UNT anthropologist uses EAGER award to study collaborative decision-making

Wednesday, May 14, 2014 - 19:03

DENTON (UNT), Texas -- When two people disagree about something each feels passionately about, communication can be frustrating. When groups must work together to meet common goals, communication can be even more challenging. University of North Texas professor of anthropology Christina Wasson has received a National Science Foundation EAGER grant of nearly $25,000 to study collaborative decision-making processes -- how different constituencies negotiate viewpoints around complex issues. As defined by NSF, the EAGER, or Early-concept Grants for Exploratory Research, awards support "high risk-high payoff" research -- exploratory works in the early stages of development that are potentially transformative for their use of novel approaches and ideas.

Currently under way and due to be completed in late summer, Wasson's project, "Integrating the Analysis of Decision-Making in Meetings with the Analysis of Network Interactions in the Study of Environmental Governance," focuses on group decision dynamics related to environmental resource management. While analytical tools have long been used to study decision-making in business contexts, these tools have not been applied to environmental contexts, said Wasson. Yet environmental planning has increased in the last 20 and 30 years.

"Because a number of stakeholders are typically involved -- from government bureaucrats and scientists to activists and community members -- there has been a shifting trend for planning decisions to reflect these diverse perspectives, but how to do this effectively is not yet well understood," she said.

In her study, Wasson is following the decisions of a committee that recommends city ordinances based on an evaluation of environmental issues. She is analyzing what she calls "front stage behavior," or how people interact with each other during meetings, including how they frame issues. She and team members are reviewing video recordings of meetings to observe conversations and communication patterns.

"Individuals might agree on the goal, but disagree on the strategy," said Wasson. "Different expertise, understanding of terms, use of language, assumptions and even attitudes all affect dialogue. People must find a way to effectively communicate despite these differences."

Information is also being gathered from outside the meetings. For this Wasson turns to grant collaborator Julia Gluesing, a business anthropologist at Wayne State University in Detroit. Gluesing analyzes online communication patterns -- how individuals use the social network such as e-mail, blogs and websites. Wasson and Gluesing are interested in learning if and how these conversations influence each other.

"We know social networks influence how people understand and feel about a topic. The same is true for the media. It is important to consider these influences in analyzing stakeholder negotiations," said Gluesing.

The grant is a pilot study that Wasson anticipates will develop into a larger project that could help groups develop effective collaborative processes.

About UNT's College of Public Affairs and Community Service

The College of Public Affairs and Community Service blends academic programs, applied research and collaborative external partnerships to provide innovative education and strengthen metropolitan communities. The college offers programs that were established as the first of their kind -- including emergency administration and an academic certificate in volunteer and community resource management. Two programs, rehabilitation counseling, and city management and urban policy, are ranked by U.S. News & World Report in the Top 20 nationally (13th and 8th respectively) and both are first in Texas. The college also offers the first accredited master's program in applied behavior analysis in the world and the first online anthropology master's program in the nation. Other academic programs include alternative dispute resolution, applied gerontology, criminal justice, disability and addiction rehabilitation, public administration, social work, and speech and hearing sciences.

Julie West, University Relations, Communications and Marketing

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