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Sacredness, protection and taboos: how values can (not) be traded and shape our thoughts and behaviour

A Stockholm Resilience Centre Cognition reading group guest post from Tim Daw, Jamila Haider, Britt Stikvoort

Imagine the scenario: one day a government official walks into the Stockholm Resilience Centre lobby and proclaims that the biosphere has now become redundant, humans can live completely independently from ecological systems, and therefore, our research institute has become unnecessary. Imagine the nightmare for economists if that same official barges in telling him proof has been given that economic growth is not necessary. Or what if the official started telling people, about a millennium ago, that the earth was round? Such (unrealistic) stories make one thing clear: we do not like challenging our most ‘sacred’ and protected values. But sometimes we have to. In fact, sometimes it can be very useful to! Yet still, challenging such values feels bad, and that is perfectly natural. You are supposed to feel bad if someone asks you about eating babies (such as Jonathan Swift’s satirical Modest Proposal). But as researchers, we are also supposed to be able to step back from such feelings, and observe and reflect. This is what we have tried to do for this cognition meeting.

SUMMARY OF READINGS

We read three papers to understand from a psychological perspective how values develop, are held and traded-off.

  • Tetlock, P.E., Kristel, O.V., Beth, S., Green, M.C., and Lerner, J.S. (2000). The psychology of the unthinkable: Taboo trade-offs, forbidden base rates, and heretical counterfactuals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 78, 853–870.
  • Baron, J., and Leshner, S. (2000). How serious are expressions of protected values?  Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied 6, 183–194.
  • Waldmann, M.R., Nagel, J., and Wiegmann, A. (2012). Moral judgment. The Oxford Handbook of Thinking and Reasoning 364–389.

Below we provide a brief summary of each of the readings:

Waldeman et al. was a useful introduction to the interdisciplinary field of Moral Judgement, including introducing the ‘Trolley dilemma’, the ‘Drosophila’ of moral reasoning experiments. Most relevant for this reading group discussion was the section which introduced sacred values (SV) and protected values (PV). Both refer to values which are held as infinite in that people are unwilling to put a price on them or trade them off against secular values, in particular money. However Tetlock and colleagues work on SV conceptualise them as serving a group cohesion function, “The motivation of people to hold SVs is to preserve their identity as full-fledged moral being (p. 293)” while Baron and colleagues see PV as a mental short-cut to efficiently make decisions. An important distinction is that the SV work suggests two parallel sets of motivations (the sacred and the profane), while PV scholars adhere to a model of a single metric of utility. Both theories point to a surprising degree of flexibility in the supposedly infinite SV or PV, which is influenced firstly by context and also by framing.

Tetlock and colleagues (2000) see a sacred value as “possessing infinite or transcendental significance that precludes comparisons, trade-offs or other mingling with secular values”. These untouchable principles cannot be traded off for monetary ones in an economical market (taboo trade-offs), nor can we use cold statistics and hard facts on them (forbidden base-rates), nor can we make ‘what-if’ assumptions about past events and alternative happenings (heretic counterfactuals). Tetlock bases his idea on the Sacred Value Protection Model, which resembles the more well-known dissonance theory but which explains motivations to thoughts and behaviour both as an ego-improving as well as a social reputation-supporting tool. Harm done to sacred values (e.g. by making taboo trade-offs) is compensated for by exhibiting moral outrage towards the offender or if the offender is oneself – moral cleansing (overly moral behaviour to compensate for the transgression).

Baron and Threshner (2000) define protected values in a utilitarian sense: the marginal rate at which one good can substitute another is infinite. The purpose of their study is to test whether protected values are as absolute as they seem when they are first expressed. They test a number of hypotheses (with regards to when trade-offs are made) through experimental design. Important to note here is that they measure digression from a protected value through an expression of guilt, rather than behaviour. For example, if reducing emission of CO2 is my protected values, but I still fly, the action of flying does not discredit my protected values but whether or not I feel guilty about flying.  Baron and Threshner conclude that protected values are often unreflective overgeneralisation, that people are reluctant to believe that protected values can conflict and that it is immoral to make compromises, but will in the end make the trade-off when confronted with it. People also seem to give up values when the probability of harm is low: for example, people may have anti-GMO as a protected value, but if the risk is calculated to be low they are more likely to give up their protected values. They conclude “our results suggest that protected values are strong opinions, weakly held.”

 

GROUP DISCUSSION

HOW CAN THE CONCEPT OF PROTECTED OR SACRED VALUES BY USED IN SOCIAL ECOLOGICAL SYSTEM RESEARCH?

1.    Differences between Baron and Tetlock and how this can be used in our own work

Generally we found Tetlock’s approach to be more valuable to social ecological system (SES) research. Particularly, we found Tetlock’s notion of trade-offs to be helpful, since SES governance and management often involves difficult trade-offs. Sometimes, when a sacred value is pitted against a secular one, we encounter what Tetlock calls a taboo trade-off, which makes most people feel bad. Think about trading off the life of a baby against, say, a thousand euros or a nice car. Most people would find this trade-off immoral, and if someone else is making that decision, you would respond to that person choosing the car over a baby’s life with outrage. Moral outrage is just that, a behavioural expression of anger against those who go against sacred values by choosing a secular one over a sacred one (or even thinking about such a choice!). ‘Moral cleansing’ is when you yourself are making this tough decision (say, protecting nature or selling the piece of land for real estate development). In fact, even thinking about a taboo trade-off makes you feel bad, even if you still choose to keep the patch of pristine nature in the end!  What happens is you then get the urge to show compensation behaviour after making a morally bad decision, or even thinking about it, against sacred values. Yes, you just sold your patch of pure pristine nature to a real-estate agent, but you’ll make up for it, by donating to Greenpeace! These Taboo trade-off dynamics can both impede and assist real life trade-offs with nature (nature is often seen as one of the sacred values we hold).

One of the main differences between Tetlock and Baron, is how each defines values. Tetlock defines values through a theory of social cohesion, whereas Baron bases values entirely on utility. Baron’s thoughts are quite disempowering and imposing, causing the reader moral outrage. It would be interesting to think about how and whether these results as a more individual level can be applied to a societal level, where context and politics plays an even more important role.

