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Meaning and Action in Sustainability Science: Interpretive approaches for social-ecological systems research
Stockholm University, Faculty of Science, Stockholm Resilience Centre.ORCID iD: 0000-0002-9738-0593
2016 (English)Doctoral thesis, comprehensive summary (Other academic)
Abstract [en]

Social-ecological systems research is interventionist by nature. As a subset of sustainability science, social-ecological systems research aims to generate knowledge and introduce concepts that will bring about transformation. Yet scientific concepts diverge in innumerable ways when they are put to work in the world. Why are concepts used in quite different ways to the intended purpose? Why do some appear to fail and others succeed? What do the answers to these questions tell us about the nature of science-society engagement, and what implications do they have for social-ecological systems research and sustainability science? This thesis addresses these questions from an interpretive perspective, focusing on the meanings that shape human actions. In particular, the thesis examines how meaning, interpretation and experience shape the enactment of four action-oriented sustainability concepts: adaptive management, biosphere reserves, biodiversity corridors and planetary boundaries/reconnecting to the biosphere. In so doing, the thesis provides in-depth empirical applications of three interpretive traditions – hermeneutic, discursive and dialogical – that together articulate a broadly interpretive approach to studying social-ecological complexity. In the hermeneutic tradition, Paper I presents a ‘rich narrative’ case study of a single practitioner tasked with enacting adaptive management in an Australian land management agency, and Paper II provides a qualitative multi-case study of learning among 177 participants in 11 UNESCO biosphere reserves. In the discursive tradition, Paper III uses Q-method to explore interpretations of ‘successful’ biodiversity corridors among 20 practitioners, scientists and community representatives in the Cape Floristic Region, South Africa. In the dialogical tradition, Paper IV reworks conventional understandings of knowledge-action relationships by using three concepts from contemporary practice theory – ‘actionable understanding,’ ‘ongoing business’ and the ‘eternally unfolding present’ – to explore the enactment of adaptive management in an Australian national park. Paper V explores ideas of human-environment connection in the concepts planetary boundaries and reconnecting to the biosphere, and develops an ‘embodied connection’ where human-environment relations emerge through interactivity between mind, body and environment over time. Overall, the thesis extends the frontiers of social-ecological systems research by highlighting the meanings that shape social-ecological complexity; by contributing theories and methods that treat social-ecological change as a relational and holistic process; and by providing entry points to address knowledge, politics and power. The thesis contributes to sustainability science more broadly by introducing novel understandings of knowledge-action relationships; by providing advice on how to make sustainability interventions more useful and effective; by introducing tools that can improve co-production and outcome assessment in the global research platform Future Earth; and by helping to generate robust forms of justification for transdisciplinary knowledge production. The interventionist, actionable nature of social-ecological systems research means that interpretive approaches are an essential complement to existing structural, institutional and behavioural perspectives. Interpretive research can help build a scientifically robust, normatively committed and critically reflexive sustainability science.

Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
Stockholm: Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University , 2016. , 84 p.
Keyword [en]
Meaning, interpretive, social-ecological system, complexity, science-policy interface, transformation, sustainability science methodology
National Category
Environmental Sciences Social Sciences Interdisciplinary
Research subject
Sustainability Science
Identifiers
URN: urn:nbn:se:su:diva-135463ISBN: 978-91-7649-573-5ISBN: 978-91-7649-574-2OAI: oai:DiVA.org:su-135463DiVA: diva2:1045327
Public defence
2016-12-16, Vivi Täckholmsalen (Q-salen), NPQ-huset, Svante Arrhenius väg 20, Stockholm, 10:00 (English)
Opponent
Supervisors
Funder
Swedish Research CouncilMistra - The Swedish Foundation for Strategic Environmental Research
Note

At the time of the doctoral defense, the following papers were unpublished and had a status as follows: Paper 2: Manuscript. Paper 4: Manuscript.

