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.

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‘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/