So I warn my readers that this post will be rather dry, as I try to explain what I would like to accomplish with my research in the Recife area of Brazil. Officially, the title of my project is “Developing a Pragmatic Tool for Historic Environment Practitioners: Exploring Ways in Which Sociocultural and Experiential Meanings Can Be Dynamically Assessed to Inform the Conservation of Historic Urban Landscapes.” Dropping the academic tone, a better way of saying what I am attempting to accomplish is empowering communities to identify, protect, and treat their own built heritage and how the values generated from this process could be used to guide planning and regulation. I have explored the theoretical foundations of this work elsewhere on this web site.
I am proposing to explore how to create a built heritage management tool that engages communities as equals in a values-based dialog with professional heritage practitioners. This tool will be based on social science research methods (such as used by anthropologists and sociologists) within the context of community-based participatory research. This tool must therefore be pragmatic, efficient, and easy to administer by professional heritage practitioners who do not have social science training and will act as community facilitators.
It is essential for me to identify a community that would like to work with me in developing this tool within a case study. This community should have an interest in conserving specific heritage buildings, structures, and/or landscapes using alternative methods for the identification and treatment of this heritage. One possibility might be to partner with a community that is not satisfied with the traditional heritage conservation tools and methods traditionally used by heritage experts. In other words, this case study must be guided by the social and cultural values of local community members and not necessarily by the value system used by professional heritage experts.
In sum, I want to answer the following question: Is it possible to develop a pragmatic, efficient, and easy to administer social science research methodology for use by heritage practitioners, and if so, how can this be accomplished?
On the face, perhaps this work may seem relatively easy, but such a tool must be able to be administered by heritage practitioners that do no necessarily have any training in social science research methods. In most countries around the world, degree programs that address the design or the heritage of the built environment do not mandate training in social science research methods; instead, there is an emphasis on art/architectural/local history, building documentation, regulation/laws, and perhaps materials conservation. In other words, there is an emphasis on the objective qualities of heritage, and not on the relationship people have with heritage. Unless a heritage practitioner already has social science training elsewhere, he/she won’t receive this education in most heritage conservation degree programs.
If there’s a single guiding mantra for my work, it is this: If we assume that built heritage conservation is for the benefit of people, then we ought to understand more about people and their relationship to heritage. And, while the social sciences are certainly far from perfect in understanding people and place, they offer the best tools that we currently have. But–and here’s the real issue–social science research methods are not used in most heritage management/planning processes and they are not used at all within heritage regulatory environments. Am I naive to expect to be able to create a working tool that can immediately be used by practitioners? Quite possibly, but this really isn’t my goal. If I can at least provide information about what may or may not work, others can build on my work, and perhaps such a tool can then be made. Or, maybe the outcome of my research will be that the social sciences and the regulation of built heritage are like oil and water–there is no way to make them mix (unless there is some magic emulsifier out there!). I would like to know the answer, as I hope many other heritage practitioners and academics would as well.