2. How are values defined?

There is a useful distinction made between ‘norms’ and ‘moral rules’: They both come from culture, and go beyond formal rules but people usually claim that moral rules are in some way universal (which they wouldn’t necessarily do for norms, like driving on the right side of the road). There do not seem to be any universal (transdisciplinary) definitions of either concept, and so it depends from what school of thought you come if you even have definitions, and if so, what they stipulate. It seems there is some room here for further clarification!

3. Origin of values

At first sight, we observed that values seem not to be universal, since nearly any value you can think of is transgressed in one or more other cultures across the world. However, the thought rose that maybe this is because we simply haven’t phrased the context or the value itself correctly, and if we do so, if we get to the ‘core’ of the value, we would maybe be able to find universal values. Perhaps if we formulate them as wanted ideals, this was a suggestion.

If values are not universal, what does seem universal is our need for ‘having’ values in human societies. This may even be an innate characteristic of human beings, although none of us was certain of such an assertion.

Next, we discussed protected values. What if, by shaking it, we can make any protected value lose its ‘protectedness’ (for instance by insisting on counter examples)? Doesn’t that make the term a bit void? But if we see the protected values as a sort of network, where more than one protected value is tied together with others in a sort of ‘ideology’ network, then it becomes easier to consider the loss of one protected value without doing harm to the whole (and thus the person’s feeling of integrity). We looked at this from an individual’s point of view, but as was later mentioned in the plenary discussions, values are products of society and culture, and so need to be viewed from such an aggregate level too. Having one person lose the ‘protectedness’ of a value due to a counter example doesn’t make the value ‘go down the drain’. Here the social-reputation aspect of values comes into play. Even if you yourself do not ‘believe’ in the protectedness of a value anymore, it is still important for your reputation to not harm that value, because other people still do hold that value sacred.

4. Stockholm Resilience Centre values

What could possibly be a protected value of the SRC? We first made a distinction between what could be protected values of people working at the SRC (assuming there is a certain ‘type’ of people working here, there might be a self-selection process going on resulting in people with like-minded values working here). We, however, were interested more in the values of the SRC as an institution in itself. What would shake the institution to its foundations, if it was refuted? What would no SRC staff member ever want to trade for money, or all the luxury in the world?

We came up with biodiversity first, but it seemed that there were plenty of easy cases in which we could imagine being confronted with a situation where less biodiversity was the more desirable situation (look at BBOP for example). No foundation-shaking shock there. So Resilience was next. However, this did not pass scrutiny either. Social-ecological (linked and interdependent) systems came up next, and we were not able to wholly refute this as a sacred value for the SRC. On the more individual level, we discussed that academic integrity was a value that likely would be central for most SRC staff members. Another prominent share sacred values at the resilience centre is re-connecting to the biosphere.

We could think of reconnecting the biosphere as an axiological value. With that, we simply mean it is part of the ‘study of values’ and not something else (e.g. epistemological). Spinning from that we may have various ontologies: there is a real physical social ecological system, ‘connected’ knowledge, whether local or indigenous is scared (though not everyone agreed on that). The possibilities seem endless, and are at the very least abundant. One hour is definitely not enough to come to the core values of the SRC, this is a conclusion we can draw with certainty! But that said, it is both fun and insightful to try, and experience firsthand how difficult such a thing can be!

Finally, we want to add that understanding the existence of sacred or protected values, and the way in which they influence us – be it through social image and reputation or via heuristic shortcuts in our decision making – can help us SES researchers in understanding (even modelling?) the behaviour of stakeholders in governance structures. This could shed some light on the dynamics in resource management dilemma’s and explain thus-far unexplained ‘deviant’ behaviour of stakeholders that are not playing the game as rational actors.

Should we measure resilience?

I’ve been reflecting on the idea of measuring resilience since the conference in Montpellier last month where @vgalaz quipped “Resilience metrics is the new black @resilience2014”. Efforts to measure resilience are well underway while at the same time there are concerns about what exactly is being measured and whether this shift in focus misses the point of what resilience thinking has to offer. My own thinking on this is that it depends on what you are trying to achieve but a deeper understanding of both perspectives is likely to benefit both approaches in the long-term.

Approaching the dialogue from two perspectives
The Resilience 2014 conference aimed to facilitate dialogue among researchers and practitioners from the resilience research community and the development community. To date, resilience has been conceptualized and applied in a variety of ways. Research along the lines of Holling, Gunderson, Folke, and Walker as well as many others in the Resilience Alliance network and beyond, has emerged from a complex adaptive systems’ perspective and in particular, a focus on ecosystems and integrated social-ecological systems. By contrast, development communities tend to approach resilience from a more human-centered perspective with a focus on livelihoods, risk reduction, and human well-being. What both communities hold in common is a desire to operationalize resilience by applying theoretical insights to real world problems and changing the way we manage and interact with the environment for more sustainable and equitable outcomes.

The demand side of resilience in development
The rapid uptake of resilience thinking by development agencies and foundations has forced the issue of resilience implementation and challenged the research community to make the leap from theory to practice to metrics. While resilience practice is not entirely new (see Walker & Salt 2012) and case studies have informed theoretical advances over the years the wide-ranging application of resilience thinking to development issues, is a relatively recent phenomenon. Development programs and projects operate within a different realm and have their own established frameworks, protocols, and practices. Notably, development programs require well-defined mechanisms for evaluating interventions and more specifically, metrics for quantifying and judging the success of their actions and investments. Thus the challenge that presents itself is how to measure resilience, if indeed it can or should be measured? This is a nuanced question, and much like the concept it addresses, there are multiple dimensions and no easy answers but it remains a worthy pursuit.

To measure or not to measure?
There is a concern shared by many that resilience may not live up to its promise for a variety of reasons including the potential for narrow interpretations and a selective or limited understanding of what can be a relatively abstract concept, but also because of a what some have identified as a lack of quantifiable metrics for evaluation purposes. In Luca Alinova’s plenary presentation he spoke of the very real threat of resilience being adopted and applied in name only, whereby others capitalize on the current trendiness of the concept while much of the same ineffective practices continue under the guise of a new name. In his words “there is a big risk of labeling some bad habits with a new name”. Any failures of course, will have a handy scapegoat and an enormous opportunity will have been lost. Similarly, there is a real risk that in the rush to measure resilience and develop quantitative metrics for comparative purposes, what is actually measured may represent the same things that have long been monitored and measured but are now being packaged in the language of resilience to meet the demand.

