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Learning to live with social-ecological complexity: An interpretive analysis of learning in 11 UNESCO Biosphere Reserves
Stockholm University, Faculty of Science, Stockholm Resilience Centre.ORCID iD: 0000-0002-9738-0593
Stockholm University, Faculty of Science, Stockholm Resilience Centre.
(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 [en]
learning, biosphere reserves, interpretive, social-ecological systems, complexity
National Category
Environmental Sciences Social Sciences Interdisciplinary
Research subject
Sustainability Science
Identifiers
URN: urn:nbn:se:su:diva-135537OAI: oai:DiVA.org:su-135537DiVA: diva2:1046100
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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