‘Learning for Landscapes’ – reflections and insights from a knowledge co-production workshop in South Africa

This article reflects on a recent workshop held with practitioners working on collaborative landscape-scale stewardship initiatives across South Africa.

Banner - connected landscapes research & learning + subtitle

We came from all different corners of South Africa to find common ground: …all the way from the West Coast: fynbos vegetation, commercial potato farmers and precious estuaries… all the way from the Marico Bosveld: thorny country with precious water resources, fiercely proud locals and the ever-present threat of mining… all the way from the Midlands of KwaZulu-Natal:  hard-working farmers and agricultural landscapes covered in plantation forestry and dairy … all the way from pastoral grasslands: herders care for cattle which provide livelihoods and socio-cultural identity… and all the way from many other diverse contexts and projects, with a variety of stewardship objectives and practices.

We came from all different walks of life and work: local NGOs working with farming communities, leaders in large national NGOs asking questions about how they do the work they do, academics asking questions about how to do transdisciplinary research with landscape-scale stewardship initiatives, international NGOs piloting innovative facilitation and knowledge co-production processes for collaborative restoration of landscapes.

And we converged on ‘The Knoll’, on a small farm outside the village of Hilton in KwaZulu-Natal (South Africa), to learn and connect with one another!

It was surprisingly easy to find common ground: It turns out we were all committed to ‘Research and Learning for Connected Landscapes’, and we worked together to ponder these questions:

  1. What are the enablers and barriers of stewardship at the local level?
  2. What are the processes that support collaboration for stewardship in multifunctional landscapes?


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These are the key research questions which I am exploring in my PhD at Rhodes University (Department of Environmental Science). My research is taking a transdisciplinary approach, by working across social and ecological disciplines, and co-producing knowledge in partnership between academics and practitioners. This convergence of ‘the young tribe’ of practitioners working in collaborative, landscape-scale stewardship initiatives across South Africa was the result of on-going engagements with these practitioners which culminated in a learning exchange workshop held in February 2017 as part of the knowledge co-production activities in my PhD. The pre-workshop activities included a broad survey across the country to identify suitable case studies for the more focused work. This was followed by a string of site visits to each of the six selected projects where I got to know the diverse social-ecological contexts in which the projects are embedded, and began gathering stories of their work in a ‘Learning Jar’ (see Panel 2). The six projects selected as case studies are:

  1. Baviaanskloof-Kouga-Krom Landscapes Project (Living Lands)
  2. Marico River Catchment Conservation Project (Endangered Wildlife Trust)
  3. uMzimvubu Catchment Restoration Project of UCPP (uMzimvubu Catchment Partnership Programme)
  4. Verlorenvlei Protected Areas Project (BirdLife South Africa & Wildlife and Environment Society of SA)
  5. WWF Grasslands Programme (WWF-South Africa)
  6. WWF Mondi Wetlands Programme (WWF-South Africa)

Blog piece photo panel 2 - stories

The workshop was designed with two primary objectives in mind:

  • Through innovative facilitation methodologies, to create an inspiring opportunity for participants to share lessons for building collaboration for stewardship, and build new networks
  • To collect insights and co-generate knowledge on collaboration and stewardship in landscape initiatives

The approach was based on U-Tools (developed by the Presencing Institute, based on ‘Theory U’ principles) and included activities such as dialogue walks, learning journeys, case clinics, and guided u-journaling. The intention of using these activities was to build a team spirit among participants through deep listening and sharing of personal experiences, and provide opportunity for self-reflection. These tools were complemented by knowledge-production activities such as the development of a ‘Map of Stories’ to set the scene and represent the diversity of contexts of the 6 case studies, and a ‘Map of Learning’ on which to capture and interrogate insights, lessons and findings throughout the workshop (See Panel 3).

Blog piece photo panel 3 - learning

So by now you’re hopefully wondering… what lessons did the tribe share and what now?

First and foremost, we learnt that we were glad to have found the other members of the tribe: Each project leader, in their local context or organisation is pushing the boundaries and innovating, working against a multitude of barriers to bring about change on the ground for improved stewardship. It can be lonely out there: there was a palpable sense of comfort, relief, renewed energy, in finding like-minded people, feeling free to express and share without having to explain too much, and feeling part of ‘a tribe’.

What lessons did we learn about building collaboration?

… that it takes time (at least 10 years), is resource intensive, requires particular skills and tools,

…that it may not always be necessary: localised, tangible stewardship actions and successes with individual farmers may be as important,

… that it can be extremely difficult and require personal sacrifices and that facilitators at the coal face need support systems,

… and that NGOs need to be catalysts and orchestrators of collaboration, but without the community and landscape taking ownership of stewardship, success will not be sustainable.

What lessons did we learn about enabling stewardship and overcoming barriers to stewardship?

… that identifying ways of ensuring tangible benefits of stewardship practices to farmers is important but difficult,

… that making links to market enablers and economic incentives can drive behaviour change and enable stewardship,

… that re-focusing stewardship on stewards, recognising their needs and priorities, and creating an enabling environment for them to become good stewards is an important starting point. This might mean doing things what do not seem directly related to the overall conservation outcomes we are striving for.

… that embedding stewardship facilitators in a landscape, for the long-term, and building meaningful relationships based on trust and mutual understanding is key to bringing about sustainable shifts to collaborative stewardship in multifunctional landscapes.

What did I, as a young scholar, exploring transdisciplinary research methodologies for place-based social-ecological research, learn from the experience?

