Beliefs and attitudes of Caribbean girls about whales: An approach to understanding cultural identity with implications for conservation education

Nathalie F. R. Ward (2001)

This case study examined the beliefs and attitudes about whales among seven adolescent girls from the whaling island of Bequia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines. The purpose of the study was to reveal the sources and scope of the girls' knowledge and experience, and their interpretation of culture-specific attitudes that define use, contribute to conflict, and enhance protection of whales. The research was based on the assumption that to change attitudes about endangered species problems, the practitioner must develop a methodological approach to assess the sociocultural role in shaping concern and commitment about environmental issues. Conducted in February and March 2000, this multi-method investigation combined participatory learning and action research, expressive-arts techniques, and descriptive ethnographic instruments. The data revealed that knowledge about whales was learned primarily through socially mediated experiences, with minimal focus on formal learning or media communications. Eleven knowledge categories emerged including physical characteristics, social behavior, sensory capabilities, ecological requirements, and cultural use. Within those discrete categories, factual knowledge was generalized and biological concepts were Respondents characterized a culture-specific typology of eleven attitudes including survival, cultural, symbolic, appreciative, affectionate, religious, scientific, ecologistic, negative and mastery attitudes. American and Bequian attitudes were contrasted to define the range of influences that support or negate a conservation ethic. Appreciative and affectionate attitudes were the most significant conservation promoters, followed by environmental attitudes (scientific and ecologistic). Utilitarian (survival) and fear-based attitudes (righteous, mastery, negative) were perceived as conservation deterrents. Cultural and symbolic attitudes were viewed as cross-cultural attitudes, wherein the strength of cultural expression varied depending on ambient political and environmental factors within the culture. The research process advanced an evaluative method for understanding cross-cultural positions, and reflecting and analyzing differences. Expressive arts techniques provided a safe zone for respondents to articulate their beliefs and attitudes, and offered a framework for considering new perspectives. The girls' attitudinal orientations suggested that curriculum design focus on adolescent interests of reproduction, social and familial concerns. The importance of using local people for assessment, as well as partners in the design of relevant environmental curricula, were significant implications for conservation education in the region.