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The University of Southampton
Doctoral College

Doctoral Researchers in the Field

Every year a number of our doctoral researchers undertake fieldwork as part of their PhD project. Some stay within the UK, others travel across the globe. Find out a little more about recent field trips and the work undertaken by our current doctoral researchers.


Heather Brown with Eda the pig in Samoa.
Heather Brown with Eda the pig in Samoa.

Our first blog post comes from Heather Brown. We are following Heather's fieldwork journey in Samoa, as she shares the reality of what it is like to be out in the field whilst reflecting on the experience.

Heather is a doctoral researcher in Centre for Environmental Sciences, Faculty of Environmental and Life Sciences, at the University of Southampton. The Leverhulme Trust and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) fund Heather's research looking into governance of disaster risk management and reduction in small developing islands.


Samoa: The beauty and the bites by Heather Brown

I am sat at my desk in Samoa eating taro chips writing this introduction to my research and my fieldwork in Samoa. This is my first blog post ever!! I want to show what the realities of fieldwork are and to secondly create a diary for myself to reflect on my own experiences.

I thank the Samoan people for welcoming me into their country, especially the ukulele band at the airport on arrival, that was ace. By being here and annoying some people in the process, I hope to increase our understanding of cyclone management and to reduce the negative impacts of cyclones. That is the plan... I hope it works out.

Samoa, an island in the South Pacific surrounded by clear blue ocean, coral and beaches looks like paradise. A trip around the island reveals countless views of the ocean, palm trees, waterfalls, pigs darting across the road with piglets in tow and stands of coconuts being sold to thirsty travellers.

The general feel is just like Moana the movie, me and my friends finally feel like we are living in a fairy-tale (one thing you don’t feel through Moana the movie is the hot sweaty heat or the mosquito bites!).

Represented in Moana is a strong Polynesian identity. In Samoa this is called Fa’asamoa, a way of life that provides direction in the way individuals stand, walk and talk. As an English person in Samoa this way of life is difficult for me to ever fully understand, but I have to try as it is here to stay and it is integral to the daily lives of Samoans.

Traditional governance structures, known as a Fa’amatai, are a hierarchical structure of Chiefs called matai. Traditionally Samoans live in villages formed of extended families, called aiga. Every family has a matai and every village has a collection of these matai that form a Village Council. The Village Council makes decisions on behalf of the village. Every untitled person in the village has a role, from helping with children at home in the fale (a Samoan house), weaving fine mats or helping cultivate the land.

Following independence in 1962, Samoa adopted a Western style governance structure much like the United Kingdom, a democratic parliament whereby the Prime Minister is the head of government. Unlike in the UK, elements of Fa’amatai have been incorporated into government processes. I feel like some people may be nodding off so I will swiftly move on to the reason why I am here (and nick named cyclone girl).

The real reason I am in Samoa, besides trying my best to get a nice tan, is to understand cyclone management. Since 1990 (the time scale of my study), Samoa has experienced six tropical cyclones. Tropical cyclones have had devastating impacts on livelihoods and development in Samoa. As an example, Cyclone Evan that hit Samoa in 2012 cost an equivalent amount as roughly 30% of Samoa’s GDP (in 2011) in recovery expenditures.

My study aims to understand the relationship between cyclone impact at the community level and disaster management at national and local level. By understanding this relationship I hope to illustrate ways cyclones have been managed in Samoa to reduce their negative impacts. We all want Moana to have a happy ending don’t we?

Samoa: Selecting case study villages by Heather Brown

My study involves interviewing village community members to understand how their experiences of cyclones has changed from 1990 to the present day. Over the last couple of weeks I have been organising case study villages in Samoa. I can use these villages to understand cyclone impact over time and to select participants for the interviews.

Villages are established on customary land. This means that the land where people live and farm does not belong to them. The land is managed by them but the land belongs to a Chiefly title. This Chiefly title is held by a person called a matai. Every extended family has a matai and every village has a collection of matai.

The collection of land held by matai and their family’s within Samoan villages often stretches from the coast right up to the top of the highest peak, this can be thought of as being ‘ridge to reef’. Villages have access to the coast for fishing and also land on the side of the Mountains for agriculture.

The majority of people in Samoa inhabit the coastal area of their customary land. The coastal population of Samoa is roughly 70%. Further inland the ridge becomes mountainous and steep proving difficult conditions to live on. The majority of villages are known as coastal villages, however villages have large inland populations. I aimed to select both inland and coastal villages for this study to compare the impacts of cyclones between them.

Most villages in Samoa are rural villages. The only urban centre in Samoa  Apia, is formed of a collection of urban villages. The characteristics of rural and urban villages in terms of their governance structure and hazards posed by a disaster differ. For example, urban villages may suffer from flash flooding and have less access to land to grow food. Rural villages may have less access to emergency relief, the Hospital and food shops.

Using census reports and a map I located villages with different distances from the urban centre and with similar population sizes. I selected three villages that fitted these criteria called Lelata, Lotofaga and Lotofāga. I chatted to a local collaborator to discuss the next steps in gaining permission to use these villages as case studies. 

Each village has a male, female and youth Government Representative. They work for the Government but live in a village. I met the Government Representatives through the Ministry of Women Community and Social Development for two villages. For one village I met a paramount Chief. In both cases my research was accepted and they helped me organise participants for my study. I will interview at least ten community members and undertake four focus groups (almost like group interviews) in each village.