Available from: 2016-11-23 Created: 2016-11-08 Last updated: 2016-11-23Bibliographically approved
List of papers
1. Rethinking Social Barriers to Effective Adaptive Management
Open this publication in new window or tab >>Rethinking Social Barriers to Effective Adaptive Management
2016 (English)In: Environmental Management, ISSN 0364-152X, E-ISSN 1432-1009, Vol. 58, no 3, 399-416 p.Article in journal (Refereed) Published
Abstract [en]

Adaptive management is an approach to environmental management based on learning-by-doing, where complexity, uncertainty, and incomplete knowledge are acknowledged and management actions are treated as experiments. However, while adaptive management has received significant uptake in theory, it remains elusively difficult to enact in practice. Proponents have blamed social barriers and have called for social science contributions. We address this gap by adopting a qualitative approach to explore the development of an ecological monitoring program within an adaptive management framework in a public land management organization in Australia. We ask what practices are used to enact the monitoring program and how do they shape learning? We elicit a rich narrative through extensive interviews with a key individual, and analyze the narrative using thematic analysis. We discuss our results in relation to the concept of 'knowledge work' and Westley's (2002) framework for interpreting the strategies of adaptive managers-'managing through, in, out and up.' We find that enacting the program is conditioned by distinct and sometimes competing logics-scientific logics prioritizing experimentation and learning, public logics emphasizing accountability and legitimacy, and corporate logics demanding efficiency and effectiveness. In this context, implementing adaptive management entails practices of translation to negotiate tensions between objective and situated knowledge, external experts and organizational staff, and collegiate and hierarchical norms. Our contribution embraces the 'doing' of learning-by-doing and marks a shift from conceptualizing the social as an external barrier to adaptive management to be removed to an approach that situates adaptive management as social knowledge practice.

Keyword
Adaptive management, Narrative, Qualitative, Practice, Knowledge work, Learning
National Category
Earth and Related Environmental Sciences
Research subject
Sustainability Science
Identifiers
urn:nbn:se:su:diva-134405 (URN)10.1007/s00267-016-0721-3 (DOI)000380676300003 ()27351578 (PubMedID)
Available from: 2016-10-25 Created: 2016-10-06 Last updated: 2016-11-11Bibliographically approved
2. Learning to live with social-ecological complexity: An interpretive analysis of learning in 11 UNESCO Biosphere Reserves
Open this publication in new window or tab >>Learning to live with social-ecological complexity: An interpretive analysis of learning in 11 UNESCO Biosphere Reserves
(English)Manuscript (preprint) (Other academic)
Abstract [en]

Learning is increasingly considered a means to achieve sustainability in practice and has become a prominent goal of sustainability interventions. The UNESCO World Network of Biosphere Reserves seeks to bring environmental conservation, socio-economic development and research together in ‘learning sites for sustainable development.’ The World Network is globally significant, with 669 sites in 120 countries, yet as with many paradigmatic sustainability interventions there is a widespread notion that biosphere reserves suffer from a ‘concept-reality gap.’ When assessing practical, ‘on-ground’ manifestations of the concept in accordance with UNESCO documentation and formally stated aims and ambitions, observers have often been disappointed. But while many biosphere reserves (BRs) no doubt face significant challenges, these approaches to assessing outcomes – taken alone – may not reveal the complete picture. They tend to assume that BRs are a single, standardized concept (against which local actions should be measured), and carry implicit assumptions about how learning for sustainability should take place and what it should include. In this paper, we suggest that taking the inverse approach – paying close attention to practitioners’ interpretations of BRs and their experiences of working with the BR concept – can help build a richer picture of learning for sustainability, with significant implications for the ways that BR may fulfil their role as learning sites. To this end, we provide an interpretive, multi-case analysis of learning in 11 BRs around the world. We ask: (a) How is the BR concept interpreted and enacted by people involved with BR work? (b) What kinds of learning emerge through BR work, as described by the people involved? We find that participants interpret BRs in a number of different ways, from ‘collaborative platform’ to ‘marketing label’, and that that these meanings are entangled with the institutional, political and ecological histories of each location. BR work therefore encompasses a range of activities, from clearing invasive species to arranging art-science festivals, and these activities shape and are shaped by the meaning of each BR as well as the evolving social-ecological context. Learning occurs around three broad themes across the sites – human-environment relationships; actors and governance arrangements; and skills and capacities to negotiate the ad hoc, unplanned nature of much BR work – but is expressed very differently in each BR.  While our results make identifying generic ‘lessons learned’ difficult, they illustrate the BR’s value in providing opportunities for participants to learn about the complex social-ecological processes involved in pursuing sustainability. In particular, the BR’s position ‘in the middle’ of local, regional and global forces; social, ecological and economic goals; and government, business and civil society actors, points toward a potential role for BRs as experimental arenas for sustainability, rather than replicable models per se. Our interpretive, multi-case approach provides a novel contribution to research on biosphere reserves and the broader literature on learning for sustainability.