… that facilitating knowledge co-production processes which emphasise both trust-building and knowledge building is a tricky tight-rope to walk: in this instance, I think we were more successful in building relationships, and did not have sufficient time to dig more deeply into the research questions,

… that the u-tools are a powerful means of bringing people together and creating ‘safe spaces’ for people to share personal experiences and self-reflect,

… that good food and drink, and beautiful outdoor settings are powerful enabling conditions for collaborative learning processes! (as provided at The Knoll!)

What now? The knowledge co-generated during this process will be incorporated into my PhD research, and I am in the process of analysing and writing it up. Furthermore, sparks of connection have been created through this learning exchange, and we hope that the various members of the tribe will keep in contact with one another. We have developed an online platform to share further lessons, resources, and information with the rest of the group in the future.

We all diverged back to our different landscapes, fields of work and research, and homes again after the two days. Keeping connected can be difficult, but this may just be the start of a new community of practice. I believe that the inspiration, energy and new connections that were made during this first gathering of this young tribe may have unexpected outcomes far into the future, and will be a positive force for good in the community of practitioners and researchers working on collaborative landscape stewardship initiatives in South Africa.

How are you building collaboration for stewardship? How are you using innovative methodologies for knowledge co-production? Connect with me on Twitter @jess_cockburn or drop me an email… let’s start a conversation to keep learning for landscapes: jessicacockburn@gmail.com

I would like to acknowledge the support and collaboration of my supervisors: Georgina Cundill, Mathieu Rouget,and Sheona Shackleton; fellow workshop facilitators: Catherine Andersson, Dieter Van Den Broeck, and Daan van Diepen, and workshop participants: Vaughan Koopman, David Lindley, Sue Viljoen, Ayanda Cele, Samantha Schroder, Marijn Zwinkels, Ancia Cornelius, Ian Little, JP Le Roux, Joyce Loza, and Nicky McLeod.

Jessica Cockburn is a PhD student in the Department of Environmental Science at Rhodes University, in Grahamstown, South Africa. This research is part of the PECS Working Group on Collaborative Governance and Management and was cross-posted from the SAPECS Website – Southern African Program on Ecosystem Change and Society.

Challenges of a change agent: Transformative methods or transformative process?

transformative methods or transformative process

Figure 1: Thought process of a reflective PhD Student-wannabe-change agent

Herewith a personal reflection: comments very much welcome!

I’ve recently been grappling with the question of methods in engaged, transdisciplinary research. I am about to embark on the field work for one of the in-depth case studies in my PhD and have been developing the research plan. In a nutshell, my research seeks to understand what kind of collaborative processes underpin shifts to stewardship (read: sustainable resource use) in agricultural landscapes. I’m taking a social-ecological systems approach in the research.

But let me go back few steps. Upon embarking on this PhD journey a year ago I made a commitment to myself (and the world at large…) that I wanted to do a ‘transdisciplinary PhD’ and that I wanted my PhD  to make a difference. Nice idea. Which I managed to write about quite nicely in my research proposal, and which I could find a lot of nice literature to back up.

Skip forward 6 months to the present: Reality check: I am about to head out into the field and need a plan. here it is:  I am planning to conduct a Social-Ecological Inventory and do lots and lots of qualitative interviews with diverse stakeholders in my study area to develop a detailed case study to answer my research questions. I will also be participating in workshops hosted by a local NGO where I will be doing participant observation and running post-workshop reflection sessions . All in all, a pretty standard set of field work methods.

So much for my engaged, transformative research methods which I committed to in my proposal.

What is a transformative method? What examples are there , out there, of transformative research methods? Anyone? (I’m starting to wonder where I got this idea in the first place…)

I’m not sure of the answer to those questions.

What I am sure of, for now, is that the methods which my supervisor and I have agreed on are scientifically sound, defensible, reliable ways of collecting the empirical data I need for my PhD in order to make a meaningful, novel contribution to science. Maybe now is not the time to flirt with ideas about transformative methods which we don’t really seem to know much about in social-ecological systems research (yet!).

Another thing I am sure of is that my overall research process is potentially more transformative than most conventional research approaches. I am engaging closely with a local NGO in developing the research questions and conducting the research, we’re endeavouring to co-generate the new knowledge through this process. I have also developed a small network of local practitioners in the field of sustainable resource use who have an interest in the research and with whom I am sharing the journey – whilst learning about the work they do in their projects.

So, I hope to have convinced myself by now, that I am okay and haven’t let myself down too much, because:

Even if my specific research methods are ‘standard’ or ‘conventional’, the fact that they are embedded in a interdisciplinary, engaged research process with tight linkages between theory in practice, means that my research does still have some potential to be transformative.

And, secondly, even if my specific research methods are ‘standard’ or ‘conventional’ they are scientifically robust and reliable, and will generate quality empirical data which I can analyse and write up to hopefully complete my PhD successfully. Which as my supervisor points out is my ‘licence to research’.

