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Embracing the primacy of experience: How a practice perspective can bring accounts of adaptive management to life
Stockholm University, Faculty of Science, Stockholm Resilience Centre.ORCID iD: 0000-0002-9738-0593
(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 [en]
adaptive management; complexity; qualitative; epistemology of practice; practice theory
National Category
Environmental Sciences Social Sciences Interdisciplinary
Research subject
Sustainability Science
Identifiers
URN: urn:nbn:se:su:diva-135536OAI: oai:DiVA.org:su-135536DiVA: diva2:1046098
Available from: 2016-11-11 Created: 2016-11-11 Last updated: 2016-11-12Bibliographically approved
In thesis
1. Meaning and Action in Sustainability Science: Interpretive approaches for social-ecological systems research
Open this publication in new window or tab >>Meaning and Action in Sustainability Science: Interpretive approaches for social-ecological systems research
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
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:nbn:se:su:diva-135463 (URN)978-91-7649-573-5 (ISBN)978-91-7649-574-2 (ISBN)
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

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