Features

Taxonomy embraces new tech

We got the ‘green’ in green issues from the chlorophyll in plants. But the botanical world – which drives the planet’s ecosystems – is the Cinderella science, struggling for resources and recognition, struggling even to keep up with the rate of extinction. And there’s a reason for that – or quite a few, says Oxford Professor of Systematic Botany, Robert Scotland.

While arbitrary international targets are set for ‘saving species’, loss is very much a reality in the funding-strapped world of plants. The truth is, plants have been disappearing at the rate of at least two species a year, every year, for the last 250 years (but that’s a very conservative estimate, we don’t really know). 

There are a lot of unknowns - and very big numbers - in the world of plants. Of the 370,000 known species of flowering plants, at least half are so poorly known they are almost invisible to any conservation effort

There are a lot of unknowns - and very big numbers - in the world of plants. Of the 370,000 known species of flowering plants on Earth, at least half are so poorly known they are almost invisible to any conservation effort - as fewer than 25% of flowering plants have a conservation assessment. In terms of insects, the situation is even worse: with just one million described species out of an estimated 6 million. To put these numbers in context, altogether there are some 36,000 birds, mammals and butterflies – about which much more is known.

We do know that about 40% of all land has been claimed for agriculture, so the assumption is that many plants and insects have already disappeared. But we do not really know. It is estimated because of this that more than half the plants in the world’s collections are mislabelled. Imagine for a moment, how significant that (big number) is. If 50% of plants in collections have an incorrect name, what does that mean for our understanding of one of the biggest living groups on Earth? And what does it mean for conservation?

Plant taxonomy, the approach that could sort this situation, does not fit into the zeitgeist - science by innovation

The fact is, plant taxonomy, the approach that could sort this situation, does not fit into the zeitgeist - science by innovation. There is innovation in plant science. Professor Scotland’s team embraced all the technological advances available, including DNA and phylogenetic trees – earlier this year to create a door-stopping monograph of Ipomoea ‘morning glories’. But the science, the pain-staking taxonomy of identifying and recording many known specimens in a species and creating a monograph, is unadulterated, hard-core botany. It may not be good TV, but it is fundamental and good science.

 No Luddite, when walking his dogs, Professor Scotland enjoys using Google Lens to identify UK plants. ‘The app is often right in context of UK plants that are very well known,’ he says, surprised, although pleased to be able to catch it out.  But the Professor stands by the science of monography, carefully cataloguing and classifying plants as the most effective way to bring order to the chaos of the botanical world - and make long-term progress.

It is essential, says Professor Scotland, to get to grips with what is there, before it is possible to save it. But at the moment, given a business-as-usual capacity, recent Oxford research has shown it takes about 100 years to discover a plant species, at the most basic level. From collecting the first specimen of a species, to describing it as new, and then gathering 15 correctly-identified specimens of that species, it can take a century.

According to a research paper from a team including Professor Scotland and Dr Zoe Goodwin of Edinburgh, some 40 years is the initial discovery phase – that’s from when the sample is brought in by a plant collector, to when it is identified by a botanist.

But, such is the lack of capacity in the system for taking this further, it can then be another 60 years before the next stage is completed and the 15 samples are gathered, as supporting evidence. It is a tortuous process. It impedes progress and action, but it is essential to identifying species.

What chance of achieving conservation targets, when there is no accurate inventory of plants? What chance can there be of a completed inventory of plants, when it takes 100 years even to reach a basic understanding of a species?

What chance of achieving conservation targets, when there is no accurate inventory of plants? What chance can there be of a completed inventory of plants, when it takes 100 years even to reach a basic understanding of a species? How can this process be speeded up, when there is little interest or support for monographic taxonomy and no coordinated international policy – and half of collections are mislabelled? The task is simply enormous – and that is before we even get to thinking about conservation and biodiversity.

 Targets for climate change are clear and comprehensible. But when it comes to plants, the 2010 targets – for instance, to have conservation assessments for all plants by 2020 - were ‘pie in the sky’, according to Professor Scotland, ‘Well-meaning but out of reach’.

He maintains, ‘The most recent high-profile policy suggestion is to simplify the message, as was done for climate change scientists, where the aim is to limit global warming to two degrees C.  The suggested unified biodiversity target is to limit species’ extinctions to 20 species per year for the next 50 years.’