The fact remains however, that resilience will and already is, being measured.

What exactly is being measured?
If resilience must be measured to be meaningful to the development community, then how best to measure it? Luca Alinovi suggests we need to measure resilience at the household level rather than at an individual level because it is the interactions that are important. He also cautioned though that we are still far away from the dynamic analysis that is needed as well as a general approach for different types of systems.

Much of the discussion at Resilience 2014 around the topic of metrics tended to focus on food security and crisis impacts. Alexis Hoskins presented on the progress being made by the Food and Nutrition Security Resilience Measurement Technical Working Group that has produced a framing paper outlining the challenges in measuring resilience. They have also produced a set of resilience measurement principles that echo Alinovi’s call for dynamic analysis and reflect both systems-based requirements (multi-level interactions, rates of change, inherent volatility) as well as human dimensions (e.g., desirability of system states, people’s perceptions, vulnerability connections). The recommendations and next steps that follow from the measurement principles appear promising because they account for the underlying concepts of complex systems dynamics and cross-scale interactions, while recognizing the need for both quantitative and qualitative data to understand causal mechanisms.

Other presenters similarly advocated for a mixed method approach to measuring resilience, combining qualitative and quantitative data, as well as steps for interpreting data and providing the necessary contextualization that metrics alone cannot fully capture. Yet another type of approach offered by Christophe Bene, was a resilience proxy based on the cost of impacts calculated from the sum of anticipation costs + impact costs + recovery costs. Bene’s postulate being “the more resilient an individual the lower the costs it takes to get through a specific shock”. Assigning monetary values as a means of measuring resilience has many parallels in the ecosystem services literature, which increasingly recognizes the need to also consider nonmonetary values.

What is missing?
There is clearly something to be gained by measuring resilience, but any formula attempting to capture a dynamic system property will inevitably involve tradeoffs for simplifying purposes and something will be lost. Understanding exactly what is missing from resilience metrics or what is potentially lost with a shift in focus from understanding the resilience of a system to measuring the resilience of a system remains to be clearly articulated. In resilience assessment, a main objective of the exercise is to re-conceptualize a system, place, or issue from an alternative perspective, i.e., through a resilience lens and focusing on interactions such that new insights emerge and interventions can be better informed. How a system behaves is not a function of the sum of its parts so it follows that measuring component parts cannot capture what is meaningful about resilience.

To date, most metrics being proposed focus on social variables and the human dimensions of resilience, as opposed to taking an integrated social-ecological systems (SES) approach. Conceptualizing humans as part of nature and placing people within ecosystems, instead of keeping them separate, represents an important advance in resilience research and sustainability science more broadly. Metrics for resilience and more generally, the application of the concept in practice also stands to benefit from taking an SES approach.

Some considerations for developing resilience metrics
It has been said before that resilience is an overarching concept that encompasses many other core concepts. Biggs and colleagues (2012) identify seven principles for building resilience of ecosystem services. Assuming a given bundle of ES is desirable (and knowing for whom it matters), these seven facets can be managed to strengthen and enhance the resilience of the system. They include: maintaining diversity and redundancy, managing connectivity, managing slow variables and feedbacks, fostering complex adaptive systems thinking, encouraging learning, broadening participation, and promoting polycentric governance systems. To the extent resilience metrics can effectively address these seven principles, they would provide valuable information to anyone wanting to characterize and monitor the capacity of the system to maintain a desired set of ecosystem services in the face of continued change or disturbance.

A final consideration is that resilience is not always a good thing. As Brian Walker stated in his plenary presentation, part of the understanding required is knowing where we need to build resilience, and where we need to reduce it to enable transformation. A range of different types of traps characterized by rigid social and ecological processes that are tied to environmental degradation and livelihood impoverishment make change a real challenge (Boonstra and de Boer, 2014). Where traps exist, the goal may be to reduce the resilience of the current state of the system and build transformative capacity, which may require monitoring and measuring a different set of variables.

Measuring resilience should be possible but finding suitable indicators and metrics that retain key attributes of the concept will also need to reflect the fact that resilience is a means and not an end.

REFS:
Biggs et al. 2012. Towards Principles for Enhancing the Resilience of Ecosystem Services. Annu. Rev. Environ. Resour. 37:421-48.

Walker, B. & D. Salt. 2012. Resilience Practice: Building capacity to absorb disturbance and maintain function. Island Press, Washington, D.C.

What are the key frontier research areas for resilience research?

Now that the Resilience 2014 has ended, what do you in the resilience research community think are the most important frontiers of resilience research?

To answer this question Daniel Ospina & I have created a survey to ask the broad community of researchers and practitioners interested in resilience what research areas they believe are key for advancing resilience research in order to reflect the collective set of questions back to that community.

In the survey you will find a list of broad research questions that have been proposed and prioritized through a Delphi process involving over 60 senior and young researchers working of different areas of resilience and social-ecological research.  This Delphi process was conducted by the Resilience Alliance to identify priority research among its research network.

We believe that Resilience2014 attendees represent a much broader set of resilience research would like to identify and reflect upon the collective research priorities of this broader research community.

We estimate this survey will take no more than 5 minutes.  The results will be reported back on here on resilience science.

To reply to the survey here - and thanks.

 

 

 

Applying resilience thinking

The Stockholm Resilience Centre has just produced a beautiful new booklet that outlines seven principles for applying resilience thinking.

The 20 page free pdf booklet Applying resilience thinking – Seven principles for building resilience in social-ecological systemsPDF (pdf, 1.4 MB), presents  seven principles for building resilience in social-ecological systems:

  1. maintain diversity and redundancy
  2. manage connectivity
  3. manage slow variables and feedbacks
  4. foster complex adaptive systems thinking
  5. encourage learning
  6. broaden participation
  7. promote polycentric governance systems.

Each principle is presented along with an example of how it has been applied.