After that I can play with transformative methods and try to change the world…

 

Graduate students navigating social-ecological research: insights from the Long-Term Ecological Research Network

Very insightful and helpful paper for graduating students navigating social-ecological systems research, from a graduate student perspective! Hot off the press here: http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol21/iss1/art7/

BY: Sydne Record , Paige F. B. Ferguson , Elise Benveniste , Rose A. Graves , Vera W. Pfeiffer , Michele Romolini,  Christie E. Yorke, Ben Beardmore 

Abstract: Interdisciplinary, collaborative research capable of capturing the feedbacks between biophysical and social systems can improve the capacity for sustainable environmental decision making. Networks of researchers provide unique opportunities to foster social-ecological inquiry. Although insights into interdisciplinary research have been discussed elsewhere, they rarely address the role of networks and often come from the perspectives of more senior scientists. We have provided graduate student perspectives on interdisciplinary degree paths from within the Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) Network. Focusing on data from a survey of graduate students in the LTER Network and four self-identified successful graduate student research experiences, we examined the importance of funding, pedagogy, research design and development, communication, networking, and culture and attitude to students pursuing social-ecological research. Through sharing insights from successful graduate student approaches to social-ecological research within the LTER Network, we hope to facilitate dialogue between students, faculty, and networks to improve training for interdisciplinary scientists.

 

Invasive narratives

By Simon West

As inter-disciplinary scientists, how do we tell ‘catchy’ narratives about environmental change that stimulate policy action while also opening up for complex understandings?

A new paper in the journal Environmental Humanitieswritten with colleagues from the KTH Environmental Humanities Laboratory in Stockholm and the University of Cape Town, South Africa, explores this question in relation to so-called ‘invasive alien species.’

ABSTRACT Environmental narratives have become an increasingly important area of study in the environmental humanities. Rob Nixon has drawn attention to the difficulties of representing the complex processes of environmental change that inflict ‘slow violence’ on vulnerable human (and non-human) populations. Nixon argues that a lack of “arresting stories, images and symbols” reduces the visibility of gradual problems such as biodiversity loss, climate change and chemical pollution in cultural imaginations and on political agendas. We agree with Nixon that addressing this representational imbalance is an important mission for the environmental humanities. However, we argue that another aspect of the same imbalance, or representational bias, suggests the inverse of this is also needed—to unpack the ways that complicated and multifaceted environmental phenomena can be reduced to fast, simple, evocative, invasive narratives that percolate through science, legislation, policy and civic action, and to examine how these narratives can drown out rather than open up possibilities for novel social-ecological engagements. In this article we demonstrate the idea of invasive narratives through a case study of the ‘invasive alien species’ (IAS) narrative in South Africa. We suggest that IAS reduces complex webs of ecological, biological, economic, and cultural relations to a simple ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ battle between easily discernible ‘natural’ and ‘non- natural’ identities. We argue that this narrative obstructs the options available to citizens, land managers and policy-makers and prevents a more nuanced understanding of the dynamics and implications of biodiversity change, in South Africa and beyond.

 

Full paper available here.

How do we do what we do?

Place yourselves in uncomfortable situations. Such was the advice of Debra Roberts, one of the keynote speakers at the recent PECS conference in Stellenbosch, South Africa. Although I was inspired by her ideas, the conference also provided comfort, and I really appreciated the safe spaces where “young” scholars openly discussed how we do interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research.

How can young researchers do novel sustainability science that bridges different disciplines and engages societal actors in a meaningful way? How can we do this while still operating within conventional institutions and time constraints?

All of these questions were raised by early career scholars at the first conference organized by the Programme on Ecosystem Change and Society (PECS), which took place between the 3rd and 5th of November. It gathered about 250 participants interested in the social-ecological dynamics of the Anthropocene and transitions towards sustainable stewardship. Instead of just presenting our research results, we could share the challenges we face and the strategies we have developed to deal with them.

At a SAPECS (the South African branch of PECS) learning event before the conference, Christo Fabricius facilitated a discussion with about 30 young scholars around how to engage stakeholders in a meaningful way in our research. A recurrent theme was the need to have time to connect with people outside academia, build relationships and build trust. Time to actually listen to the needs of communities. But the emphasis on time also brought up a challenge: how, during a PhD, can we find time to both engage in a meaningful way with stakeholders and write high-quality scientific papers?

During one of the coffee breaks, Karen Esler shared some of her experience on this topic with Jessica Cockburn:

As Karen mentions, one strategy to deal with this tension is to make transdisciplinary research a team effort and not an individual endeavour. Your own PhD research can be part of a bigger project that is already established, where some of that time-consuming trust-building has already been done. Another strategy is to connect with partners outside the university that can facilitate the participatory process.

From this discussion I’m more hopeful that there are ways to work this out in the current system. However, in the longer-term, I still think there is a need to question the major incentive for researchers to allocate most of their time to producing scientific publications.

At the “young” scholars session during the conference, organized by Jessica Cockburn, Vanessa Masterson, Odirilwe Selomane and Marika Haeggman, we had a chance to further reflect on our competencies and identity as place-based social-ecological systems researchers.

One of the participants, Megan Davies, highlighted the difference between going into a familiar vs. an unfamiliar context to do research. Megan and I  both do transdisciplinary research with a municipality in our vicinity, in South Africa and Sweden respectively. This facilitates our understanding of the system, the power dynamics and the culture, and could also decrease the time needed for trust-building and stakeholder mapping. On the other hand, researchers working in a familiar context could have more pre-assumptions, and it could be difficult to be critical when research “subjects” are also friends and collaborators.

For panelists Joana Carlos Bezerra and presenter Shauna Mahajan, doing research in communities far from home raised other issues, such as not speaking the language, having to use translators, and relying on key individuals to access a community. One of the presenters, Johan Enqvist, reflected on whether “objectivity” in this type of research is actually more about reflecting and questioning our values and assumptions. By being critical, for example, and exploring the potential adverse effects of initiatives that we think are good.

