Date of Award


Document Type

Open Access Dissertation



First Advisor

Kirstin Dow


Participatory science research initiatives within the natural sciences like citizen science or crowd sourcing have enjoyed a recent explosion in popularity due to the efficient and expansive data collection processes they foster and the opportunities for general science outreach and education they provide. Now often the tool of choice among informal science outreach practitioners, Public Participation in Scientific Research (PPSR) programs are purported to expand knowledge and understanding of science and ecology, increase the relevancy of science for society, and cultivate more environmentally sustainable attitudes and behaviors. Despite such claims, the influence and impact of participatory science engagement is still not fully explored or understood. Questions remain regarding the range and extent of program outcomes and impacts on participants, social-cultural systems, and the scientific endeavors supported. In particular, the experiential aspect of volunteer engagement in PPSR programs is not fully theorized.

Being inherently place-based, all in-situ participatory science involves relationships among participatory science participants and the places where they engage. Such people-place relationships provide the fabric through which beliefs, values, and attitudes about the environment form and evolve, with substantial influence on both perceptions of and adherence to environmental stewardship practices. As such, the geographic concept of "sense of place" is utilized in this research as an empirically underdeveloped, yet theoretically robust, entry point to explore how participatory science volunteers make connections between embodied experiences and behaviors and how such interactions may shape perceptions, values, and attitudes towards science and the environment.

This study examines the relationships between people and places in an expansive participatory science program that extends along the west coast of the United States. The Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team (COASST) is a citizen science program now in it's fifteenth year dedicated to the regular monitoring of coastal environments and seabird mortality and population health along four U.S. states (AK, WA, OR, CA). Using qualitative methodology to collect data via guided narrative tour interviews and focus groups, this inquiry concentrates on the ways through which place attachment, connection, and meaning influence the cognitive and affective outcomes of participatory science volunteers.

Findings suggest that PPSR experiences can indeed support and facilitate the development and expansion of multi-dimensional place meaning and attachment. Participants noted a complex set of meanings that inform sense of place, including those associated with the symbolism of nature and the ocean, the significance of social and community interactions, and the importance of opportunities to contribute to science and the environment. Numerous aspects of the socio-political contexts, psycho-social processes, and biophysical settings that shape sense of place were also highlighted, underscoring the interactive nature of people-place relationships. Aspects like the species, substrates, and geographic features found at COASST survey sites, the policies and social norms that govern interaction with place, and the unique motivations and interests of participants were all examined in this analysis. Such material-semiotic interactions help emphasize relationships between place meaning, spatial dependency, and place attachment. Finally, programmatic variables that also mediate participant sense of place were uncovered, bringing attention to the many elements of PPSR program development and management that shape the cognitive and affective experiences of volunteers.

In addition to the practical value of this research, a focus on the significance of people-place relationships in participatory science adds a dynamic layer of knowledge to our understanding of socio-ecological systems, including how individuals connect to and perceive the natural environment, cultivate relationships with other humans and non-humans, and negotiate human-environment interactions. Focusing on the place-based processes and actors involved in participatory science meaning-making helps make sense of complex interactions among people and the natural world. As more citizens engage with science and environmental research and decision-making via participatory efforts, integrated frameworks from which to understand these interactions and how they shape larger aspects of nature-society relationships will become increasingly necessary.


© 2014, Benjamin Kent Haywood

Included in

Geography Commons