7 principles

The booklet builds on a in-depth, multi-year comprehensive review of the resilience literature conducted by the Resilience Alliance Young Scholars network.  The first product of this review was a 2012 paper by Oonise Biggs and others “Towards principles for enhancing the resilience of ecosystem services” in Annual Reviews of Environment and Resources (2012), and now  a book “Principles for Building Resilience: Sustaining Ecosystem Services in Social-Ecological Systems” that will be published by Cambridge University Press later this year.

Oonsie Biggs and company will be running a session on their book at the Resilience 2014 conference, on Tuesday 6 May, 11:30-12:30.

Old people, in big cities, afraid of the sky

Always provocative science fiction writer/design guru Bruce Sterling on the future – from his closing keynote at SXSW 2014 

My suspicion is you’re going to see some very severe (not super severe, but increasingly severe) weather disruption events that are just like the ones we’ve already had, only more so. And they’re going to be carried within this cruelty of neo-Liberal global capitalism and the casino economy that we’ve built, our extremely uneven, and outmatched economic structure where the ultra-wealthy can basically buy anything anywhere.

So what will that look like? The future is about old people, in big cities, afraid of the sky. People often ask, “How could science fiction writers predict the future?” The middle of the 20th Century, from here up to about 2070, 2075… it’s old people, in big cities, afraid of the sky.

How do I know that? Well, it’s because demographic change is very obvious — people are gonna get older. And the urban change is very obvious — people have been moving into larger and larger cities for several decades. And climate change is super obvious. People can deny all three of them. You can say, “Oh, well my town will never get bigger.” Okay, Austin’s getting bigger by 100 people a day. Or you could say, “Oh, well I’m never going to get older.” Okay, you are gonna get older. You could get Botox, you can deny it, you can fake it, exercise, take vitamins… you’re gonna get older.

Then there’s the issue of being afraid of the sky, which is mostly a slider bar — you should be afraid of the sky now, but you could be *extremely* afraid of the sky very suddenly for pretty much any unpredictable reason. Once the thing hits— there’s gonna be lots of Katrinas. If it’s a Katrina a year, we could manage it. But if it’s a Katrina a month or if it’s a Katrina a week, we’re in for it. There’s gonna be lots of old people, in big cities, afraid of the sky. Demographics, urbanization, fear.

 

Classics of Social Science 3: Max Weber – Interpreter of (human) nature

Guest post by Simon West:

Karl Marx had modes of production, Emile Durkheim had collective consciousness; Max Weber wanted … nothing of this sort.  He believed it was foolish to assign supra-individual entities a causal force in human history.

Max Weber 1894

Nothing is more dangerous than the confusion of theory and history […]. This confusion expresses itself firstly in the belief that the “true” content and the essence of historical reality is portrayed in such theoretical constructs or secondly, in the use of these constructs as a procrustean bed into which history is to be forced or thirdly, in the hypostatization of such “ideas” as real “forces” and as a “true” reality which operates behind the passage of events and which works itself out in history” (Weber 2007 [1904], 214)

Weber marshaled two innovations to stay clear from the ‘fallacy of misplaced concreteness’ (Whitehead 2011 [1926]), i.e. mistaking the abstract for the concrete. First of all, he grounded his sociology in the German hermeneutic tradition of interpretation of interpersonal social interactions (‘verstehen’).

The hermeneutic tradition differentiates between the study of nature and the study of society, suggesting that, “while we can ‘explain’ natural occurrences in terms of the application of causal laws, human conduct is intrinsically meaningful, and has to be ‘interpreted’ or ‘understood’ in a way that has no counterpart in nature” (Giddens 2001 [1992]: ix). This distinction between the social and natural, captured in the concept of the “double hermeneutic” (i.e. the ‘object’ of the social sciences is also a ‘subject’) prominently developed by British sociologist Anthony Giddens, has remained a central problem for the study of human-nature interaction. The expanding range of approaches to human-nature interaction, including social-ecological systems, sustainability science, cultural geography, political ecology, anthropology, environmental humanities, etc. all address this dilemma in different ways.

Interestingly (particularly for social-ecological research), Weber did not think that a deep engagement with subjective human interpretation would make (social) science relativistic, or preclude causal explanation. Knowledge of the motives and rationalities that trigger people to act would, for Weber, still allow a causal explanation of human behaviour, but leave out any metaphysical extra-individual entities. He was strongly committed to the hermeneutic tradition, but at the same time endorsed the positivist ideal of a generalizing, parsimonious science. With this definition of sociology Weber elegantly overcame the two opposite positions in the so-called ‘methodenstreit’ (or ‘methods dispute’).

Aware of the ambitious standards that he set himself, he knew that it would often (if not always) be impossible to lay bare the multi-causal and complex interactions between the material and ideal worlds, the individual, the collective and the environment. He therefore – and this is Weber’s second major innovation – insisted that his analysis was not complete explanation, and only traced “one side of the causal chain” (Weber 2001 [1930]:125). He termed such ‘one-sided’ or ‘accentuated’ analysis ‘ideal-typical’, and the concepts it engaged ‘ideal-types’.

 […] the only way to avoid serious and foolish blunders requires a sharp, precise distinction between the logically comparative analysis of reality by ideal-types in the logical sense and the value-judgment of reality on the basis of ideals.” (Weber 2007 [1904], 215)

Weber book coverWeber’s most famous academic work, The Protestant Ethic and Spirit of Capitalism (1904), is a perfect example of an analysis through the use of ideal-types. The book traces the ideological basis (the spirit) of capitalism in the development of a protestant ethic in 15th century Europe. Weber was of course aware of the material origins of capitalism (his work has been described as a life-long debate with the ghost of Marx) but he in contrast focused on the ideas and rationale that produced capitalism. The book leaves implicit Marx’s legacy to identify the causal force of human interpretation in social-economic history. The book’s thesis is that the ‘capitalist spirit’ emerged from an austere ethic that Weber attributes to ascetic Protestantism, especially Calvinism, where beliefs in predestination, the idea of a ‘calling,’ and attribution of value to hard work established the pursuit of profit as inherently virtuous. Gradually the pursuit of profit transformed from being a means of salvation to becoming an end in and of itself; the protestant ethic became the capitalist spirit.