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The ethical dilemmas we face in conducting transdisciplinary and place-based research was another important discussion point. By transdisciplinary research I refer to approaches that include multiple scientific disciplines (interdisciplinarity) and include the active input of practitioners from outside academia. Vanessa Masterson shared an interesting insight from her work in the Eastern Cape, South Africa, where she faced a dilemma in providing honest (critical) feedback to the community, which might jeopardize the relationship of trust she built with them during her research. How do we meet the expectations of the local communities we work with? Another panelist, Tom Chaigneau, proposed that instead of disseminating our findings, which are often complex, we could throw a party for the research participants!

For sure, there are no solutions that will fit all cases. Nevertheless, sharing our different experiences certainly provided new ideas and encouraged us to reflect on our roles as researchers. In the end, I think it is this reflection that will help us become better researchers. Here, I think this website has an important role to play. However, to strengthen and develop this reflectiveness and understanding of how to conduct inter- and transdisciplinary research, we also need to build institutional capacity. We need training for scholars early on in their PhDs, and we also need to create spaces and institutional cultures that encourage reflection.

The practicalities of engaging with society in social-ecological research

Just before the first ever Programme on Ecosystem Change and Society (PECS) conference this past November in Stellenbosch, SAPECS organised a pre-conference learning event for early career social-ecological systems researchers at STIAS; coordinated and facilitated by Christo Fabricius from Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU). The topic of the event was “Participatory Action Research in Social-Ecological Systems”, and the focus was particularly on discussing the principles and practice of doing this research.

game play outside bigger website

Role playing game. Picture by My Sellberg

The format for the day was three 15 minute food-for-thought presentations, each followed by an hour of dialogues and discussions in break-out groups, with a role-playing game between the morning and afternoon sessions. First Maria Tengö, who works at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, presented on the importance and usefulness of multiple evidence and the role of these evidences in participatory action research. This was followed by Dirk Roux from South African National Parks presenting and stressing the need to create space that enables authentic engagement, so called ‘third spaces’. Franck de Saint Simon was invited as a practitioner to share his experiences and insights on engagement; he told stories about engagement processes for various projects in West Africa and stressed the importance of first understanding the context in which you are working.

game play outside web

Break discussions.  Picture by My Sellberg

The role playing game simulated a public participation meeting in a remote rural area, with ‘researchers’, ‘consultants’, ‘officials’, ‘a politician’ and ‘rural communities’ discussing the pros and cons of building a large dam. Role players came to realize that ‘the community’ consists of diverse interest groups and that there are no simple solutions to society’s challenges.  The discussions, which were loosely based on the ‘Knowledge Café’ approach, revolved around the challenges facing early career researchers related to time management, ethics, expectations created in the engagement process, stakeholder fatigue and the role of feedback to participants to build trust and credibility in research projects. Feedback and active listening motivated participants to respond truthfully without merely giving the ‘right’ answers that researchers want to hear.

The group discussed changes needed in our attitudes and approaches in order to improve outcomes of participatory research, and made practical suggestions such as funder flexibility, embedding students within long term process-based projects, the value of pilot studies to determine mutual interest between researchers and society, and clarity and honesty about intent. The event created space for lively discussions and possibilities to link up with other existing initiatives. The feedback received from participants was extremely positive, with many commenting on the value of pre-conference get-togethers to form new and lasting connections.

For some reflections on the event, check out this blog post by one of the participating PhD students from the Stockholm Resilience Centre, My Sellberg, or watch this YouTube video featuring Prof Karen Esler from Stellenbosch University and PhD student Jessica Cockburn from Rhodes University discussing the tensions of engaging in a meaningful way with stakeholders while also producing high-quality scientific papers.

The organising committee was made up of Christo Fabricius, Karen Esler, Linda Luvuno, Odirilwe Selomane, Vanessa Masterson, and Lisa Heider. The event was partly funded by SwedBio. We thank everyone for their support in making this another successful SAPECS learning event and look forward to more fun learning activities in the future!
This post was originally posted on the SAPECS website.

Beyond Divides: Prospects for Synergy Between Resilience and Pathways Approaches to Sustainability

In the context of rapid social, ecological and technological change,there is rising global demand from private, public and civic interests for trans-disciplinary sustainability research. This demand is fuelled by an increasing recognition that transitions toward sustainability require new modes of knowledge production that incorporate social and natural sciences and the humanities.

The STEPS Centre’s ‘pathways approach’ and the Stockholm Resilience Centre’s (SRC) ‘resilience approach’ are two distinct trans-disciplinary frameworks for understanding and responding to sustainability challenges. However, the varieties of trans-disciplinarity pursued by the SRC and STEPS each have distinct origins and implications. Therefore, by selecting either the ‘resilience’ or ‘pathways’ approach, or indeed any distinct approach to sustainability, the researcher must contend with a range of foundational ontological and epistemological commitments that profoundly affect the definition of problems, generation of knowledge and prescriptions for action. What does an (un)sustainable world look like? How might we ‘know’ and research (un)sustainability? How should sustainability researchers position themselves in relation to civil society, policy, business and academic communities?

In this paper we explore how resilience and pathways address these questions, identifying points of overlap and friction with the aim of generating new research questions and illuminating areas of potential synergy.

Read the full article, written by a group of young SES scholars, here.

