IV. Case Study II: The water downstream

CPB Self-Study Module
STEP 4. Collect audience information relevant to the environmental practice and specific behaviors


B. Is there a social dimension to a particular environmental concern?

How to figure out if there is a social dimension


Case Study II: Getting started with social assessment tools

Recent water samples taken from a point immediately downstream from the lands of several local farmers’ show high levels of fecal bacteria and atrazine (a chemical sprayed on vegetation to control “weeds”). Sampling has been going on for eight years and has used similar sampling sites further upstream and downstream from the farmers’ lands, each of which have not shown any problems with high levels of either atrazine or fecal bacteria. There are concerns about the effects of the heightened bacteria and atrazine levels on water quality in general as well as the aquatic life in the stream. At a point downstream from this area, furthermore, there is a public access point regularly used by local residents for fishing, swimming, and other types of recreation.

The different stakeholders involved in this issue include primary and secondary audiences. The primary audience is the local farmers/landowners from whose land the fecal bacteria and atrazine is entering into the stream. The secondary audience are fishery biologists and water quality program coordinators; local public health officials; and local residents that access the stream for fishing, swimming, and/or other recreational activities.

Your goal, as an outreach educator, is to actively work with the community in order to identify and effectively change the public behaviors that are contributing to the pollution of the stream. How could you begin?

You could start by conducting interviews and observations, two basic social assessment tools, in order to begin learning more about the perceptions and behaviors of community members in relation to the stream from each of the identified stakeholder groups. This would allow for the identification of the particular characteristics of the community that are contributing to the polluting behaviors of the farmers in the first place.

You could, for example, arrange informal interviews, or relaxed and unstructured dialogues with each of the individual farmers in order to learn more about their understandings of the problem, reasons behind their polluting behaviors, and possible means of mitigating their behaviors – or to see if they even know about the problem and/or perceive of it as such in the fist place. The same can be done with representatives from each identified stakeholders’ group in order to gain their personal input into the problem, ideas for possible solutions, their perceptions of how they have already been or might be impacted by the polluted stream.

Direct or indirect observations can also be made of farmers’ behaviors on their lands adjacent to the stream. The same could be done of local area residents in the context of the public access point to determine the extent and nature of stream use. Apart from providing you with a more realistic understanding of the local context and issue, this will also allow you to cross-check information obtained from interviews with actual observations of behavior in everyday situations.

The application of these two tools will provide you with a strong preliminary understanding of a diverse range of community perceptions and behaviors in relation to the stream, while potentially building rapport with community members, and providing an early foundation from which a more effective and locally relevant plan of outreach can be developed, implemented, and evaluated.


This case study was adapted from a case study developed by the National Center for Case Study teaching in Science (NCCSTS). Cases are archived at, http://sciencecases.lib.buffalo.edu/cs/ .