Connecting the spots

Notes on migration and environment from a geographical perspective

Luise Porst

Luise Porst

Luise Porst is a research associate and PhD candidate at Bonn University. She did her master’s programme in spatial planning with a special focus on developing countries and she also holds a degree in human geography. As a member of the TransRe junior research team, her academic work is particularly focused on internal migration in Thailand and its effects on resilience to environmental risks in sending areas.

Nov 3rd 2015 by Luise Porst

Combining methods in environment-migration research – gains and trade-offs

At the end of September, the TransRe team participated in a workshop on combining different methodological approaches for studying the interrelation of environmental change and human migration – a topic which the TransRe team has been and will be occupied with over the entire course of this project.

As we’re seeking a “better understanding of the climate change-migration nexus,” participants of that latest workshop of the COST Action on Climate Change and Migration: Knowledge, Law and Policy, and Theory met in Seville, Spain, to tackle the issue of mixed-method approaches in research on the climate change-migration nexus. Although the concluding workshop in the COST Action workshop series, harnessing the potentials of combining quantitative and qualitative methods and especially improving the integration of designing, collecting, and analyzing procedures are of course works in progress. How to integrate diverse methodologies and methods? What’s the added-value? And how to grapple with challenges this approach comes with? These were key questions which participants discussed during the two-day workshop.

Researchers from the Universities of Liège, Neuchâtel, Lund, Hawaii, Copenhagen, Prague, UNU Bonn as well as practitioners working on migration and environmental issues in the science-policy interface gave insights into their experiences with combining methods and making proper use of this approach when analyzing research data.


The mixture of methodologies and methods in current European-based research on environment-migration is a recent trend, as Guélat and Piguet pointed out when presenting a typology of methods used in case studies in the last 4 ½  decades – listed in the Climig Database . Only a small proportion of environment-migration research combines quantitative and qualitative methods. However, over the last 5 years, it seems mixed-method approaches have gained popularity.

As one case in point, van der Geest presented the experience of UNU-EHS (Bonn) in combining household surveys, expert interviews, and PRA over the course of their recent studies conducted in the context of multiple projects in which UNU was involved: EACH-FOR, Where the rain falls, PCCM. Besides refinements, which have been made in terms of the application of methods in the field, it is necessary to adapt research designs as well. As was pointed out, although, and in fact especially because we intend to comprehend the complex interrelation of climatic changes and migration, the focus must not exclusively be placed on migration as one adaptation strategy of households and communities. Likewise other such strategies that qualify as or improve households’ capacities to cope with or adapt to climate-related risks or to transform livelihoods in the face of changes, have to be accounted for at the same time.

Also researchers from the Universities of Lund and Liège, involved in the MECLEP project, outlined their lessons learnt, and challenges to tackle in designing and conducting interdisciplinary household surveys in their diverse project countries. What is more, Blocher and Gemenne shared their conceptual and methodological reflections on testing in how far migration serves as an adaptive strategy posing two main questions – adaptation for whom, and from what vantage point; migrant, sending area or community of destination. 

More inspiring examples of studies combining or planning to combine quantitative and qualitative methods were given in the course of the workshop, as well as on specific integrative methods such as Agent Based Modelling or approaches such as “Borderscapes” in environment-migration research. The latter in particular enables the deepening of qualitative approaches towards deconstructing current discourses on climate change and migration – claiming that “bordering” implies “ordering and othering – and unveiling political agendas behind the endeavor of containing migration.

Representatives of IOM and IDMC gave insights on the issue of defining and distinguishing the various categories of movements of people, as well as of monitoring migration movements.

TransRe’s contribution to the workshop

For our contribution to the workshop, we outlined our methodological approaches and data collection activities during our joint and individual field stays in Thailand (and Singapore) this year. Based on our overarching research question as well as each sub-project’s individual research objectives, we combine a standardized household panel survey and methods of the PRA toolkit to analyze the vulnerability of livelihoods in rural Thailand, as well as social network analysis to understand the role of networks in building resilience, multi-sited research to investigate social practices of translocality, and a stakeholder and policy analysis in the field of climate change and migration in and beyond Thailand.

Core issues in terms of combining our quantitative and qualitative methods are the integration of the different project dimensions as well as benefits and challenges which we have identified so far.

As we’re interested in deciphering what role translocality plays in terms of resilience of households and communities in rural Thailand toward climate-related risks, each of our individual sub-project methods in the “field” complement each other in collecting comprehensive data on households’ livelihoods and (translocal) social practices converging in and shaping rural places in Thailand. In terms of content, we capture a range of different sections of each issue revolving around the overarching subject of socio-ecological effects of migration on areas of origin in rural Thailand, by mixing and combining our methodological approaches in order to bring to light detailed and complementary results. On a more abstract level, these complementing results are meant to then feed into conceptual and theoretical consolidation. Altogether the integration of our mixed methods comes into effect on three levels: it encompasses our empirical work, the content level, and theoretical progress. 

Besides a number of benefits the combination of quantitative and qualitative methods holds, such as triangulation of information and complementation of data, it also comes with certain challenges. So, on the one hand, we do gain a more in-depth understanding of the structural context and of individual households, as well as their practices. And we also take perceptions of multiple household members on diverse relevant topics into account, i.e. on livelihood vulnerability, on migration experiences, and family relations, for instance. On the other hand, coordinating all our research activities in a somewhat limited “field” – although spread over 4 rural study areas – and avoiding their saturation with research altogether, invite compromises. Moreover, working on such a project in a team of 6 researchers and several research assistants obviously requires a lot of time and resources – although our empirical work does benefit from the diversity of scientific and cultural backgrounds among team members. And what is more, due to the multitude of diverse theoretical methodologies, the overlap of methods might not always appear perfectly seamless.

Nevertheless, and as has also been corroborated in this recent workshop, the combination of methods clearly adds value to studying climate change-migration interrelations since a wide variety of factors shape this specific facet of human-environment interaction.


Image credits: Simon Peth;