 

Critically reflecting on social-ecological systems research

Simon West, Diego Galafassi, Jamila Haider, Andres Marin, Andrew Merrie, Daniel Ospina-Medina, Caroline Schill

(Originally posted on the Resilience Science blog)

Critical reflection is a core competence for sustainability researchers and a crucial mechanism through which research evolves and breaks new ground. For instance, Lance Gunderson and C.S. Holling stress in the canonical social-ecological systems (SES) book Panarchy that SES research will develop through critical interrogation of their work and identifying where their heuristics do not apply. However, critical reflection can also be tricky – it requires moving out of safety zones, challenging established perspectives, and having open and frank discussions. Productive critical reflection also requires mutual respect, decency, and high standards of academic integrity.

For our critical reflection seminar Andrea J. Nightingale gave the talk, ‘Conceptualizing society-environment dynamics: social-ecological systems, socionatures, or something else?’

Prof. Nightingale is Professor inEnvironmental Social Sciences at theSchool of Global Studies at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden. Her work navigates the intersections between critical development studies,political ecology, and human geography – including a longstanding engagement with ‘socionatures’concepts (linked to theorists such asDonna Haraway and Bruno Latour). Prof. Nightingale was an speaker for the CRS – her 2012 paper ‘Resilience thinking meets social theory,’ written with Muriel Cote, critically examines the treatment of social change within social-ecological resilience thinking. It is often cited at the SRC as one of the more useful and engaging critiques of resilience thinking from a critical social science perspective.

Prof. Nightingale’s presentation sparked lively and exciting debate in the public seminar and the PhD workshops that followed (with PhD students from the SRC and the School of Global Studies, Gothenburg).

What follows is a narrative tracing Prof. Nightingale’s critique of SES research and the discussions it provoked. Prof. Nightingale’s comments have been paraphrased, and the subsequent discussions have been condensed into a single narrative voice for ease of reading (this should not be taken to mean that there was a single ‘unified response’ among the students to Prof. Nightingale’s comments). All omissions remain the fault of the authors of this blog.

A new Enlightenment from the old? 

Prof. Nightingale:

Our ways of thinking about the world are largely inherited from the Enlightenment era, where domains of “society” and “nature” were constructed as means of knowing the world. This system of thought allows for the construction of analytical objects that are clearly ‘natural’ or ‘social,’ and produces mechanistic interpretations of the world. Today we are finding these distinctions difficult to maintain and a profusion of research approaches – including resilience, social-ecological systems, political ecology, the livelihoods framework, assemblages, actor-network theory and socionatures – have emerged that challenge this division between humans and the environment. 

However, none of these approaches have yet managed to satisfactorily figure out how to think outside of the domains of ‘society’ and ‘nature.’ Imagine a forest: the forest consists of relations between all sorts of organisms, the structure of the forest is affected by the harvesting activities of people as well as by various other creatures, the biophysical processes of vegetation growth are affected by atmospheric chemistry, which in turn is shaped by human activities across the globe, the content of the soil reflects the chemicals used by surrounding agricultural areas, and perhaps the forest only exists because it sits on land designated as a “conservation area.” What in the forest is ‘social’ and what is ‘natural’?

Discussions:

Perhaps all emerging approaches to studying human-environment relations would recognize the Enlightenment heritage we are working with. Indeed, SRC Science Director Carl Folke in his new book Reflections on People and the Biosphere, suggests we are now entering a ‘new Enlightenment’ that recognizes interdependency of humans and the environment. The difficulty is conceiving of these relations in terms other than those we have inherited, while still thinking and speaking comprehensibly to a wide audience – are we hamstrung by language? The profusion of approaches to studying human-environment relationships has brought with it a flood of hyphens, plurals, and portmanteaus. However, existing terms such as ‘socionatures,’ ‘social-ecological systems’ and so on, are all to some extent reifying past distinctions. 

Are social-ecological systems interactions or processes? Are they characterized by feedbacks or emergence?

Prof. Nightingale:

New ways of understanding human-environment relationships can be broadly grouped into ‘interactional’ and ‘relational’ approaches in terms of their underlying ontologies. Interactional approaches include social-ecological systems, adaptive cycles, the livelihoods framework, and political ecology. Here ‘social’ and ‘ecological’ components are considered to be distinct but interacting; the focus is therefore on ‘linked’ or ‘nested’ systems and on the interactions across spatial and temporal scales. ‘Feedbacks’ are the crucial devices to understand human-environment dynamics, and the analytical imagery is largely of boxes with connecting arrows.

In contrast, relational approaches such as socionatures, assemblages and actor-network theory rely on a ‘process-based’ ontology. They insist that entities only come into being in relation to each other, and therefore that it is impossible to clearly distinguish social and ecological ‘components’ of a system. Human-environment dynamics are captured through the concept of emergence rather than feedbacks, and the imagery is of ‘hybrids’ or ‘cyborgs.’ Neither interactional or relational approaches are ‘right,’ rather, each allows us to see different things.

Discussion:

Despite emphasis on feedbacks, SES work is – like much of ‘socionatures’ – founded upon ontological commitments to emergence, complex processes, and co-production of social-ecological dynamics. However, distinctions between ‘ecological’ and ‘social’ components in SES research are often made in order to more easily measure and study human-environment relations. The assumption that we can analytically separate ‘social’ and ‘ecological’ in order to study emergent processes is a crucial tension that many SES researchers struggle with. 

Moreover, SES research is characterized by wide heterogeneity in ontologies and epistemologies. It is therefore difficult to make broad categorizations of ‘relational’ versus ‘interactional’ approaches. These difficulties are exacerbated by the fact that ontologies in particular are often not explicitly discussed. A more open discussion about ontologies and epistemologies, and how they are expressed and ‘connected’ in our work, will strengthen and clarify trans-disciplinary SES research. 