The Puritan wanted to work in a calling; we are forced to do so […]. This order is now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which from day-to-day determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with economic acquisition, with irresistible force. Perhaps it will so determine them until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt.” (Weber 2001 [1930]: 123).

In direct connection to the above quote Weber invokes the image of an ‘iron cage’ as a metaphor for the stultifying rationalization of everyday life. According to his own ideal-typical typology of motivations of social action, a functional rationality (means-ends deliberation) gradually superseded and colonized alternative motivations, such as value rational, traditional and emotional motivations for action (Kalberg 1980). Characteristically, Weber did not see these motivations as operating exclusively and separately, but rather co-evolving in different arenas of human life at different speeds and scales.

Weber’s typology of rationality.  Table by Wijnand Boonstra.

Weber’s typology of rationality. Table by Wijnand Boonstra.

Our class discussions revolved around the different ways that particular types of rationality shape human interaction with the environment today. As Giddens (2001 [1992]) points out, Weber’s work as a whole can be interpreted as a study of the divergent ways in which this rationalization of culture has taken place around the world – Weber published enormous and still influential texts on the major ‘world religions,’ including ancient Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism.

Environmental historians (see for instance Robert Mark’s China: Its Environment and History or William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis) are increasingly unpacking the effects of these different forms of cultural rationalization on social-ecological interaction at the macro-scale.

The value of Weber’s ideas for social-ecological systems research is not easily overstated. Weber’s focus on inter-subjective interpretation influenced symbolic interactionists like Erving Goffman, who examined the meanings and frames of interpersonal interaction and understanding (Goffman 1974). In turn, Goffman’s work has prompted contemporary social theorists like Manuel De Landa to construct the social from networks and assemblages founded on personal interaction (De Landa 2006).

Weber’s ideas also resonate with recent work in cognitive science. George Lakoff, for instance, argues that individual ‘frames’ – mostly unconscious schemas including semantic roles, relations between roles, and relations to other frames – determine how we perceive and respond to environmental change (Lakoff 2010). While Lakoff does not cite Weber, they share sensitivity to the invidious and restrictive ways that subconscious frames, perhaps constitutive of an ‘ethic’ or ‘spirit,’ shape our everyday social, individual and even ecological experience.

Could Weber’s typology of rationality and associated forms of social action offer inspiration for thinking about social-ecological networks and SES modelling?

Max Weber completes the triumvirate of the classic ‘founders’ of sociology, and it is also with him that we reach the end of this course.

We hope this course can spark a wider exploration of the exciting theoretical options open to sustainability scholars.

Who are your classics?

On which shoulders do you stand?

The increasing willingness of sustainability scholars to excavate the classics to prompt new thinking of human-nature interactions may perhaps lead to a new generation of great theoretical synthesizers.

References

De Landa, 2006. A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage Theory and Social Complexity. London: Continuum.

Giddens, A., 2001. Introduction. In: Weber, M. 2001 [1930].The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. London and New York: Routledge.

Goffman, E., 1974. Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience. New York: Harper & Row.

Lakoff, G., 2010. Why it Matters How We Frame the Environment. Environmental Communication: A Journal of Nature and Culture 4(1): 70 – 81.

Kalberg, S., 1980. Max Weber’s Types of Rationality: Cornerstones for the Analysis of Rationalization in History. American Journal of Sociology 85(5): 1145 – 1179.

Weber, M. 2001 [1930].The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. London and New York: Routledge.

Weber, M. 2007 [1904]. Objectivity in social science. In: Calhoun et al. (eds.) Classical Sociological Theory. London: Blackwell.

Whitehead, A.N. 2011 [1926] Science and the modern world. Cambridge, University Press. Cambridge.

Early Registration for Resilience 2014 – last day March 10th

March 10th is the last day for early Registration for Resilience 2014!

Resilience 2014 is this year’s open Resilience Science conference in Montpellier, France – running from May 4-8th.

The theme of this conference is “resilience and development: mobilizing for transformation” and the organizing committee aims to explore and reinforce the multiple links between resilience thinking and development issues

It follows up on the successful Resilience 2011, in Tempe, Arizona and Resilience 2008 in Stockholm, Sweden.

I and many of my colleagues are planning to attend, and I believe it should be a fun, provocative, and diverse conference.

Classics of Social Science 2: Emile Durkheim

A guest post by Wijnand Boonstra

Émile Durkheim photo.

Émile Durkheim from wikipedia.

Old Durkheim was used to taking blows, right from the day of his PhD defense in 1893. His dissertation, later published as The Division of Labour in Society, was turned down twice. The third time he got it through, but not without serious objections.

Durkheim was criticized for treating “the evolution of morality as inexorably determined by social causes”(Giddens 1978, 34) – and consequently for replacing God with a deified ‘society.’ Since then critique of Durkheim’s work never ceased. He threw himself into the fray, engaging in public intellectual battles with many of his adversaries. But, how did he fare posthumously in the lion’s den of the SRC’s Resilience Research School?

Durkheim is deemed responsible by some for leading sociology down the wrong theoretical track, especially with his emphasis on ‘social facts’. Bruno Latour, for example, argues that there are no discrete social totalities such as ‘social facts’, let alone ‘collective consciousness’. Instead, citing Margaret Thatcher’s famous line that there is “no such thing as society,” Latour proposes multiple, overlapping, contradicting networks of people and things as a more fitting object for social science (Latour 2005). According to Latour social science would be in a better condition today if it had listened more closely to the individualist sociology of Durkheim’s nemesis Gabriel Tarde.

from the Guardian: Margaret Thatcher with the Greater London Council’s 12,000th council home buyer in 1980. She was initially opposed to the right to buy. Photograph: PA Archive

Durkheim is also taken to task for denying the influence of natural environments on the development of societies. He is held responsible for establishing the so-called ‘human exceptionalism paradigm’ (Catton and Dunlap 1978; Dunlap and Catton 1979) that dominated the development of the social sciences during most of the 20th century. In this interpretation Durkheim was so preoccupied with establishing sociology as an independent scientific discipline, he purified it from all biological, psychological, and ecological explanations. ‘Social facts can only be explained with other social facts’ as his famous dictum has it.