But, a clearly exasperated Professor Scotland says, ‘This target is impossible to implement, given the lack of basic knowledge of the world’s biodiversity

When it comes to plants, the 2010 targets...were ‘pie in the sky’, according to Professor Scotland, ‘Well-meaning but out of reach’

In fact, he says, most of the Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) international targets, from 2010-2020, ‘were doomed to fail’. 

In simple terms, Professor Scotland explains, ‘There is no global strategy for sorting out the taxonomy of flowering plants and insects, so understanding the conservation status of many tropical plants and insects is simply not possible....unless you know what is there, how can you save it or monitor its health?’

Professor Scotland is not recommending an unreconstructed return to Victorian botany as a solution to the world’s problems. But, he insists, it is essential to tackle the huge gaps in knowledge before significant global targets can be made.

Why does it matter?

Clearly a cricket fan, he maintains, ‘Taxonomy is a front foot approach [attempting to tackle the issue, rather than taking a reactive approach]. But we are a very long way from any willingness [internationally] to see something worthwhile in this, despite the evidence.’

Much can be learned from the experience of creating the Ipomoea monograph. Although they were following the path of the first monographer, another Scottish-born Oxford botanist, the celebrated Robert Morison, Professor Scotland and the team confronted the very modern reality of the international plants problem. It was clearly a seminal experience. 

It is tempting for the team to reflect that not much has changed in the 300+ years since Morison created the world’s first monograph [of the carrot family].  But taxonomy is in some ways more difficult now than in the past, because of the huge number of specimens that now exist, a voluminous messy literature and many names associated with a group (60-70% of published plant names are usually synonyms). Years of effort was needed to identify the many specimens of Ipomoea in collections around the world - many were synonyms, as the same species had been ‘discovered’ and named multiple times.

If you’re attempting to monitor the health of biodiversity and extinction accurately, you need to know what’s there. We’re never going to get to a comprehensive system where we know everything, but we are a very long way from knowing even half of the world's biodiversity in any detail

Professor Scotland maintains, ‘On the one hand there is a huge diversity of plants, which is a great resource for humankind. But it needs sorting out.

‘On the other hand, if you’re attempting to monitor the health of biodiversity and extinction accurately, you need to know what’s there. We’re never going to get to a comprehensive system where we know everything, but we are a very long way from knowing even half of the world's biodiversity in any detail.’

Goodwin et al 2020 How long does it take to discover a species? Systematics and Biodiversity  

10.1080/14772000.2020.1751339

 Wood et al 2020. A foundation monograph of Ipomoea (Convolvulaceae) in the New World 2020, PhytoKeys. 10.3897/phytokeys.143.32821

Muñoz-Rodríguez et al 2019. A taxonomic monograph of Ipomoea integrated across phylogenetic scales. Nature Plants 5, 11, 1136-1144. 10.1038/s41477-019-0535-4

Modern foreign languages

Professor Katrin Kohl of Oxford's Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages has written a letter to The Guardian calling on Ofqual to 'urgently adjust grade boundaries and implement proper quality control for Modern Foreign Languages (MFL) exams'. The letter has been signed by 150 university teachers, and The Guardian has also published a report on the issues raised. Here, Katrin Kohl gives further details about how the design and grading of exams are affecting MFL subjects and the pupils studying them.

Languages have long been considered ‘difficult’. The reasons are obvious – you can’t make progress without learning lots of vocabulary, you have to get your mind round illogical grammar rules and avoid getting discouraged by mistakes when applying them, and you project yourself publicly as an ignoramus every time you open your mouth to practise speaking. Moreover, words and rules are almost as quickly forgotten as they’re learned. Add to this the fact that English native speakers already know the most useful language in the world including the language of the internet and dominant pop culture, and it’s hardly surprising that foreign language learning in the UK is suffering.

There are many joys and rewards in learning languages, too – cognitive benefits, cultural enrichment, communicative empowerment, sense of adventure, creation of a new identity. Yet these require careful nurturing, patience and time. And time is in particularly short supply in crowded school timetables.

Powerful measures are needed if the difficulties are not to win the day. The most effective one is making the subject compulsory at school. In other European countries that’s normal. In England, that battle was lost in 2004 when the Labour government made languages optional at GCSE. Further nails were hammered into the languages coffin with the intensive promotion of STEM subjects as a career advantage, the abolition of the fourth AS subject from 2016, and the push towards fewer GCSEs with the reformed qualifications. Counter-measures by the government such as the EBacc and compulsory language teaching at primary level have not succeeded in reversing the trend.