Analytical constructs or heuristics?

Prof. Nightingale:

When we discuss interactional and relational approaches, it is crucial to be aware that all science deals with signs (semiotics) – and therefore we need to distinguish between analytical constructs (which try to reflect reality and may offer methodological tools and entry points), and boundary objects (which act as metaphors, drawing attention to particular dynamics but not intended to directly reflect reality or to be directly operationalized). 

Without being aware of this distinction, there is a high risk of ‘slippage’ and confusing analytical constructs and boundary-objects or metaphors with ‘life itself.’ Social-ecological systems (and socionatures) are not ‘life itself’ – rather, each reduce it in particular ways. So the focus should be on how the concepts reduce, what aspects of life they allow us to see, and what aspects they obscure.

Discussion:

The debate about whether social-ecological resilience, adaptive cycles, and social-ecological systems are ‘boundary-objects’ – useful metaphorically and heuristically but not something directly observable/measurable – has been ongoing for some time. Indeed, it connects to broader historical debates about the ‘reality’ of ecological concepts. In a previous post on this blog, Allyson Quinlan has outlined the tensions inherent in widespread moves to measure resilience (considered by some to be inherently un-measurable).

While practising scientists may consider it self-evident that such representations are not ‘life itself,’ there is a risk that a lack of clarity on these issues can prompt ‘slippage’– especially when these concepts enter the public realm. For instance, the use and communication of concepts like ecosystem services, the anthropocene and planetary boundaries in academic, policy and public debates can become ‘ontologized.’ Concepts also play different roles in different realms – an analytical construct in one discipline may be used as a metaphor or heuristic in another (for instance the use of ecological concepts such as ‘metabolism’ and ‘rhizome’ as metaphors in socionatures); likewise a heuristic in academia may become something more ‘concrete’ in policy discourse. 

How do we ‘see’ and ‘know’ relations? 

Prof. Nightingale:

Just like Enlightenment thinking, SES and socionatures perspectives allow us to ‘see’ some things and not others. The ontologies and epistemologies we use provide us access to different realities (not different aspects of the same one). SES allows us to see how the character of systems are constituted from relations between things rather than only the qualities of things in themselves, how system dynamics operate within and across scales, and the importance of small-scale, rapid rate change for shaping large-scale, slower rate change. However, system components currently remain relatively discrete in SES models (obscuring the way that ‘components’ are often at once social and ecological), social processes are not as neatly ‘nested’ as ecological processes appear to be, and social scale does not correspond to rate in the same way as ecological scale tends to.  These are problems for SES because it means that social processes like learning, scale and governance are undertheorized, and currently cannot account for the dynamics of change considered central to social systems – such as power, politics and justice.

Relational thinking allows us to see the operations of power, politics and justice in systems, the inextricability of ‘social’ and ‘natural’ objects, and the process-based dynamics through which these objects come into being. But relational approaches generally have a poor understanding of ecological and environmental dynamics, a resistance to using established ecological methods (because of their ‘ontological baggage’), and carry unresolved tensions over bounding studies (where do networks begin and end), defining methodological objects, and developing methodological tools that keep ‘society’ and ‘nature’ together.

In conclusion, the challenge to Enlightenment thinking represented by these new approaches to human-environment relations is easier to operationalize conceptually than methodologically, and fundamental questions remain over the consequences of our simplifications and abstractions. No approach is ‘life itself’ but rather a particular rendering of reality – so questions turn to the role of the researcher, what kinds of role they play, and what kind of change they are trying to effect. Moreover, no research strand has ‘figured it all out yet,’ and satisfactorily overcome the ‘society’/’nature’ divide. Some crucial further questions are: How do we develop new research tools that can ‘see’ process-based dynamics and objects that are at once ‘social’ and ‘natural’? How do we retain attention to power and politics while also attempting to speak for other species (beyond anthropocentrism and ecocentrism)? Who decides what change is desirable?

Discussion:

Firstly, is ‘not seeing’ justice, power and politics a problem for SES? If all approaches and frameworks only ‘see’ certain aspects of the world, wouldn’t ‘not seeing’ only become a problem if the end goal of SES approaches was to develop a theory of everything? Is this what we do or imply? Or is the problem rather that justice, power and politics may potentially be crucial to the operation of SES and we are ‘missing out’ by not including them in our work? 

Secondly, is it the case the SES necessarily does not see power, politics and justice? Many of us would argue not. Indeed, an increasing number of SES researchers frame social-ecological resilience (defined in a broad sense including adaptive capacity and transformation) as an emergent quality arising from negotiations and contestations over knowledge, including ideas of justice, politics and power. Acurrent special issue in Ecology and Society is exploring potential contributions from social theory to SES research.

There is a wide heterogeneity of ontologies and epistemologies in SES research. Indeed, in the experience of discussants, scholars can be committed to a more relational understanding of SES – for instance, emphasizing the importance of processes that co-produce emergent properties – but decide to adopt more interactional epistemologies and methodologies because they are easier to ‘operationalize.’ How is it possible to work in between and among differing epistemologies and ontologies? The answers to these questions are likely to reside in the particular ways these dilemmas are managed in each individual research project, but productive research will be more likely to come from researchers who have reflected on and explored these issues. 

