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The course “DIY-sustainability. Ethnographic approaches to urban activism” (teacher: PhD Dorothea Breier) was designed as an interactive course, open to students from different disciplines. 

The first step was to become familiar with issues and discussions related to urban grassroot activism and its link to sustainability and the United Nation’s SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals). Then, we learned about the benefits and how-tos of qualitative research methods, like doing qualitative interviews and the use of photos provided by the interviewee.  

These two steps prepared us for our next task: finding local grassroot projects in Helsinki that appeared relevant to the theme and doing an individual small-scale study on one of them, by interviewing activists involved in it.

What we wanted to find out

Before the interviews could take place, we carved out research questions that we wanted to explore. Answering those was meant to connect the individual studies and give a larger picture on DIY initiatives in Helsinki and their efforts in making a change in Helsinki.

The image below shows the main ‘umbrella question’ that would guide all interviews, namely how DIY-initiatives make a sustainable impact in Helsinki. The colourful post-its show the questions we came up with during a brainstorming session, which were then condensed into more general sub-questions (1-4). Based on those questions, we created individual interview guides for our chosen projects. 

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How we did it

The idea behind qualitative, ‘semi-structured’ interviews is to not have a fixed set of questions to ask one by one. Instead, the interview should be more of a fluid discussion, allowing the interviewee to bring up issues that are important to them, regardless of whether the interviewer had planned to talk about them or not. This requires flexibility and openness from the interviewer to leave the prepared questions aside and go with the flow of the conversation. The tricky thing is to keep the balance of giving space to the interviewee to tell their stories, while still not losing track of what one intends to find out. 

We were free to discuss issues we considered important regarding our chosen project. However, in the final task – presenting the findings of our studies as blog posts – we responded to the research questions, providing a coherent evaluation of how DIY-initiatives can make a sustainable impact in and on Helsinki.

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