IV. Assessment Tools Pros and Cons: Table 5

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


IV. How can a natural resource professional select a social assessment tool?

Guidelines for selection

Table 5: The pros and cons involved in using different recommended tools

Background Research

PROS: Uses existing information that is mostly free to access. Web-based materials and search engines in particular are readily available. Contributes towards documenting history and change within a community. Many types of useful information can be obtained in this way.

CONS: Information obtained may be incomplete, out-dated, inconclusive, and/or inaccurate. May be time consuming if information is hard to find and/or access.

Census Data Research

PROS: Uses existing information that can be obtained for free either at public libraries or via the internet. Contributes towards documenting history and change within a community. Many types of useful information can be obtained in this way.

CONS: Current census data may be outdated as it is only gathered once every ten years. It may also be incomplete, inconclusive, and/or inaccurate. Census data also only counts residents who are documented, legal US citizens at the time of gathering information.

Focus Groups

PROS: Provide an in-depth understanding of individual/group experiences and perceptions on certain issues. Good for cross-checking information obtained from other methods. Flexible, produces a lot of information, and generally requires little time or financial resources. Participatory in nature and helps build rapport between members of the community and the researcher/moderator.

CONS: Can be time-consuming and expensive. May require the assistance of a skilled moderator. Only a small number (6-12) of individuals can be involved at any one time. Opinions expressed might be disruptive to relations in small communities or organizations. Some groups cultural styles may not be suited to focus groups, which tend to be very frank and focused in nature. Opinions expressed in focus groups may not correspond to actual behaviors in everyday contexts.

Informal Interviews with Key-Informants

PROS: An inexpensive and convenient method of obtaining detailed and useful information about individual’s experiences and perceptions in a relatively short amount of time. Helps in establishing rapport with individual community members.

CONS: Can be time-consuming to interview large numbers of individuals. Can also be time-consuming and/or expensive to transcribe recordings of interviews, if required.


PROS: A potentially unobtrusive method of learning more about a community’s behaviors and characteristics in different settings. The actual behaviors of community members as they occur in everyday contexts can be observed and compared/contrasted to their perceptions as expressed via interviews and/or focus groups.

CONS: Time consuming. Not all behaviors of community members can be observed. It is possible to misinterpret the reasons or motivations for why people act in certain ways. The presence of the researcher may influence the behaviors of community members.

Participatory Action Research

PROS: Brings together researchers and community members so that they can work together to identify problems faced by the community, to empower community members to research and create solutions to those problems, and to improve conditions in the community.

CONS: Can work well in circumstances of limited financial resources. Requires time and skills in managing a complex process. Most useful for investigating options in a geographically small area.

Rapid Appraisal (SONDEO)

PROS: Generates insights and information rarely obtained in a formal survey in a relatively short time period (Generally requires between one to six weeks time). Can be cost efficient, timely, locally relevant, accurate in “telling it like it is” and useful in responding to people’s perceptions and concerns. Effective in addressing outsider biases in assessing communities. Encourages community participation in identifying problems as well as the planning, implementation, monitoring, and evaluations of a particular program.

CONS: The principal challenge for rapid appraisals is to achieve accuracy and reliability in findings given limited time factors. A clear understanding of the problem(s) is also required prior to conducting a SONDEO if it is to be done in an efficient and effective manner that generates relevant information. Provides a good “sense” of a particular situation, however, with limited generalizability beyond the community members directly involved and interviewed in the research process.


PROS: Can provide a certain degree of understanding of individual/group experiences and perceptions within a community. Useful for moderate to large populations and for collecting representative data. Has widespread credibility among professional agencies and organizations. A large number of companies now provide software and support for developing, administering, and evaluating surveys entirely online.

CONS: Moderately time-consuming and expensive. It can be difficult to figure out the most effective and relevant questions to include in a survey. It can also be difficult to motivate community members to complete surveys. Technical assistance may be required. Surveys are sometimes perceived of as impersonal and tedious on the part of community members.



The information in Table 5 has been drawn in part from 1) personal communication with Lorna M. Butler (Ph.D., Professor of Sociology and Cultural Anthropology, Iowa State University), Barbara McDonald (Ph.D, Education Specialist, USDA Forest Service), and Theresa Trainor (M.A., Program Analyst, US EPA Office of Wetlands, Oceans, and Watersheds) and 2) a variety of publications/websites/online PDF files that are listed in Table 3: Specific assessment tools and references.