There’s now widespread alarm at the rapid loss of language skills as schools reduce provision and universities close language departments. The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages has demanded a Recovery Programme; the British Academy has issued a Call for Action together with the Royal Society, Academy of Medical Sciences and Royal Academy of Engineering; and the Arts and Humanities Research Council has invested some £16 million in research programmes designed to give languages a shot in the arm.

Meanwhile the spotlight is on the GCSE and A level exams in Modern Foreign Languages – are they fit for purpose? This is all the more critical in a context where other factors are impacting negatively on the subject. Yet schools report that it’s primarily the difficulty of the course and exams that is prompting learners to drop the subject. There are two interconnected issues here. One is ‘severe grading’. The other is the intrinsic difficulty of the exam papers, which in turn generates courses that are too demanding and makes for stressed teachers and learners. The exam regulator Ofqual is ultimately responsible for both issues since it oversees the work of the exam boards and maintains standards across subjects.

After some ten years of complaints from teachers, five years of support from the higher education subject community, and several consultations and research studies, Ofqual acknowledged last November that grading in MFL A levels is indeed, as teachers had claimed, ‘severe’ and that French, German and Spanish A levels are ‘of above average difficulty’. Yet Ofqual decided not to make an adjustment to the grades.

A consultation is now underway for a similar exercise with GCSEs in MFL. The decision expected in the autumn. So what about the impact of severe grading? Ofqual has been amassing statistical proof to show that there is no causal link with falling numbers. But can that possibly be the case? Which learner, parent or school will go for a subject that has statistically been proven even by the exam regulator to be ‘severely graded’ and thereby put the student’s university place at risk?

A key factor underlying excessive difficulty of the language exams for English learners is the presence of native and near-native speakers of the language in the exam cohort. This factor is unique to Modern Foreign Languages and it was partially addressed by Ofqual in 2017 with a small one-off adjustment to A level grading in French, German and Spanish. But what hasn’t yet been acknowledged is their effect on the exam papers.

This is significant, especially for smaller languages where the proportion of native speakers tends to be highest. Research commissioned by Ofqual showed that in the German A level sample, almost half the students gaining an A* were native-speakers, while at grade A, they made up almost a fourth. These are invisible to examiners, exam boards and Ofqual when it comes to scrutinising marks profiles. So even if the exam is far too difficult for non-native speakers, there will be enough marks gained at the top end to suggest the exam is working.

In fact an examiners’ report for the 2018 A level in German indicates that there may be insufficient awareness of difficulty as an issue. In the case of a reading comprehension question concerning a grammatically highly complex sentence with a word very unlikely to be familiar to an English learner, the examiner comments that the question ‘discriminated well. A few candidates answered this correctly and gained a mark’. The sample answer given in the report for this part of the exam is likely to be by a near-native speaker.

Learners, then, face a triple whammy – a rushed, stressful course that can’t possibly prepare them thoroughly for the exam at the end of it; a demoralising exam experience that makes them feel failures; and a grade that is below what they would get in another subject for equivalent performance.

So what’s to be done? There’s a window between now and Ofqual’s autumn decision for a change of direction. Ofqual needs to acknowledge the overwhelming evidence of anomalies in Modern Foreign Languages assessment – and act:

  1. Reopen the question of A level grading, and carry out the necessary adjustment to eliminate ‘severe grading’.
  2. Simplify the exam papers, and ensure that the exam boards start working with robust criteria for controlling the level of linguistic difficulty appropriately for non-native speakers.
  3. Gain better understanding of the impact of native and near-native speakers on exam papers, marking and grading, and make the necessary adjustments for all languages so non-native speakers are rewarded appropriately.

The subject community in schools and universities is keen to support this endeavour. If Ofqual does not address these matters now, language learning in the UK will face an inexorable further downward spiral caused by unrealistic expectations, exam difficulty, severe grading, irreversible loss of provision in schools and universities, and an intensifying teacher shortage.

You can read Ofqual’s response to the Guardian article and letter here.

Read Professor Kohl's letter to Ofqual, plus supporting documents on the Creative Multilingualism website.

Persepolis

In the summer of 2015, Peter Frankopan published his book The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, described by Bloomsbury as ‘a major reassessment of world history in light of the economic and political renaissance in the re-emerging east’.