Samoa: Undertaking interviews by Heather Brown

An integral part to my study are the interviews I have been undertaking with village community members to understand how their experiences of cyclones have changed from 1990 to the present day. After organizing case study villages in Samoa I have spent the past couple of weeks living in these villages where I have been undertaking interviews.

In villages I have been staying with local families. Each day I travelled around the village with a village member who could speak both Samoan and English. Together we would go from house to house to find suitable participants. The villages I am using have populations of 500-1000 and everybody knows each other. Using a village member to translate and help me find participants is helpful as they know everyone, however this may prevent participants being free with what they are saying.

Suitable participants for my study were over the ages of 40 years and who had lived in Samoa since 1990. Luckily lots of people in villages over the ages of 40 years tended to stay at home during the day. Of those most were women as men tend to work in plantations during the day while women tend to take care of children and the home.

After approaching participant’s homes my translator and I would usually be greeted with a warm welcome and offered a space on a fine mat to sit. My translator would explain the project and the participant’s rights in Samoan. Following consent we would begin the interview with me asking questions in English and my translator explaining the questions to the participants. They would then explain the participant’s answer back to me. I watched and paid attention when the participants were talking in Samoan. Facial expressions and tones give clues away as to what the participant is talking about.

Sometimes concentrating was hard when puppies, kittens and babies tried stealing my pens or playing with my lava lava. A lava lava is a piece of material like a sarong and is village dress code. I always tried to wear one while in the village especially when entering a family home.

In the interviews I would ask questions about the way participants lived over time compared to the way they had been affected by cyclones.  The three cyclones I focused on were Cyclone Gita in 2018, Cyclone Evan in 2012 and Cyclone Val and Ofa in 1990 and 1991. Most participants remembered the cyclones and even the older ones in 1990 and 1991 as they were so destructive. I noticed that the resilience of Samoan character meant that the cyclone knocking over the houses did not leave lasting impressions on many of their lives, they simply built a knew home and moved on. I had to ask lots of question to really get the participants talking about the finer details of the ways the cyclones had affected them.

The interviews took roughly 30 minutes to an hour depending on how chatty the participants were and how many times we were distracted by the babies, puppies and kittens. Following the interviews participants would often provide my translator and I a gift from their plantations like a guava or a bunch of sweet bananas. One family took us on a tour of their plantation and I found out where peanuts come from, my predictions were very wrong, I can assure you they don’t come from a tree!

Samoa: The final month by Heather Brown

The final of four and a half months in Samoa approached very fast and passed by even faster. I have tried to cram in as much research (and sight seeing!) as possible in before I travel back to the UK. After collecting data from the three villages in Samoa over the past couple of months, the time came to briefly analyse the data and give some feedback to the participants of my study.

Firstly I needed to transcribe (write out) the interviews that I had recorded sound clips of. The life history interviews had parts in Samoan and English, I was lucky enough to find a teacher at the National University of Samoa who could translate and transcribe the interviews. This ensures that any information not translated to me during the interview could be picked up on in the transcriptions.

Once I started receiving the first chunks of transcribed interviews, I began using software to try to understand and find trends in the data. I used Nvivo Software that helps organise and undertake qualitative data analyses. From the life history interviews I was primarily trying to understand how disaster outcomes had changed over time in the three case study villages.

I organised and undertook meetings in two of the three case study villages with the participants of the life history interviews to share the main outcomes of the interviews. The main outcomes we discussed included changes to cyclone outcomes related to housing, food security and income. Perhaps in a later blog post I can share the findings with you too.

The experience of sharing findings back with my participants was very rewarding and also very valuable. It gave me and the participants a chance to validate some information that I or they did not agree with or were unsure about. It also provided them with further chance to ask questions about their role in the research and how it will benefit them.

Following custom I provided the participants with a meal and they gave me gifts, this act of gift giving is commonly undertaken during a fa’alavelave (a function or event). The participants provided me with gifts including coconuts, papaya, banana chips, lavalava (material used as a sarong), puletasi (formal Samoan dress), necklaces, hair flowers and tablemats. There were so many gifts I couldn’t fit them all in my suitcase!

Before the village meetings I also presented a seminar at the National University of Samoa with some geography students, we discussed why studying disaster governance from a community perspective was important and my experience of researching in Samoa. The seminar provided a chance for the students to offer up some ideas regarding my research that I hadn’t yet considered.

I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Samoa especially beach and waterfall trips at the weekends and evening paddles in outrigger canoes, but now its time to pack up my paddles and start my journey back to the University of Southampton.

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Path through a Samoan Village on the island of Manono in the Apolima strait between the islands of Savai’i and Upolu.
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Samoan style bus at a coach station in Apia.
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Samoa is in the South Pacific ocean and is formed of two large islands and nine smaller islands. Four islands of Samoa are inhabited. Source of map:
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Traditional fishing boat that belongs to a family living on the coast.
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Ford over a road. This road is the main road from rural villages to the urban centre.
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Inland fales (Samoan houses).
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Basket weaving using palm leaves on a fine mat.
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My translator wearing a lava lava with her adopted calf, Lucky.
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After the interviews families often gave a parting gift such as fruit from their plantations. In this case the family offered some lunch of pumpkin and noodle soup, banana and taro in coconut cream.
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A Samoan home called a fale apa. This is a family home made from wood and iron, raised of the ground to protect from flooding.
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Reminding myself how to use Nvivo Software.
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Some gifts presented at a village feedback meeting. Banana chips, coconuts, tablecloth, lavalava (sarong) and a papaya!
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Evening paddle in a outrigger canoe.
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