Trans-disciplinary sustainability science sits at the boundaries of multiple, quite different, epistemologies and ontologies. How can we work and speak between these worlds? Life in the ‘border zone’ of sustainability science renders these questions ever-present: our goal for Critical Reflection Seminars is to provide a space to help us navigate them.

In the comments below we welcome further discussions, and invite suggestions about aspects of social-ecological systems you judge important to consider critically – as well as suggestions for future speakers.

‘Pluralisms-a-plenty’: Engaging with the social world in social-ecological systems research

A reflection on challenges and opportunities of dealing with multiple kinds of pluralisms in doing SES research (e.g. ontologies, epistemologies, theories, methodologies), particularly from an early career scholar perspective.

  • James Patterson, Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Waterloo
  • Jessica Cockburn, PhD Candidate, Rhodes University
  • Vanessa Masterson, PhD Candidate, Stockholm Resilience Centre
  • Simon West, PhD Candidate, Stockholm Resilience Centre
  • Jamila Haider, PhD Candidate, Stockholm Resilience Centre
  • Marta Berbes, PhD, York University

Originally posted here: 
https://ideas4sustainability.wordpress.com/2015/09/01/pluralisms-a-plenty-engaging-with-the-social-world-in-social-ecological-systems-research/

Social-ecological systems (SES) research is increasingly engaging with thesocialscience domain. For example, this is reflected in growing SES literature working with political ecology, adaptive governance, and collective action perspectives. Scholars are also increasingly drawing on rich bodies of literature from various social science disciplines that have developed over many decades, yet until recently remained largely unconnected with resilience thinking, such as political science, sociology, and critical theory. Critiques persist about the extent to which resilience thinking suitably engages with social science theories and insights (e.g., Cote and Nightingale 2012, Olsson et al. 2015, see also West et al. 2015). Although much more work is required in this area, research conducted from social science perspectives is increasingly making its way into SES discourse, at least as reflected in some of the main journals of the SES research community. More broadly, SES research has opened opportunities and frontiers for inter- and transdisciplinary research which may previously not have been as apparent (e.g. Stone-Jovicich 2015, Fischer et al. 2015). Further, it appears that the SES and resilience research community is beginning to engage more critically and reflectively with the challenges of working at the interface of the natural and social sciences.

Early career scholars have been key contributors to the increasing sophistication with which resilience thinking engages with social science theories and insights. Early career scholars have embraced, challenged, critiqued, and pushed the boundaries of resilience thinking. They have built on the tremendous opportunity created by early resilience scholars who brought attention to the key need to understand and respond to dynamics and linkages between social and ecological systems. This included the difficult work of fighting against disciplinary boundaries and opening up a well-funded and successful research arena. This was a critical first step in opening up new ways of thinking and practicing problem-based science that have since flourished. Early career scholars have actively taken on the challenges that this initial ‘opening up’ has produced and as a result are contributing in many exciting ways to extending and broadening resilience thinking.

Despite the dynamism and ongoing development of resilience thinking, there have been valid criticisms raised about the extent to which resilience thinking may connect with and be compatible with social science theories and insights. For example, rich traditions of understanding the social world through fundamentally social science concepts and tools such as agency, institutions and institutional change, politics, power, knowledge and culture have largely remained untapped, and to some extent, unacknowledged. Where these concepts are mentioned in SES research, it is at times done fleetingly, and there is a need for SES and resilience scholars to engage more deeply with social theories which can be used to frame such research. This has led to robust critiques of resilience thinking. Sometimes these critiques are levelled at particular heuristics, terms, and concepts but this critique may mis-characterise or simplify the diversity of the broader field of scholarship. However, valid points are also raised about the need for resilience scholars to engage more deeply with wider existing bodies of literature that we have a lot to learn from.

A key way in which resilience thinking could continue to mature is by bringing greater critical reflexivity to our own research choices and the ‘lenses’ through which we interpret the world. The need for reflexivity becomes particularly apparent when we start engaging with the plethora of social science theories, insights and disciplines that are salient to resilience thinking and SES research. A fundamental challenge that engagement with the breadth and diversity of social science raises is that there are many valid ontologies for knowing reality, and many ways of investigating and understanding this reality to produce knowledge (epistemology). This becomes especially salient for research in the social domain. Which aspects of the social world matter to us and which ones don’t? How do we know what we know? How do we investigate complex and sometimes unknowable social phenomena? This point is put eloquently by Dryzek when he states that:

While real problems exist, our interaction with them can only ever be through culturally constructed lens – meaning that we can never know nature, except through the interpretive mechanism of culture, which means all perspectives are partial and contestable (Dryzek, 1997: 10).

These issues are especially confounding when working at the interface of the ‘social’ and ‘ecological’ worlds as we do in resilience and SES research. As a result, we need to recognise fundamental challenges regarding ontology, epistemology, theory, and methodology. Ontological commitments involve choices about what we see as ‘existing’ in the world (e.g., people, social actors, values, cultures, producers, consumers, motivations, texts, discourses, morality, rules, social relations, feedbacks) (following Mason 2002). Epistemological commitments are about what knowledge counts in our work and how this can be demonstrated (e.g., whether or not it is possible to discover objective ‘truth’). Theoretical lenses are important because they frame how we see and interpret the situation we’re looking at (e.g., a critique of resilience thinking has been the arguably inappropriate application of some ecological concepts to social systems). Methodological choices are important because they are our way of exploring and constructing knowledge about a situation, and different approaches in the same situation can lead to different insights. Navigating these multiple pluralisms requires particular skills and competencies, which ought to be considered in the education and training of emerging scholars in SES and resilience research and practice.