Just three-and-a-half years later, the book has been named one of the 25 most important works translated into Chinese over the past 40 years. The Silk Roads takes its place on the list alongside literary classics including Pride and Prejudice, The Great Gatsby, Catcher in the Rye and One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Professor Frankopan, Professor of Global History at Oxford and Senior Research Fellow at Worcester College, described himself as ‘flabbergasted’ to be chosen for the list, which was compiled by Amazon China on the 40th anniversary of Chinese reform and opening-up.

He said: ‘When I was told about it, I thought it was a wind-up. Many of the books on the list are ones I admire hugely, and to be mentioned in the same breath as The Great Gatsby, One Hundred Years of Solitude, or A Brief History of Time is genuinely astonishing. I realise that tastes come and go, so who knows if it will still be mentioned in 25 years’ time. But it is a great testimony to the importance of the humanities in general, of history, and of the impact that historical writing can have far beyond the Senior Common Rooms of Oxford.’

The Silk Roads challenged Eurocentric views of world history, shifting the focus east of the Mediterranean. It became a bestseller in a host of countries and categories, and was met with widespread acclaim. A follow-up work, The New Silk Roads, was released last year and explores more recent events.    

In Professor Frankopan’s own words, by writing The Silk Roads he was simply ‘trying to explain how the past looks from the perspective of the Eastern Mediterranean, Middle East, Central Asia and beyond’.

He added: ‘I’ve been a Senior Research Fellow at Worcester for nearly 20 years, and Director of the Oxford Centre for Byzantine Research since it was founded nearly a decade ago. I simply wanted to explain why the regions, peoples and cultures that I work on are not just interesting, but also important. It was not easy to write at all and I spent many, many late nights at my computer trying to work out if it was possible. I never thought for a moment about whether lots of people would read it. But I did think it was worth trying to write!’

Reflecting on the book’s success, Professor Frankopan – who has just published an illustrated version of The Silk Roads for younger readers – said: ‘It’s been a lovely – if sometimes strange – experience. This week alone, I’ve had tweets or Instagrams from people sending pictures of my book from bookshops in Norway, Indonesia, Nigeria, India and Pakistan, and lots of emails from all over the world, often asking questions about what to read next, or for more information about a specific location, which I always try to answer if I can. But I don’t think it has affected me – we have four children, who do a pretty good job in keeping my feet on the ground. And because, like most academics, I always have deadlines for articles or chapters in books, there’s never a great deal of time to bask in the sunshine as I’ve got too much to be getting on with as it is.’

careers

'What are you going to do with a degree in Classics / English / Maths?' is a common question, often from parents, and particularly when compared with apparently more vocational degree subjects. The question becomes particularly loaded when the prospective student is from a non-traditional background, and perhaps is the first in their family to consider going to university.

Analysis of the first career destinations of the Oxford undergraduates who left in 2017, shows that there is no statistically significant difference in career outcome associated with any of seven different measures of social background. This result is contrary to the national picture; it also confirms the result that we found for the Oxford leavers of 2015.

By career outcome, we used three measures: the proportion of students unemployed and looking for work, the proportion in a 'graduate-level' job, and the average starting salary. While there are, of course, other measures of career success, including satisfaction, happiness, feeling of doing something worthwhile, and intellectual challenge, all of these are difficult to quantify – so we use what is widely and reasonably reliably available. The career measure is taken from the Destination of Leavers from Higher Education (DLHE) survey of all leavers, six months after leaving. Again, we all recognise that higher education can equip graduates with life skills – and surveying five, 10 or 20 years later would be more helpful. As an aside, the DLHE is now changing to a Graduate Outcomes Survey, taken 15 months after leaving.

By social background, we used seven measures: two post code assessments (ACORN, a postcode-based tool that categorises the UK's population by level of socio-economic advantage; and POLAR, a similar tool that measures how likely young people are to participate in higher education based on where they live); ethnic background (black and minority ethnicity (BME) and white); school type (state and independent), Oxford's 'Widening Participation' (WP) flag (which is used to determine students who are from disadvantaged backgrounds); Oxford bursary holders; and household income (£0-£16,000, £16,000-£25,000 etc.).

