Dr. Robert Adlam
June 5, 2000
Summary of Presentation

Fish Talk: Research Technique and Experiential Learning Tools

My methodological approach employs qualitative research techniques and experiential learning tools in a community-based setting. A conference paper and a conference workshop are recent products of this approach. The conference paper reports on work undertaken among aboriginal fishers of the Miramichi river of northern New Brunswick. The conference workshop draws on extensive experience with oral performance narrative and its value to community members as well as researchers in offering important glimpses into the dynamics of community life.

The conference paper entitled: The Discourse of an Aboriginal Fishery (Adlam, 2000) draws on an extensive collection of recorded interviews with Aboriginal fishers conducted over the course of three summers of fieldwork. Here particular attention is given to the discourse of these fishers, taken to mean their 'talk' about the fishery. Indeed it is through such discourse that the fishery is at once created and transformed reflecting in part past practice based on family gill net operations, and in more recent years, the experience of a highly regulated and waged trap net operation. But this discourse is far from static or necessarily clear-cut. In fact it provides ample evidence of shifts and ambiguity depending on the circumstances. However, it is also more than just 'talk' about the fishery since it is constitutive of actions and decisions made in the fishery. What emerges from an analysis of such material in this instance are two competing discourses, one emerging out of the Aboriginal Fishery Strategy (AFS) process, while the other speaks to an unencumbered aboriginal right with respect to traditional waters. As well, I think it significant that each contains a critique of the other's position. Broadly, then, the paper contributes to our understanding of the discursive construction of economy especially as this relates to the practices of aboriginal riverine fishers.

The conference workshop entitled: Drama as Our Lives: Oral Performance Narrative and Indigenous Skills Development was delivered at the Conference on Participatory Development held last August at the University of Ottawa (Adlam, 1999). It draws on oral performance narrative and dramatic technique as experiential learning tools well suited to the task of community-based research. It is collaborative and transformative, offering opportunities for growth and change. As developed through the three-hour workshop, drama is used to transform the stories of participants into action. The source of these stories are typically the experiences they share with others in their communities. Transforming these stories into dramatic events means looking more closely at the nature of their interpersonal relationships and at their communities more generally. For researchers, these dramatic events offer important glimpses into the dynamics of community life. For participants, scripting their stories for dramatic purposes is at once instructive and reflective offering opportunities for growth and change. As such, the workshop offered an opportunity for community development researchers, educators and activists to explore ways of facilitating community participation in a wide array of activities, programmes, and issues. By means of small group activities, participants learned how to set up a project using drama, scripting and performance technique.



  • Is Scientific and Investigative
    • takes the position that human behaviour and the ways in which people construct and make meaning of their worlds and lives are highly variable and locally specific
    • designed to discover what people actually do and the reasons for doing it
  • Uses the researcher as the primary tool ...
    • uses the researcher as the principle means of data collection through systematic observation and recording
  • Emphasizes the perspective of local people ...
    • we often do not know what will happen in field situations - need to be adaptable and resourceful
  • Is Inductive...
    • moving from specific cases to general explanatory statements
    • may be of practical value in solving problems identified by researcher and key people in the place where the research is conducted

Research Design: Choice of design entails three main factors

  • The questions the investigator is trying to answer
  • The resources (time, trained personnel, and money) he or she has at hand
  • The characteristics, including the constraints, of the research site or setting


Initial tasks in creating a research design ...

  • Framing the initial research question
  • Building a conceptual starting point, preliminary theory, and hypotheses or hunches
  • Identifying characteristics of an appropriate population to study and locating that population
  • Finding and obtaining access to an appropriate research site
  • Identifying and establishing relationships with relevant research partners


More technical considerations ...

  • Develop a data collection plan
  • Design appropriate data collection methods
  • Establish analytic procedures
  • Develop ways of protecting the identity of research participants and the confidentiality of the information they provide, and for treating them ethically [see Guidelines for Informed Consent -- see below]
  • Establish guidelines and procedures for interpretation, dissemination and utilization of research results (Adapted from LeCompte & Schensul 1999:1-3, 63)


Guidelines for Informed Consent

  • A clear statement of the purpose of the project;
  • A clear statement outlining how the information is to be used (course essay, report, manual etc.);
  • A statement making it clear that participation is voluntary;
  • A statement which assures the respondent of anonymity;
  • A statement which assures the respondent that the information will be held in confidence, if so requested;
  • A statement which addresses the issue of informed consent of the participant;
  • Names, addresses, phone numbers, and e-mail addresses of people to contact (your instructor and the Head of the Department) for questions or comments.


Narrative Inquiry

  • Anthropology has a long history of using the accounts of single individuals - key informants or cultural experts to develop a picture of beliefs and practices of a community
    • Such individuals are chosen because they are quite knowledgeable

  • Apart from the life histories of such individuals, it is also common to collect narratives - accounts of specific life experiences
    • such material provides rich descriptions of particular events, situations and personal histories

  • They usually are generated by individuals in the course of talking about their life experience
    • they may appear as entries in diaries or journals, as part of interview transcripts or oral histories

  • Compiling such narratives from a number of people may serve as a way to develop a composite picture of a group's experiences

  • Narratives focus on knowledge, belief and practices
    • they are used to study how people practice their profession, how they have learned to carry out tasks, and how they come to know about their world
    • as Clifford and Marcus [1986 Writing Culture] suggest, they may also be a way to 'give voice' to people not well understood by mainstream society

  • Various types of narratives
    • may be more or less a chronological account of a person's life, career or set of experiences
    • can be obtained from interview transcripts
    • may be a series of episodes, fantasies or philosophical musings
    • may or may not reflect the structure of 'grand narrative - plot, setting, characters, conflict, conflict resolution, moral or summing up
    • but one must be careful to not impose their own structure on the discourse of participants
    • such discourses may call attention to details of practice as well as to the experience of marginalized individuals


Picture Narratives


The aboriginal communities of the Miramichi river of northern New Brunswick entered into AFS [Aboriginal Fishery Strategy] agreements in 1992. Although these agreements have brought Miramichi Mi'kmaq into the regulatory and management process, providing training and employment as well as commercial possibilities, concerns continue to be expressed about the equitable distribution of these benefits within the aboriginal communities and the overall effect of these agreements on 'existing' aboriginal and treaty rights.

This exercise uses a Picture Narrative to examine issues of social change and possible alternatives in conflict resolution.

The Picture Narrative consists of two parts:

  • Picture Narrative: a collection of six photographs taken during research on the Miramichi river from 1997-1999

  • Performance Narrative: one of the scenes in the narrative is dramatized to allow participants to become involved in the narrative, to analyse what has already occurred, and to discuss possible strategies to deal with this situation


  • to develop an understanding of the process in which community members are involved as they recognize their new life circumstances

  • to create sensitivity to the plight of community members and an awareness of their needs

  • to understand the impact of development processes on entire communities.


Picture sets (4)
Flip chart or board
Props for dramatization
Set of questions
Pens, pencils, markers, glue sticks, masking tape