But how averse really was Durkheim from non-sociological explanations? Well, against the famous 19th century sociologist and Social Darwinist Herbert Spencer, Durkheim did assert that natural environments did not determine societies. But he did not think that society was autonomous from nature:

[…] even if society is a specific reality it is not an empire within an empire; it is part of nature, and indeed its highest representation. The social realm is a natural realm which differs from the others only by greater complexity” (Durkheim 1912 [1976]: 18).

In his dissertation he poses that “Man depends upon only three kinds of environment: the organism, the external world, and society” (1964 [1893]: 285). Moreover, he points out that the natural environment “bears the imprint of society” (1899 [1972]: 88 cited in Gross 2000, 283), i.e. describing how societies as complex social realities can partly disengage themselves from nature and, in so doing, transform nature:

 A society is the most powerful combination of physical and moral forces of which nature offers us an example. Nowhere else is an equal richness of different materials, carried to such a degree of concentration, to be found. Then it is not surprising that a higher life disengaged itself which, by reacting upon the elements of which it is the product, raises them to a higher plane of existence and transforms them” (idem, p. 446)

Remarks that sound surprisingly up-to-date in light of contemporary attempts to capture the co-production of nature and society: ‘novel ecosystems’ (Hobbs et al. 2013); ‘new natures’ (Jorgensen et al 2013); ‘environing’ (Sörlin and Warde 2009); ‘niche-construction’ (Odling-Smee et al. 2003). But to brand Durkheim as an early ecological sociologist would be going too far. As argued last week, that honor is better bestowed on Marx.

Discussions in class focused most on what Durkheim meant with his elusive and thought-provoking concept of ‘social fact’. From the second preface to The Rules of Sociological Method it becomes clear that this term was considered controversial immediately after its introduction in 1895. Here Durkheim goes to considerable lengths to defend it, pointing out misinterpretations and offering clarifications.

Critics had problems accepting that a social fact, according to Durkheim, exerts an “external constraint” over individuals. Was he not reifying social facts as something above and beyond individuals? In the preface Durkheim points out that social facts are real because they make themselves “felt” and “reckoned with”, and they “are never completely overcome” (1895 [1982], 44). “The individual encounters them when they are already completely fashioned and he cannot cause them to cease to exist or be different from what they are” (idem, 45).

In the remaining argument Durkheim also explains how the “individual plays a part in their creation [of social facts]”, and that we do not “receive them passively and without causing them to undergo modification”, but that “different people adapt themselves differently to social facts” (idem, 47). At the end of the text Durkheim makes a useful and interesting comparison. He points out (with reference to his nephew Marcel Mauss) that social facts “moderately well” resemble institutions (idem, 45).

The concept of ‘institutions’ is well established in sustainability science through the work of Elinor Ostrom. She defines institutions as “the prescriptions that humans use to organize all forms of repetitive and structured interactions” (Ostrom 2005, 2). Now compare her definition against Durkheim’s definition of institutions as “collective ways of acting and thinking” (1895 [1982], 45).

In Ostrom’s definition institutions seem to imply that institutions are tools that people use with the intention to organize social life. Durkheim casts his net much wider, and includes besides intentional, deliberate social action also more tacit, unconscious socially shared habits of thought and action. Would perhaps Durkheim’s understanding, compared to Ostrom’s focus on intentional action, lend itself better to account for the unplanned and unanticipated effects of people’s social actions? A lot more can be said about the definitions of institutions. But not right now (instead see Hodgeson 2006), because Max Weber is waiting.

References
Catton, W. R., & Dunlap, R. E. 1978. Environmental sociology: A new paradigm. The American Sociologist 13: 41-49.

Dunlap, R. E., & Catton, W. R., Jr. 1979. Environmental sociology. Annual Review of Sociology 5: 243-273.

Durkheim, É. 1893 [1964]. The division of labor in society. New York: The Free Press.

Durkheim, É. 1895 [1982]. The rules of sociological method. New York: The Free Press.

Durkheim, É. 1912 [1976]. The elementary forms of religious life. London: Allen & Unwin.

Giddens, Anthony (1978) Durkheim. Glasgow: Fontana.

Gross, M. 2000. Classical sociology and the restoration of nature: The relevance of Émile Durkheim and Georg Simmel. Organization and Environment 13 (3): 277-291.

Hobbs, R.J., Higgs, E.S., Hall, C. 2013. Novel ecosystems: Intervening in the new ecological world order. London: Wiley Blackwell.

Hodgeson, G.M. 2006. What are institutions? Journal of Economic Issues 40 (1): 1-25.

Jørgensen, F. A., Jørgensen, D. and Pritchard, S. 2013. New natures: Joining environmental history with science and technology studies, Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Latour, B. 2005. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Odling-Smee, F. J., Laland, K. N., and Feldman, M. W. 2003. Niche construction: the neglected process in evolution (No. 37). Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Ostrom, E. 2005. Understanding institutional diversity. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Sörlin, S., and Warde, P. 2009. Nature’s end: History and the environment. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Classics of Social Science 1: Karl Marx the first ecological sociologist?

Guest post by Simon West:

Reflections on Week Two of the Resilience Research School PhD course, ‘Why Bother with Durkheim? Using (classical) social science to understand the social dynamics of social-ecological systems.  (previously Week One – why study classics).

a file from the Wikimedia Commons.

Karl Marx from Wikimedia Commons.

There is almost certainly no social scientist whose reputation precedes them as much as Karl Marx. Indeed, his reputation precedes him to the extent that many people would not even think of him as a social scientist.

This is troublesome for young interdisciplinary researchers – the ‘intimidation factor’ is enormous. However, this fear factor does not only, or perhaps even primarily, come from Marx himself, but from his coterie of followers and interpreters. Autonomist Marxism, Marxist Humanism, Analytical Marxism, Cultural Marxism, Structural Marxism, Marxist Theology, not to mention fields that borrow heavily from Marxist critique such as political ecology and critical theory – the extensive knowledge and passion that Marx-inspired sub-fields bring to the surface demonstrate his continued vitality, but also alienate many who might be surprised by the content of Marx’s original texts.