Keyword
learning, biosphere reserves, interpretive, social-ecological systems, complexity
National Category
Environmental Sciences Social Sciences Interdisciplinary
Research subject
Sustainability Science
Identifiers
urn:nbn:se:su:diva-135537 (URN)
Available from: 2016-11-11 Created: 2016-11-11 Last updated: 2016-11-12Bibliographically approved
3. What constitutes a successful biodiversity corridor?: A Q-study in the Cape Floristic Region, South Africa
Open this publication in new window or tab >>What constitutes a successful biodiversity corridor?: A Q-study in the Cape Floristic Region, South Africa
2016 (English)In: Biological Conservation, ISSN 0006-3207, E-ISSN 1873-2917, Vol. 198, 183-192 p.Article in journal (Refereed) Published
Abstract [en]

‘Success’ is a vigorously debated concept in conservation. There is a drive to develop quantitative, comparable metrics of success to improve conservation interventions. Yet the qualitative, normative choices inherent in decisions about what to measure — emerging from fundamental philosophical commitments about what conservation is and should be — have received scant attention. We address this gap by exploring perceptions of what constitutes a successful biodiversity corridor in the Cape Floristic Region, South Africa, an area of global biodiversity significance. Biodiversity corridors are particularly illustrative because, as interventions intended to extend conservation practices from protected areas across broader landscapes, they represent prisms in which ideas of conservation success are contested and transformed. We use Q method to elicit framings of success among 20 conservation scientists, practitioners and community representatives, and find three statistically significant framings of successful corridors: ‘a last line of defence for biodiversity under threat,’ ‘a creative process to develop integrative, inclusive visions of biodiversity and human wellbeing,’ and ‘a stimulus for place-based cultural identity and economic development.’ Our results demonstrate that distinct understandings of what a corridor is — a planning tool, a process of governing, a territorialized place — produce divergent framings of ‘successful’ corridors that embody diverse, inherently contestable visions of conservation. These framings emerge from global conservation discourses and distinctly local ecologies, politics, cultures and histories. We conclude that visions of conservation success will be inherently plural, and that in inevitably contested and diverse social contexts success on any terms rests upon recognition of and negotiation with alternative visions.

Keyword
Biodiversity corridors, Cape Floristic Region, Conservation success, Values, Framings, Q method
National Category
Environmental Sciences Social Sciences Interdisciplinary
Research subject
Sustainability Science
Identifiers
urn:nbn:se:su:diva-135461 (URN)10.1016/j.biocon.2016.04.019 (DOI)
Funder
Mistra - The Swedish Foundation for Strategic Environmental Research
Available from: 2016-11-08 Created: 2016-11-08 Last updated: 2016-11-11Bibliographically approved
4. Embracing the primacy of experience: How a practice perspective can bring accounts of adaptive management to life
Open this publication in new window or tab >>Embracing the primacy of experience: How a practice perspective can bring accounts of adaptive management to life
(English)Manuscript (preprint) (Other academic)
Abstract [en]

