents had positive feedback, but the critiques were constructive in identifying specific areas in need of improvement. These critiques fell into two themes.

The first was a critique of our engagement with the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations (CAFN) community, which constitutes about a third of the town’s population6. Several respondents explicitly stated that we should make more deliberate efforts to involve the CAFN in our work, which is particularly significant because our study site sits on traditional Champagne and Aishihik territory, and we work along a trap line that belongs to a member of the Champagne and Aishihik community. We recognize this in all of our publications, presentations, and other products of our research, and we have a respectful working relationship with the CAFN, but we have long sought to increase our engagement with CAFN folks beyond the work-related requirements. And second, the most prevalent and illuminating type of critique directly addressed our lack of community engagement: nearly half of respondents stated they knew very little about what we were doing, and over a third stated that the relationship between KRSP and the Junction was nonexistent. We didn’t expect Junction residents to read our dense peer-reviewed publications, but the notion that a considerable number of our neighbors knew nothing of our work, and many didn’t even know we existed, certainly came as a surprise.

This survey opened our eyes to our strengths and shortcomings, and pressed us to reckon with urgent questions: how do we open up our insular world of research to the folks that our field site relies upon? And as ecologists, what are our obligations to the land from which we extract data, and the native peoples who have inhabited this land for generations?

Over the course of the ensuing year, spearheaded by a few tireless and enthusiastic graduate students, and with the support of our PIs, the project significantly expanded its outreach efforts. In response to specific survey feedback, our first steps were to begin distributing seasonal newsletters that fall, with grad student bios and information on our current projects, and revive informal public research talks at the local bakery, with coordinated promotional help from the bakery staff. These were by no means KRSP’s first community engagement efforts – long-term relationships with many folks in town have flourished over the decades, from friendships built on pick-up hockey games to strong working relationships with the local Alsek Renewable Resource Council. These relationships have emerged more organically when research is more immediately relevant to local stakeholders: while squirrels are mostly relevant to local folks as insulation-nesting pests7, students at our site studying lynx-hare dynamics in recent years have enjoyed more public interest in their work; pragmatic conversations with local trappers about avoiding disruption of trap lines led to close friendships. Over the project’s 29 years, on-the-ground engagement has varied with the interest and commitment of any given year’s personnel; with this latest coordinated effort we aimed to make our engagement more cohesive and intentional.

In the discussions the survey stimulated within the project, two critical realizations emerged. The first was that this process of deepening our roots in the community must be dialogical. We needed to bring the same curiosity and excitement to community life, whether it’s a solstice celebration or an art show, that we hoped the community would bring to our research; “outreach” alone is not enough. The second was a recognition that cultivating meaningful relationships with the Champagne and Aishihik community required a separate approach from our outreach with the white community. These efforts had to be sensitive to both the history of institutionalized oppression of First Nations peoples (and the marginalization they still experience) and the specific pain inflicted by exploitative research practices historically. Engaging with CAFN cultural history with humility and curiosity through their cultural center’s exhibits and public ceremonies would carry more weight than bumping elbows with mostly white Junction-ers at live music Fridays at the bakery. It’s important to acknowledge that though we’ve had success in befriending white folks in town, we have a long way to go in establishing meaningful bonds with the Champagne and Aishihik community.

Implicated in both of these realizations is the necessity of respect and humility toward the people whose lives, livelihoods, and cultural history are tied to this land. The survey was an imperfect starting point, and just one form of expression of our respect and humility. Response bias cannot be discounted, and of course it didn’t allow us to tease apart the full socio-cultural impact of a research project on a local community in an appropriately fleshed out historical context. It was, however, a relatively small effort that guided discussions within the project leading to substantive change.

It’s also important to acknowledge that engagement work is in no way easy. It takes time and effort that comes at a direct cost to traditional measures of research productivity, and thus is structurally disincentivized8. And long-term projects require long-term commitments to engagement—with students and technicians that stay no longer than a few seasons, these efforts must be directed and sustained by long-term commitments from PIs, and without institutional incentives for such commitments, these efforts face significant roadblocks. The difficulty of this work, however, does not excuse apathy towards it; institutional change often must be driven from the ground up.

