IV. Which social assessment tools have the most potential?

CPB 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?


Which social assessment tools have the most potential for use by the natural resource professional?

Natural resource professionals generally have little time nor money for conducting social assessments. In light of these limitations there are several tools that have the most potential for use:

These tools, when effectively applied, can help outreach workers obtain information about the social dimensions of a community and environmental problem in relatively short periods of time and with the expenditure of little financial resources. The application of surveys and focus groups in tandem, furthermore, provides an effective way of actively involving local community members in the research process, narrowing in on particularly relevant kinds of information about the community and/or environmental problem, and accessing and generating both pre-existing and new quantitative (numerical) and qualitative (non-numerical) data about the community.


Background research

Background research involves gaining access to pre-existing information about the community of interest in the form of published documents (books, journal articles, newspaper articles, magazine articles, archival photos, historical documents, ), local governmental and non-governmental records (technical reports, unpublished documents), websites, and CD-ROMs (a Compact Disc that contains data accessible by a computer). Background research, while potentially informative about a community’s general social dimensions, can have certain drawbacks. Data obtained in this manner may be dated and/or biased. Census data research, as a particular form of background research, involves gathering largely freely accessible demographic and economic data about a particular community. Drawbacks to census data research include the possibility that the information is outdated and not reflective of the current situation. You should check to see how regularly the information being accessed is gathered – and hence how reflective it may or may not be of the current characteristics of a particular community.


Focus groups

Focus groups involve managed discussions on particular topics (as determined by a moderator) among a group of people, anywhere between 6 and 12 in total, who have some characteristics in common as members of the community of interest or a subgroup within the larger community. Focus groups can allow for community participants to actively express their opinions on particular issues and in doing so promote community engagement and participation both in the research process and the ultimate goals towards which research is oriented. In this way, focus groups can be useful in building rapport and understanding between researchers and members of the community as well as building consensus within a group or providing insight into conflicting opinions and viewpoints.


Informal interviews

Informal interviews with key-informants involves casual conversations with individuals from the community of interest that are determined to be long term residents of the community that possess a broad and insightful knowledge of the community. The goal of the interviewer should be to initially pose a question or series of relevant questions and then sit back, listen, and take notes (or record through the use of a recording device) as the interviewee freely responds.

  • See: University of Illinois. Program Planning and Assessment Unit, University of Illinois, College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences. Needs Assessment Techniques: Using Key Informants Interviews



Observations are a potentially unobtrusive method of learning about a community’s behaviors and characteristics based on personal observations and recordings of everyday activities occurring within the community. Information obtained from observations can be used to cross-check data obtained from other methods, such as interviews and/or focus groups. Actual behaviors as observed in everyday contexts can be compared and contrasted to views and perceptions as expressed in interviews and/or focus groups. Observation sometimes involves the research actively participating in a particular social event – this is why this particular tool is normally referred to as participant-observation, in the sense that the researcher actively participates in the event that is being observed.


Participatory action research

Participatory action research is geared towards planning, implementing, and evaluating effective environmental outreach efforts. Some methods employed in participatory action research include transect walks, participatory mapping and ranking exercises. Table 6 provides sample methods.

Key principles include (Israel et al, 1998; Loka Institute, 2007):

  • Emphasis is placed on the local relevance of outreach efforts.
  • Builds on local strengths and resources while enhancing the capacities of community participants.
  • Facilitates collaborative partnerships between outreach educators and community members in all phases of the research and outreach process.
  • Integrates knowledge and action for mutual benefit of all partners.
  • Promotes a co-learning and empowering process.
  • Involves a cyclical and iterative process.
  • Addresses environmental issues from a perspective mutually integrative of ecological and social concerns.
  • Disseminates findings and knowledge gained to all partners.
  • Ensures the rights of all research participants to informed consent, anonymity, and confidentiality; adhering to “subjects” review process standards and procedures.


Rapid appraisals

Rapid appraisals entail a timely and intensive approach towards learning about the characteristics of a particular community. They general involve both outside experts and insider community members as direct collaborators in the research process and emphasize the collection of qualitative as opposed to quantitative data. The SONDEO, a Rapid Reconnaissance Approach for Situational Assessment approach, a particular type of rapid appraisal, allows for researchers to learn about local people’s situations, experiences, problems, and perspectives in a direct and participatory manner. The SONDEO usually involves a short period of time conducting research in a community and involves the use of a number of social assessment tools in tandem: background and census data research, surveys, informal interviews with key-informants, observations, and focus groups.


Facilitated Public Meetings*

While many methods can be used to facilitate input from target audience(s), community forums and/or public hearings may be the best choice when political issues are important. They are excellent ways to involve the target audiences(s) in the needs assessment process, and to make sure people understand and believe the results of the needs assessment. (See Knowledge Area BEPs: Citizen Participation/Community Involvement Principles; Civic Empowerment Principles .) When considering this option, keep in mind that the changing behavior process works most effectively when engaging stakeholders, rather than a wider geographic or political group. A forum can be useful for brainstorming ideas about goals, action alternatives, or how to address barriers to change. The process of “referred” dialogue, with all having a chance to explain their position, can be an important first step in understanding among stakeholders. A cautionary note — because public hearings and community forums make people believe something is going to happen, you need to be sure something really does happen! See the University of Illinois Extension’s Needs Assessment Techniques: Using Community Meetings for more.

*Adapted from University of Illinois Extension, Program Planning & Assessment, Needs Assessment: Using Community Meetings.


Nominal Group Process (Surveys)

The Nominal Group Process offers a list of questions deemed relevant to a particular research aim that are administered to members of a community of interest via either mail, telephone, the internet, e-mail, or a combination of all four. Surveys administered via the internet and/or e-mail, however, tend to be the least expensive to employ. There are a large number of companies that provide software for developing, administering, and evaluating surveys entirely online. The greatest challenges in conducting surveys involve asking the right questions and getting community members to invest their time and energy into thoughtfully completing and returning the survey(s). One effective way of generating useful and relevant questions, as well as building community buy-in entails sharing the results of an initial survey with members of the community through pre-existing local communication networks, the staging of public meetings, and/or holding more specific focus group(s). Feedback gained in the contexts of a public meeting or focus group can be used in turn to develop more appropriate and relevant questions in additional surveys as required.

  • See, University of Illinois. Program Planning and Assessment Unit, University of Illinois, College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences. Needs Assessment Techniques: Using Nominal Groups (referenced as Nominal Group Process on this website)


NEXT: What support do natural resource professionals need and what options are available?

Natural resource professionals are not a homogeneous group. They exhibit a great deal of diversity in terms of their backgrounds, skills, and experiences. As a result, some individuals may be quite competent in effectively using certain tools without the assistance of an “outside” expert. Others may require the assistance of an “outside” expert. It is important to know when to work with an expert as opposed to doing assessments on your own.