In complex, dynamic and uncertain environments, where the appropriate course of action is unclear, natural resource managers often pose the question, “what should I do now?” Over the past thirty years, the answer from applied ecology and the complexity sciences has generally been, “adaptive management,” or in everyday terms “learning-by-doing.” Adaptive management, rooted in pragmatism, suggests that many problems can only be solved through experience, and therefore management action should be structured as a process of scientific experimentation. While these ideas have been widely embraced by ecologists, managers and policy-makers, outcomes in practice have been disappointing to advocates. There is a widespread perception that adaptive management is a great idea that rarely works in practice. In this paper we suggest, however, that while adaptive management is certainly challenging, diagnoses of failure have been largely made within implicitly linear models of the links between knowledge, practice and context that run counter to contemporary pragmatic thought. Indeed, while adaptive management prioritizes experience and ‘doing’ as way to learn about complex ecologies, the character of experience is reduced to producing more accurate representations thought to underlie better practice. In this paper we therefore reach back to the pragmatic origins of adaptive management to develop a theoretical account of the practice of learning-by-doing that begins from a transactional conception of experience, and explains knowledge and context in terms of practical action in the present. We apply three concepts from contemporary practice theory – ‘actionable understanding,’ ‘ongoing business’ and ‘the eternally unfolding present’ – to an in-depth case study of adaptive management in the Wyperfeld National Park, Australia. We illustrate the utility of a practice perspective by highlighting implications for a) assessments of success and failure in adaptive management, b) the roles of ecologists and managers, and c) the use of ecological information by managers. The key message of the paper is that embracing the inevitable complexity and ‘mess’ of experience may lead to more realistic accounts of adaptive management in action and creative forms of practice. 

Keyword
adaptive management; complexity; qualitative; epistemology of practice; practice theory
National Category
Environmental Sciences Social Sciences Interdisciplinary
Research subject
Sustainability Science
Identifiers
urn:nbn:se:su:diva-135536 (URN)
Available from: 2016-11-11 Created: 2016-11-11 Last updated: 2016-11-12Bibliographically approved
5. Dwelling in the biosphere: exploring an embodied human-environment connection in resilience thinking
Open this publication in new window or tab >>Dwelling in the biosphere: exploring an embodied human-environment connection in resilience thinking
2016 (English)In: Sustainability Science, ISSN 1862-4065, E-ISSN 1862-4057, Vol. 11, no 5, 831-843 p.Article, review/survey (Refereed) Published
Abstract [en]

Resilience has emerged as a prominent paradigm for interpreting and shaping human-environment connections in the context of global environmental change. Resilience emphasizes dynamic spatial and temporal change in social-ecological systems where humans are inextricably interwoven with the environment. While influential, resilience thinking has been critiqued for an under-theorized framing of socio-cultural dynamics. In this paper, we examine how the resilience concepts of planetary boundaries and reconnecting to the biosphere frame human-environment connection in terms of mental representations and biophysical realities. We argue that focusing solely on mental reconnection limits further integration between the social and the ecological, thus countering a foundational commitment in resilience thinking to social-ecological interconnectedness. To address this susceptibility we use Tim Ingold's 'dwelling perspective' to outline an embodied form of human-environment (re)connection. Through dwelling, connections are not solely produced in the mind, but through the ongoing interactivity of mind, body and environment through time. Using this perspective, we position the biosphere as an assemblage that is constantly in the making through the active cohabitation of humans and nonhumans. To illustrate insights that may emerge from this perspective we bring an embodied connection to earth stewardship, given its growing popularity for forging local to global sustainability transformations.

Keyword
Resilience thinking, Social-ecological systems, Dwelling, Stewardship, Temporality, Biosphere
National Category
Earth and Related Environmental Sciences
Research subject
Sustainability Science
Identifiers
urn:nbn:se:su:diva-134407 (URN)10.1007/s11625-016-0367-3 (DOI)000381603100008 ()
Available from: 2016-10-24 Created: 2016-10-06 Last updated: 2016-11-11Bibliographically approved

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