I urge ecologists to critically consider their relationship with the communities they rely upon. Engagement with Indigenous communities especially must be a central focus—we must be mindful of the ways in which ecological research can reproduce colonial dynamics and take every measure to mitigate this harm. I am not qualified to make specific, culturally sensitive recommendations for this type of work, especially as a southern settler academic working in the North. I simply seek to share a model that was helpful for KRSP and encourage other academics to explore options that might work in the contexts of their field sites. With efforts like these, we can move towards an alternative to the parachute research model, towards a model in which rigorous research coexists with mutually generative relationships with local communities. The importance of the survey was that it was a form of listening to our community, which allowed us to shape our outreach purposefully and sensitively, instead presuming to know what they wanted. How might your field project better listen to your community?

[1] I’ve been unable to find the definite origin of this term, but this paper references its use and provides excellent perspectives on how to avoid it: Bastida, E. M., Tseng, T., Mckeever, C., & Jack, L. (2010). Ethics and Community-Based Participatory Research: Perspectives From the Field. Health Promotion Practice, 11(1), 16-20.

[2] Castleden, H., Morgan, V. S., & Lamb, C. (2012). “I spent the first year drinking tea”: Exploring Canadian university researchers ’ perspectives on community-based participatory research involving Indigenous peoples, 56(2), 160–179.

[3] Adams, M., Carpenter, J., Housty, J., Neasloss, D., Paquet, P., Walkus, J., & Darimont, C. (2014). Toward increased engagement between academic and indigenous community partners in ecological research. Ecology and Society, 19(3).

[4] Bastida et al. Ethics and Community-Based Participatory Research. Health Promotion Practice, 11(1), 16-20.

[5] Ecologists: though this may sound low, ask a social scientist about their survey response rates; we would’ve been thrilled with 10%

[6] Statistics Canada. 2017. Haines Junction, VL [Census subdivision], Yukon and Yukon, TER [Census division], Yukon (table). Census Profile. 2016 Census. Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 98-316-X2016001. Ottawa. Released November 29, 2017.

[7] This is not to discount the historical and cultural importance of the red squirrel to First Nations in the region, especially as a food source. For more on that, check this out.

[8] There is some institutional recognition of the importance of this work that’s important to recognize. E.g. Canada’s Northern Scientific Training Program grant requires applicants to describe how they will integrate into the Northern community, forcing students to prioritize the time and energy this requires up front. View the NSTP information manual here.

*Here are a few wonderful non-academic articles on this subject written by folks with far more experience and expertise than either of us:

Embedding research in local contexts: local knowledge, stakeholders’ participation and fieldwork design – LSE Field Research Method Lab

Beyond the Scientific Bubble: the Inequity Dilemma in Field Research – The Ethogram

Parachute Researchers – Ashley Nickels

Sri Lankan Whale Researcher Calls for an End to ‘Parachute Science’ – Oceans Deeply

Interactive map of Indigenous lands worldwideCBC article

The authors would like to thank the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations, whose land our field site sits upon, and in particular, Agnes MacDonald and her family, for long-term access to her trap line. We would also like to acknowledge that the University of Michigan sits on the traditional territories of the Ojibwe, Odawa, and Bodewadmi people, and that the University of Guelph resides on the ancestral lands of the Attawandaron people and the treaty lands and territory of the Mississaugas of the Credit. As we live and conduct our academic affairs here, it’s critical to bear in mind the lasting effects of colonialism and institutional marginalization that these indigenous peoples still experience.

Author Biographies




Matt Sehrsweeney graduated from the University of Michigan in 2017, where he studied ecology and history, and will begin a masters in conservation ecology and environmental policy at Michigan in the fall. His interests include navigating the ethical production of science, pizza from New Jersey, good novels, and Pop 2 by Charli XCX. Follow him on twitter @msehrsweeney, if you want to.







Jack Robertson is a MSc candidate with Dr. Andrew McAdam at the University of Guelph, studying territorial plasticity and individual recognition in red squirrels. He’s passionate about academic inclusivity, social responsibility in science, and Carly Rae Jepsen, and tweets mostly about squirrels and queer issues on @ecolojack.