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The Permaculture Research Handbook, edited by Pippa Chapman, Rosie Sinfeld and Chris Warburton-Brown

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The Permaculture Research Handbook, edited by Pippa Chapman, Rosie Sinfeld and Chris Warburton-Brown

Published by The Permaculture Association, 2014.

48pp. Free download under “Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported” licence. https://www.permaculture.org.uk/sites/default/files/page/document/research_handbook_version_1.5.pdf

I give this book 8.5 out of 10 acorns.

I realised some time ago that permaculture has an ongoing problem with a poor basis in empirical research: others have realised the same thing, leading to accusations of woo and pseudoscience. Perhaps worse, it's getting in the way of the development of good practice. I'm not going to revisit my thoughts on that here. It came as some relief when I found that the Permaculture Association in the UK are making an effort to address this problem with their own research programme that they are actively attempting to turn into a citizen science effort, including an International Research Network (get excited!) for which see here: https://www.permaculture.org.uk/research

This booklet is a short publication aimed at helping anyone with little or no research experience to get started.

That's not to say the authors are underqualified: it appears they split the effort into workable chunks for several authors, and most of them either have PhDs or are working on them.

The authors of this booklet use the SADIMETS (survey, analyse, design, implement, maintain, tweak and share) process which may already be familiar to you from permaculture design. The chapters themselves are no more than a few pages long, and give a simple introduction to the research process.

The discussion in Chapter 1 discusses what research is and how to recognise good research. One of the common characteristics of pseudoscience involves trying something and seeing if a change follows it. For example, someone I know told me she gave homoeopathic “medicine” to her pet; the pet then got better and she insisted this proves homoeopathy works. While she gets a point for having a remedial grasp of the placebo effect, she loses several for having no concept of validity and experimental controls. I see this over and over again in what passes for much “research” in permaculture, leaving me wanting to scream at my laptop.

Designing good research involves surveying your own goals and resources, and then conducting a similar survey of existing knowledge. Analysis takes your research question from the general to the specific, followed by the design of your investigation. This is where it starts to become relatively complicated, but one of the real strengths of this booklet is the fact that it's written in clear language.

I like to think I have a decent command of the English language, being able to understand complex material in my own areas of interest. The inability or unwillingness to even attempt to make the language open to a general reader is one of the things limiting science to an elite, and I think it's important that changes. The authors of this booklet lead by example.

This is also demonstrated in the chapter on the implementation and maintenance of the research, and in the chapter on evaluation of your data – including a clear, simple introduction to descriptive statistics. Note that the link to free statistical packages no longer works. That is currently here: http://freestatistics.altervista.org/

One of the points over which permaculture has been – fairly – criticised is that many of us overgeneralise. Much research that is merely indicative is taken as proof, and we have overgeneralisation and overblown claims. Carefully following the advice given in the chapter on tweaking and reflection, which also introduces the standard method for writing your results up.

In some ways I think much of the chapter on sharing results might have been better placed in the Introduction. There are important reasons for sharing the results of our research but, to me, the key reasons for this are the reasons for doing the work in the first place.

This is a very handy booklet, which should get you started on conducting your own research into permaculture, and one it's worth keeping handy.
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