In this class we put chapter 15 of Marx’s Capital, ‘Machinery and Large-Scale Industry,’ into dialogue with John Bellamy Foster’s (1999) article, ‘Marx’s Theory of Metabolic Rift: Classical Foundations for Environmental Sociology.

We did not attempt a close reading of Marx’s chapter, a la David Harvey (who once dedicated almost a whole class to a single footnote!), but rather used it as a springboard to identify potential areas of use for social-ecological systems research.

Course organiser Wijnand Boonstra set the scene in an introductory lecture outlining Marx’s personal and social context, including his lifetime friendship and collaboration with Friedrich Engels, “Marx’s general”. Marx remarks in his infamous footnote (see above) that, “a critical history of technology would show how little any of the inventions of the eighteenth century are the work of a single individual.” The same is true for the products of 19th century social science. How could two young men who had no personal experience of industrial exploitation write about the debilitating effects of capitalism on the poor with such accuracy? An intriguing article published last year suggests an answer may be found in the sharp intellect and companionship of Engel’s working-class companion Mary Burns. It is thought that Mary, believed to be a prostitute by some historians, guided Engels through the slums of Manchester, providing him with an immersive experience of the poor that otherwise would have been impossible for the son of a wealthy mill-owner.

Social-Ecological Metabolism

In the subsequent discussion groups, we moved from the complex, unpredictable and dynamic interactions of interpersonal history to the equally complex and adaptive relationships between humans, machines, work and nature through time.

Discussions initially revolved around Marx’s concept of ‘metabolic rift,’ as elaborated by Bellamy Foster. For Marx, human-nature relations include a social-ecological metabolism carried out through labour processes:

 “Labour is, first of all, a process between man and nature, a process by which man, through his own actions, mediates, regulates and controls the metabolism between himself and nature. He confronts the materials of nature as a force of nature. He sets in motion the natural forces, which belong to his own body, his arms, legs, head and hands, in order to appropriate the materials of nature in a form adapted to his own needs. Through this movement he acts upon external nature and changes it, and in this way he simultaneously changes his own nature … It [the labour process] is the universal condition for the metabolic interaction [Stoffwechsel] between man and nature, the everlasting nature-imposed condition of human existence, […]” (Marx 1976 [1867]: 283, 290).

Marx, using the ecological crisis of large-scale soil degradation in United Kindgom during the first half of the 1800s, identified a ‘rift’ in this metabolism. Prior to industrialization soil nutrients were replaced by rural populations living off the land. But with the invention of Watt’s coal and water-fuelled, double-acting steam-engine, machines became mobile and “permitted production to be concentrated in towns instead of being scattered over the countryside” (Marx 1976 [1867]: 497-498). The English countryside depopulated while in crowded London nutrients were washed away in the Thames. This ‘rift’ – produced by growing differences between the urban and rural – supported Marx’s broader claim that capitalism is inherently self-destructive.

It was suggested in the discussion groups that a ‘rift’ between humans and nature has been postulated in many academic traditions. However, the temporal location of this rift varies – for some, perhaps Marx, the origin of the rift emerged the moment humans began to modify their environment through culture (yet only became problematic during the second industrial revolution). Others, such as the environmental historian Donald Worster, might associate it with the European discovery of the Americas in the 15th and 16th centuries. Earth system scientists on the other hand have suggested the ‘great acceleration’ of the second half of the twentieth-century.

Discussion turned towards the Stockholm Resilience Centre’s own plea for a ‘Reconnection to the Biosphere’ – and where and how, given Marx’s understanding of social-ecological metabolism, this ‘reconnection’ should take place. Should emphasis be placed on personal epiphanies and behavioural change? Should it be aimed at changing government policy or encouraging grass-roots innovation? Should it be geared towards challenging dominant power structures?

Discussants were united in expressing surprise at just how prescient Marx’s observations regarding human-environment relations were. Indeed, some sentences could conceivably have been used in the Brundtland Report (1987):  “Even an entire society, a nation, or all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not owners of the earth. They are simply its possessors, its beneficiaries, and have to bequeath it in an improved state to succeeding generations as boni patres familias [good heads of the household]” (Marx 1959 [1894]: 530). Of course, the authors might have struggled getting such policy traction with a document explicitly quoting Marx!

What might the concept of social-ecological metabolism be useful for and what might it leave out? It was posited in class that the concept of ‘metabolism’ might be a useful way of understanding how the ‘social’ and ‘ecological’ components of SES interact and transform each other, and indeed some work has already been done using the concept of metabolism to understand human impacts on the earth system in the Anthropocene. SRC Professor Garry Peterson suggests that while metabolism might work for biogeochemical issues, complex systems approaches, which focus on populations, heterogenity and diversity, are more useful for thinking about many of the novel aspects of the anthropocene, such novel ecosystems. On the other hand, it might be intriguing to explore new kinds of ‘rift’ in a globally connected world, such as the concept of teleconnected vulnerabilities. Establishing such bridges and disconnects between academic traditions was precisely the type of debate we hoped the course would provoke.

Revolution, the adaptive cycle and systemic change

As a systems thinker, Marx believed that history progressed through revolutionary, cyclic change. A very related idea was later captured with the term “punctuated equilibrium” (Gould and Eldredge 1977). Often labeled a simple determinist because of his emphasis on the defining force of materiality on the social, Marx actually advocated a more subtle co-evolution between nature and culture, which Engels, in a letter written after Marx’ death, explains as follows: “The political, legal, philosophical, literary, and artistic development rests on the economic. But they all react upon one another and upon the economic base. It is not the case that the economic situation is the sole active cause and everything else is merely a passive effect” (Engels 1894 in Elwell 2008: 22). Here it is the interaction between the material and the ideational that produces social change.

Class discussants identified parallels and disconnects between this cyclic vision of human history and the adaptive cycle & panarchy heuristics used in resilience research.