Effectively we found no association between social background and initial outcome. While there are some differences in starting salary for some groups (for example, a higher proportion of BME students than of white students, start work in higher paying sectors such as banking and consulting), once the analysis controls for the industry sectors each group enter, that difference is not significant.We analysed whether there was any statistically significant difference in the three outcome measures (unemployment, graduate-level work, average salary) for the different populations of students on all seven measures. For example, BME versus white students, state versus independent school students, WP-flag versus non-WP-flag students, and so on. We ran the analysis for the whole University of Oxford and for each division (Medical Sciences; Maths, Physical & Life Sciences; Social Sciences; and Humanities) separately.

In particular, it's worth noting that there is no difference in outcome for students from households with incomes below £16,000 per year versus everyone else.

This is a very welcome and reassuring result of which Oxford can be rightly proud. The University can confidently tell all prospective students, regardless of their school type, ethnic group, postcode, or household income, that their career prospects are not significantly affected by their background.

At Oxford, the answer to the opening question, 'What are you going to do with a degree in Classics / English / Maths?' is 'almost anything.'

Jonathan Black is the director of Oxford University's Careers Service.

Overcoming the challenges of Rural Surveys in Developing Countries

Field researchers, Dr Giacomo Zanello, Dr Marco Haenssgen, Ms Nutcha Charoenboon and Mr Jeffrey Lienert explain the importance of continuing to improve survey research techniques when working in rural areas of developing countries.

News about big data and artificial intelligence can leave the impression that a data revolution has made conventional research methods obsolete. Yet, many questions remain unanswerable without working directly with (and understanding) the people whose lives we are interested in. In development studies research, survey research methods therefore remain a staple of data generation, and survey data generation itself remains an active field of debate. In today’s blog, four researchers showcase recent methodological advances in rural health survey research and the advantages they bring to conventional research approaches.

Reaching People at the Margins, 25% off! (Dr Marco J Haenssgen, Centre for Tropical Medicine and Global Health, Nuffield Department of Medicine)

Generating representative data from rural areas of developing countries is a real challenge because often we lack detailed and dependable information on the local population, which makes drawing a sample very difficult. However, recent technological revolutions that we are rather familiar with – the Internet, mobile phone technology, satellite navigation – can also facilitate our work in survey research. Satellite maps in particular help us to:

(1) Select villages more rigorously: We can use satellite maps to generate or verify geo-coded village registers (e.g. censuses or the US National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency) to draw geographically stratified samples. Geo-stratification ensures that we do not accidentally select only “easy” villages that represent less constrained lifestyles in the rural population.
(2) Identify and select houses within the villages more inclusively: Conventional methods to draw a sample of households require either a very laborious enumeration process by going from house to house to establish a sampling frame, and/or are likely to exclude households and settlements at the fringes of a village (e.g. a “random walk”). By using satellite images to enumerate all houses in a village, not only do we save a lot of time and money, but we can also ensure that all parts of a village are represented fairly.
(3) Reach survey sites more efficiently: The logistical benefits cut as much as 25% off the conventional survey costs and time, which can save up to £5,000 for a PhD-level survey (400 respondents in 16 villages) and £40,000 for a medium-sized two-country survey (6,000 respondents in 139 villages).

We need to appreciate that satellite-aided sampling approaches are only an addition to our survey toolkit. They do not work well in urban areas, with mobile populations, or in regions that we are not familiar with. But where they work, they are a real alternative to conventional survey approaches and can make projects feasible that would otherwise be prohibitively expensive, without compromising quality.

Taking Energy Measurement From the Lab to the Field (Dr Giacomo Zanello, School of Agriculture, Policy and Development, University of Reading)

How much energy do you burn during the day (at your job, doing household chores, or at the gym) and is this “energy expenditure” in balance with the calories you take in with your food and drinks? Historically, to answer this question, participants had to spend time in a sealed chamber in a lab which measures the change in oxygen levels while performing activities. While this provides an accurate estimate of energy use, this method is quite impractical to understand real-life settings, particularly for remote areas in a developing country context. It is in these contexts where calorie deficits are most pressing, and yet we do not know much about farmers’ energy use, differences across gender and age groups, or variations of energy use across the seasons and during health or climate-borne adversities.

Recent technological advances allow the measurement of energy expenditures of free living populations to a scale and within a budget inconceivable few years ago. Using Fitbit-like accelerometers we can capture people’s movements and use this information to estimate calorie expenditure. By wearing these devices we follow people’s activities throughout the day, weeks, and seasons and use this information to estimate their energy use. This new glimpse into how people spend their energy can improve health research in multiple domains, for example:

• Having a more accurate assessments of the incidence, depth and severity of undernutrition and poverty,
• Estimating energy requirements for specific livelihood activities, or
• Studying the effect of health conditions and illnesses on livelihood activities.

