The relationship between people and monkeys is complex, to say the least. Depending on who you’re talking to, monkeys are cute, cheeky, devious, naughty, frightening, creepy – the list goes on. Go a little deeper and more specific, and you find that even among forest and wildlife conservationists or researchers, certain types of monkeys can be either the least favourite animal to encounter or are vigorously defended by those who’ve focused on their charms. So, what about the study of this fascinating interface between people and monkeys? How do we pick apart what people are saying about the monkeys they encounter, and why is it important to do so?
I have been working with Barbary macaques for the past five years, watching them in their home range in north Morocco and gaining an understanding of the complex factors influencing their conservation status. When I talk to people about the macaques, the easiest way to explain what species I mean is to say, ‘you know, the ones that live in Gibraltar as well’. Famous (or infamous) for a multitude of reasons, the population of Barbary macaques on Gibraltar is interesting for its current and historical relationship with the people whose land it shares. A quick internet search of ‘Gibraltar macaques’ gives an impression of a fractious and sometimes divisive situation – newspapers run with headlines about monkeys biting tourists or angering residents by damaging property, and articles about culling show the difficulties of this as a wildlife management decision. What I and my co-authors wanted to try to understand was: what goes on behind the headlines? Is the situation as black and white as it appears to be on the surface, and if not, why not?
There are various ways to investigate what people think, and what their behaviour or words really mean. A method that often springs to mind for researchers is questionnaires or surveys, which can capture a large amount of responses in a short time and can be analysed in ways a lot of us feel comfortable with – using numbers, statistics and graphs. Coming to greater prominence now, though, are ethnographic methods – ways of approaching research qualitatively to gain an in-depth understanding of the nuances of a situation. The ethnographic method people are most familiar with is participant observation, but as many researchers are painfully aware, there are costs associated with such research; these costs are prohibitive for many. We wanted to conduct a study using information available on that most ubiquitous of sources, Facebook – a resource that, aside from the cost of an internet connection, is financially much more accessible to a great number of people. Having, some time ago, encountered a public group dedicated to discussion of Gibraltar’s Barbary macaques, we decided to use discourse analysis to try to grasp the complexities of people’s feelings about the macaques, and to suggest ways of easing the more difficult parts of the human-macaque relationship in Gibraltar. We used free online software to make it easier to organise and analyse the Facebook posts, and began by seeing what themes arose from the words therein. As expected, the discourse revealed a lot of complexity in people’s perceptions of the macaques and their feelings about living in such close proximity to animals that resist simple classification and cannot easily be either revered or vilified.
If you are interested in reading more about Gibraltar’s macaques, our methodology, or the theories behind the research, you can see our published paper by clicking the button below.