Two features distinguish a panarchic representation from traditional hierarchical ones. The first is the importance of the adaptive cycle and, in particular the alpha phase as the engine of variety and the generator of new experiments within each level. The second is the connections between levels. There are potentially multiple connections between phases at one level and phases at another level, but two are most significant in our search for the meaning of sustainability. Those are the connections labeled as Revolt and Remember

Both approaches, to some extent, embrace a fatalistic approach to change and disorder. Still, both approaches seem to leave some room for agency, although perhaps in Marx’s case implicitly. “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.” (Marx 2007 [1852]: 112).

Attention in resilience research is increasingly turning explicitly to individual and collective agency to understand the dynamics of transformation in social-ecological systems.

Course participants imagined how Marx would interpret current attempts to ‘reinvent the system’ towards more sustainable trajectories. Transition towns as a movement to heal the metabolic rift, or as a bourgeois hobby? Ecosystem services as product of capitalism, or revolutionary re-valuation of capital?

Dialectics, causal loops and interdisciplinary science

Whether these initiatives contain the seeds of transformation or become colonized by a capitalist system would, according to Marx, probably depend on their historical, dialectic relations, which are uncontrollable. In Marx’s work you won’t find any descriptions of social-ecological systems, or causal loop diagrams that highlight its inner workings [See Figure 2 for an attempt by course participant Diego Galafassi to work through the concept of ‘metabolic rift’ using a causal loop diagram]. Instead he points out crucial elements – labour objects; nature; technology; society; mentalities; human nature – that form concatenating relations and shape human history. These interactions are forever changing – an understanding he adhered to since his PhD thesis on Epicurus – symbiotic and parasitic at the same time.

Figure 2: An interpretation of the concept of ‘metabolic rift’ as a causal loop diagram by course participant Diego Galafassi.

Marx also applies dialectics – thinking in inherent contradictions – to (scientific) hermeneutics. “It is characteristic of the entire crudeness of ‘common sense,’ […], that where it succeeds in seeing a distinction it fails to see a unity, and where it sees a unity it fails to see a distinction. If ‘common sense’ establishes distinction determinations, they immediately petrify surreptitiously and it is considered the most reprehensible sophistry to rub together these conceptual blocks in such a way that they catch fire” (Marx in Ollman 2003: 77). ‘Rubbing conceptual blocks’ captures eloquently what we now would understand as interdisciplinary science. Does this mean that we are on our way to transdiscplinarity after all?

Next week: Emile Durkheim…

 

References

Elwell, F. 2008. The sociology of Karl Marx. Chapter 1 in Macrosociology. The study of sociocultural systems. The Edwin Mellen Press: New York. Pp. 15-40.

Gould, S.J. and Eldredge, N. 1977. Punctuated equilibria: the tempo and mode of evolution reconsidered. Paleobiology 3 (2): 115-151.

Marx, K. 2007 [1852] The eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. In: Calhoun, C., Gerteis, J., Moody, J. Pfaff, S. and I. Virk. Classical Sociological Theory. Second Edition. Blackwell Publishing: Oxford. Pp. 112 – 121.

Marx, K. 1976 [1867] Capital. A critique of political economy. Volume I. London: Penguin Books.

Marx, K. 1959 [1894] Capital. The process of capitalist production as a whole. Volume III. New York: International Publishers.

Ollman, B. 2003. The dance of the dialectic. Steps in Marx’s method. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Kim Stanley Robinson on the Anthropocene

Below are an interesting excerpt from an interview of Kim Stanley Robinson, a Californian sustainability oriented science fiction writer, in Boom Magazine.

Boom: But, as you’ve said, all of California in some ways has been terraformed. It’s not natural in the way we usually conceive of natural. Are we as gods, as Steward Brand famously proclaimed, so we better get good at it?

Robinson: California is a terraformed space. I think we have accidentally become terraformers, but of course we are not gods. We don’t actually know enough about ecology, or even about bacteria, to do what we want to do here. We could make environmental changes that could do damage that we can’t recover from, so it’s dangerous. We’re more like the sorcerer’s apprentice. We can do amazing things on this planet, out of hubris, and partial ignorance, and yet we are without the powers to jerk the system back to health if we wreck it. If ocean acidification occurs, we don’t have a chance to shift that back. So we’ve accidentally cast ourselves into this role by our scientific successes, but we don’t have the power to do what we need to do, so we need to negotiate our situation with the environment. The idea that we’re living in the Anthropocene is correct. We are the biggest geological impact now; human beings are doing more to change the planet than any other force, from bedrock up to the top of the troposphere. Of course if you consider twenty million years and plate tectonics, we’re never going to match that kind of movement. It’s only in our own temporal scale that we look like lords of the Earth; when you consider a longer temporality, you suddenly realize we’re more like ants on the back of an elephant. By no means do we have godlike powers on this planet. We have a biological system we can mess up, a thin wrap on the planet’s surface, like cellophane wrapping a basketball. But there is so much we don’t know. You can do cosmology with more certainty than ecology.

Boom: Speaking of terraformed, the Delta, where you live here in Davis, is a great example of a terraformed landscape.

Robinson: It’s kind of great. It’s troubled, but I think it’s still beautiful. I like these human-slash-natural landscapes. I like terraformed landscapes. The Central Valley has been depopulated of its Serengeti’s worth of wild creatures, and that’s a disaster. But you could do amazing agriculture in the Central Valley and add wildlife corridors, where the two could coexist in a palimpsest, big agriculture and the Serengeti of North America, occupying the same space. And then it would be that much more interesting and beautiful. If you went out there to the edge of Davis now, you would see nothing in terms of animals. But if you went out there and it was filled with tule elk and all the rest of the animals and birds of the Central Valley biome, occasionally a bear would come down out of the hills; and, well, you couldn’t run alone out there, because of the predators. You’d have to run in a group. But humans are meant to run in groups. The solo thing is dangerous. So it would all come back to a more natural social existence. This is the angle of utopianism that I’ve been following. It’s a kind of natural-cultural amalgam, whereas utopian literature historically was mostly a social construct, and it was kind of urban. Utopia was thought of as a humanist space, but when you think of humans as part of a much larger set of life forms, then you get to a utopia that includes it all and is a process. I haven’t actually written the novel that would put all of this together, because each of my novels has been a different part of the puzzle and a different attempt at it. So I keep having an idea for the book yet to come. Seems like I might start another one like that sometime soon.

California is a terraformed space.