Guest post from Simon West, Diego Galafassi, Jamila Haider, Andres Marin, Andrew Merrie, Daniel Ospina-Medina, Caroline Schill
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 in Environmental Social Sciences at the School 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 as Donna 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?
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’?
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?
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.
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?
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.
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?
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?
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. A current 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.