These are just some possibilities, and the data collected through this innovative methodology extends beyond health-focused research. It also enables us to learn more about how labour is distributed within rural households in developing countries, or measure production in the household and the “informal economy” to produce better estimates of the size of rural economies.

Taking energy measurement from the lab to real-life settings is not without complications. We have to make careful decisions about the devices we use (e.g. easy to wear, not requiring user interaction, not attracting too much attention), build a trusting relationship with our research participants, and acknowledge that even accelerometer-generated data only offers a partial view into energy expenditure and daily activities. Yet even this partial view can afford a completely new understanding of people’s rural livelihood.

A Qualitative Research Update for Social Network Surveys (Ms Nutcha Charoenboon, Mahidol-Oxford Tropical Medicine Research Unit)

Health and treatment hardly take place in isolation – people around us influence our behaviour, give us advice, or lend us a ride to the hospital. Public health information campaigns, too, are subject to people’s relationships because they might be communicated further or even be instrumentalised for political purposes. Perhaps it is no surprise then that there are calls for more social network research on health in developing countries, but such research faces difficult questions, like how do we ask elicit the names of people in these networks, and how we can match these names in place where one person might be addressed in several different ways (e.g. “Old Father,” “Leader,” Yod Phet, and Ja Bor).

How can we overcome such difficulties? One possibility is cognitive interviewing, consisting of a set of interview techniques to test and interpret survey questions. Among others, interviewees are given survey questions and asked to “think out loud” on how they understand and answer the question, to paraphrase the question in their own words, or to explain village life and the local context. Such information gives researchers a better grasp of local social networks, living arrangements, and people’s understanding of social network questions. In our study in rural Thailand and Lao PDR, it enabled us to drop irrelevant questions, add questions to map health social networks more comprehensively, and to identify mechanisms to locate named contacts within the village more effectively.

But beware of surprises when you carry these methods over to developing country contexts because they tend to assume Western communication norms. Our research participants felt uncomfortable when asked to articulate their thought processes or to answer “why” questions. To cope with such complications, the methods themselves need to be adapted to context, for example by being more closed-ended and by adopting more conventional semi-structured interview techniques.

Shining New Light on Health Behaviours (Mr Jeffrey Lienert, Saïd Business School and National Institutes of Health)

When people get sick, they do not just make a one-off treatment decision like “I’ll go to a clinic / a private doctor / a pharmacist” and stick to it for the remainder of their illness until they are cured. Rather, they go through several phases. For example, a person might first wait and see if it the illness would not go away by itself, then later decide to buy some painkillers to cope with it, visit a private doctor when things do not get better, then lose hope in modern medicines and visit a traditional healer. We gain a lot of information about people’s behaviour if we collect such data on treatment “sequences.”

Not only is it rare for studies to record treatment sequences at all, but there are also no agreed tools for their analysis. First ground has been broken with sequence-sensitive analyses to produce more accurate typologies of behaviour, but we can go further and apply network analysis techniques to make maximal use of sequential data. More detailed analyses can differentiate between the individual steps, explore whether sequences of behaviour resemble each other across people, and which kind of social network is most decisive for such a resemblance. The downside of these arguably more complex analyses is the technical skill required to perform them, but once these methods become more established, they will be able to us to give more detailed (and realistic!) behavioural profiles of different settings and social groups with revolutionarily new insights for health policy.

Methodological innovation enables easier, more precise, and new ways of understanding human behaviour. That does not necessarily mean “big data” and algorithms. Innovation also arises from new combinations of conventional methods with other established techniques and new technologies. Combining rural health surveys with satellite imagery and accelerometers, social network surveys with cognitive interviewing, and healthcare access data with social network analysis does not just keep the methodological debates in survey research alive. It also enables new research, new questions, and a new view on human behaviour.

This blog entry derives from the authors’ contributions to the ESRC NRCM Research Methods Festival 2018 Conference in Bath, drawing on research from the projects Antibiotics and Activity Spaces (ESRC grant ref. ES/P00511X/1), Mobile Phones and Rural Healthcare Access in India and China (John Fell OUP Research Fund ref. 122/670 and ESRC studentship ref. SSD/2/2/16), and IMMANA Grants funded with UK aid from the UK government (ref. #2.03).