More broadly, the choices we make if looking at either the social or ecological world will probably be very different. That is, if one were working with an exclusively natural science research question, or a particular social science research question, the discipline and tradition within which one would find oneself would strongly shape epistemological commitments and methodological choices. However, in working at the interface of the social and ecological worlds, and recognising their intrinsic interconnectedness, we need to be especially conscious of these choices because we can be pulled in different directions. In SES research, we are no longer working on a solely natural research object, or a solely social research object, but on a new cross-cutting research object. This requires not only new and innovative approaches, but also that researchers are reflective and critical in our choice of tools and approaches. Without being deeply aware and reflective on the choices and commitments we make on these topics we risk falling into the trap of taking particular interpretations for granted, and ‘reifying’ a fixed view of how social-ecological systems operate which can constrain new possibilities for inquiry and insight (following Ison 2010).

So what should be done?

As an important first step in exploring these new frontiers, we need to be conscious of such challenges and critically aware of our choices. We also need to critically examine which ways of knowing, exploring and testing are suitable for asking and answering different kinds of questions in SES research. Resilience thinking owes a lot of its foundations to (post) positivist natural science and economics and the innovative thinking of these pioneers, who did not need to engage with the diversity of ontologies and epistemologies of social science. Perhaps now is the time for a systematic exploration of these ontologies and epistemologies and their compatibility with resilience approaches. Which ontologies, epistemologies, theories, and methodologies are compatible with notions of complex adaptive systems, resilience, and SESs?

Consequently, we need to be especially mindful of the various commitments and choices we make when a plurality of options is on the table: ontologically, epistemologically, theoretically, and methodologically. Recent publications exploring the interface of social and ecological research in SESs call for pluralism in methodologies (e.g. Olsson et al 2015, Fischer et al. 2015). However, we must also guard against cooking up “a tasteless soup of pluralisms”, and of combining theories and methodologies which may have underlying ontologies and epistemologies that are incompatible with one another. This means engaging meaningfully with the ontological and epistemological underpinnings of our work, to ensure that we combine multiple ways of knowing and doing in coherent ways. Particularly for scholars who are traditionally trained in the natural sciences, engaging deeply with the meta-philosophies underlying our research choices is a new endeavour, and one which may be overwhelming at times.  A counter challenge for critical social scientists on the other hand is to have more qualitative methods and knowledge systems validated by the broader SES research community.

The commitments and choices we make about ontologies, epistemologies, theories, and methodologies in our research shape how we see and work with social-ecological problems. They are not a ‘given’ (i.e., something that we can take for granted), nor are they objective and value-free scientific endeavours, but choices that need to be made consciously and reflexively (i.e., they may change over time as our own understanding changes). This adds a whole new set of challenges when engaging with the social world. But they are challenges that cannot be avoided and are indeed crucial for deepening the social dimensions of resilience thinking, and engaging in an ethical and honest way (to avoid ‘scientific imperialism’ (Olsson et al 2015)).

Resilience thinking and SES research is an enormous and ongoing collaborative endeavour. After all, it is a bold agenda to trigger a paradigm shift in society from a place of thinking linearly and about social and ecological domains as separate entities, to deeply recognising and engaging with dynamics, change, and linkages between social and ecological domains! However, if we are to collectively continue to work towards such a paradigm shift then we need to take on the challenge of engaging with the social world head-on. This will require critical reflexivity in our own research practice and deep reflection on issues of ontology, epistemology, theory, and methodology in our own work. Despite recent critique (Olsson et al. 2015) resilience thinking and social science are not irreconcilable, and we see current points of tension as research frontiers to be tackled rather than fundamental barriers. The ground is fertile and early career scholars are taking up the challenge.

References:

  • Cote, M., Nightingale, A.J., 2011. Resilience thinking meets social theory: Situating change in socio-ecological systems (SES) research.Progress in Human Geography 36, 475–489.
  • Dryzek, J. 1997. The politics of the Earth: Environmental discourses. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
  • Fischer, J., Gardner, T.A., Bennett, E.M., Balvanera, P., Biggs, R., Carpenter, S., Daw, T., Folke, C., Hill, R., Hughes, T.P., Luthe, T., Maass, M., Meacham, M., Norström, A.V., Peterson, G., Queiroz, C., Seppelt, R., Spierenburg, M., Tenhunen, J., 2015. Advancing sustainability through mainstreaming a social–ecological systems perspective. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 14, 144-149.
  • Ison, R.L., 2010. Systems practice: how to act in a climate-change world. Springer, London.
  • Mason, J., 2002. Qualitative Researching, 2nd ed. SAGE Publications Ltd, London, U.K.
  • Olsson, L., Jerneck, A., Thoren, H., Persson, J., O’Byrne, D. 2015. Why resilience is unappealing to social science: Theoretical and empirical investigations of the scientific use of resilience. Science Advances 1(4): 1-11. DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1400217
  • Stone-Jovicich, S. 2015. Probing the interfaces between the social sciences and social-ecological resilience: insights from integrative and hybrid perspectives in the social sciences. Ecology and Society20(2): 25. http://dx.doi.org/10.5751/ES-07347-200225
  • West, S., Galafassi, D., Haider, J., Marin, A., Merrie, A., Ospina-Medina, D., Schill, C. 2015 “Critically reflecting on social-ecological systems research”, Resilience Science blog URL:http://rs.resalliance.org/2015/02/11/critically-reflecting-on-social-ecological-systems-research/