What is Social Learning?

Ecology and Society has just published a clarifying new paper by Mark S. Reed and others What is Social Learning? (15(4): r1).  Reed and his co-authors argue that while social learning is becoming an increasingly important goal in natural resource management there is little consensus on what social learning actually is, and they attempt to provide a clear definition.

They write [formatting added by me]:

Social learning is often conflated with other concepts such as participation and proenvironmental behavior, and there is often little distinction made between individual and wider social learning. Many unsubstantiated claims for social learning exist, and there is frequently confusion between the concept itself and its potential outcomes. This lack of conceptual clarity has limited our capacity to assess whether social learning has occurred, and if so, what kind of learning has taken place, to what extent, between whom, when, and how. This response attempts to provide greater clarity on the conceptual basis for social learning.We argue that to be considered social learning, a process must:

(1) demonstrate that a change in understanding has taken place in the individuals involved;

(2) demonstrate that this change goes beyond the individual and becomes situated within wider social units or communities of practice; and

(3) occur through social interactions and processes between actors within a social network.

A clearer picture of what we mean by social learning could enhance our ability to critically evaluate outcomes and better understand the processes through which social learning occurs. In this way, it may be possible to better facilitate the desired outcomes of social learning processes.

5 thoughts on “What is Social Learning?”

  1. This is exciting to see. Kudos to Mark Reed and colleagues! Here are a few questions that have been on my mind. Perhaps they might serve to open some discussion.

    1. How does this definitional emphasis, which like previous E&S articles on social learning describes “bring[ing] together people who have very different world views and knowledge systems,” relate to the emphasis of Etienne Wenger on “competence,” i.e. social learning as learning to be a practitioner?

    2. Is there a distinction between social learning and social-ecological learning, as this phrase is used in the Resilience 2011 conference themes?

    3. Is there a distinction between social learning and what, in the Dietz/Stern NRC framework, is called “capacity.”
    “Capacity refers to participants, including agency officials and scientists, (1) becoming better informed and more skilled at effective participation; (2) becoming better able to engage the best available scientific knowledge and information about diverse values, interests, and concerns; and (3) developing a more widely shared understanding of the issues and decision challenges and a reservoir of communication and mediation skills and mutual trust.”

  2. Thanks Howard – it was a fun process writing the article – the product of over a year’s worth of conversations/debates/workshops in different projects with different people, trying to work out what on earth we were all talking about when it came to social learning!

    I’d be interested if you could point me towards some of the literature on social-ecological learning from the conference? Is this about social learning for environmental management/sustainability? Or is this effectively about adaptation – self-learning social-ecological systems?

    For me, competence and capacity (which we didn’t cover in our article) are potential outcomes of social learning processes, but are not social learning per se – you may have social learning processes that do not build competence or capacity, but depending on how you design your process and for what purpose you design it, it is possible that you could harness social learning to facilitate competence and capacity building at much wider scales than you could otherwise achieve.

    Does that make sense?


  3. Mark, thanks for discussing your paper in this non-conventional venue – and for the work you do. The questions above illustrate my interest in trying to understand the range of approaches to learning.

    It does make sense to me to describe competence as an outcome of learning – yet Wenger seems to use the word more specifically in his framework. I’ve touched on this point in a post about your paper on my blog, P&P: http://bit.ly/dtGNoJ.

    Resilience 2011 conference abstract submissions are still under review. I reference the conference themes, here: http://bit.ly/cb3xM5.

    I’ll be thinking about the relationships between your social learning framework and the NRC framework (decision quality, perceived legitimacy, participant/community capacity). Interestingly, in the NRC definition of “capacity” above, (2) seems to be a statement about “competence.”

  4. Mark, a critical addition in the Dietz/Stern NRC framework seems to be the measurement of participatory processes against best-understood social-ecological outcomes, i.e. “decision quality,” no? In my P&P post (http://bit.ly/dtGNoJ), i tried to get at decision quality by sketching paths from participatory planning (and its potential for social learning) to institutional change (in rules, practices or norms). In social-ecological learning, decision quality represents an ecological standard of “competence” (a higher standard, if you will) than that required by social learning theorists like Wenger, no? (For Wenger on competence: http://bit.ly/ddo8pM.)

    In any event, just some thoughts on weaving the notion of competence through the NRC framework, in this comment and the one above.

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