Posts Tagged ‘science-policy’

Social-Ecological Systems and the Concept of Territoire

Over the past 10 days, I had the good fortune of participating in two Workshops – one on transboundary conservation and the other on social-ecological systems.  For the moment, I’d like to discuss a bit of the conversation at the latter.  I had the honor of serving as a keynote speaker to one of the warm-up events for the Resilience 2014 conference in Montpellier, France next year (May 4-8, see  The workshop title was “Confronting “socio-ecological systems” and “territoire” as suitable lenses to tackle resilience issues”.  It attempted to combine the work of resilience scholars, such as myself, and our work on complex adaptive systems/resilience/coupled human-environment systems with the work of (predominantly) French geographers and anthropologists using territoire to analyze a similar set of problems.

I learned a great deal about territoire and how this guides analysis and understanding.  What surprised me the most was the amount that the two approaches had in common – the importance of scale, of socio-spatial relations, and the linking of people and their environment.  I had expected a great deal more discussion coming from a post-structural, post-modern, Foucaultian analysis, which I must say that I’m not smart enough to truly understand.  Instead, the discussion revolved around all of the similarities in approaches.

A number of points emerged, however, that warrant further discussion, points that will hopefully come out of the proceedings from the workshop.  At least these were the five main take-aways for me.

  • Both social-ecological systems and territoire approaches share a number of important commonalities (as related above).
  • The drawing of boundaries for analysis is critical to enable understanding in either approach.
  • Many social-ecological system analyses seem to favor one aspect of the system over the other – often heavily SOCIAL-ecological or social-ECOLOGICAL.  Balanced approaches are far less common.
  • The theme for the Resilience 2014 conference – Resilience and Development – fits well with key traits implicit in the territoire scholarship, notably poverty, inequality, and the need for development.
  • Resilience scholars need to do a better job at more explicitly acknowledging the normative aspects of their work.

I had initially intended to write about this final discussion point, given other recent research projects, but I’d like to revisit this in more detail in the coming weeks.  For now, here’s my introduction to French geography.

Worldviews and the Edge of Science

I happened to glance at an Economics forum where advocates from two different sides of a policy debate continued to launch “scientific” salvos at the opponents.  The debate was about the Fed and real versus nominal interest rates effects on the market, but nevermind.  It could have been International Relations scholars debating Realist vs. Liberal policies, policy wonks from the Cato Institute arguing against policy wonks from the ACLU, and so on ad nauseum.  In my mind, this specific debate sparked a couple intertwined thoughts.

The first goes back to my academic mentor, Elinor Ostrom.  I always found it interesting, humorous, and bizarre to see various groups take her work and twist it to support their (policy) agendas.  Whether it was some of her public choice work being seized upon by right-wingers, her small-scale, development work in developing countries by left-wing idealogues, or some other mix, it amazed me to see her work cited and utilized across the political spectrum.  Each group seemed to think that she was in their camp.  This seems quite unusual with many scientists, particularly social scientists, identifying and identified with certain ideological groups.  Think about the role of several other Nobel Laureates – Milton Friedman on the one hand (right hand, as it were), Paul Krugman or Joe Stiglitz on the other (left) hand.  This lead me back to a long-running discussion with a colleague of mine as to whether these scientists would/could ever come to the same conclusions scientifically.  My colleague insists that “science is science” and the data will provide the answer.  I take the position that this may hold for a small treatment conducted in isolation, but my gut tells me that the science generally supports the scientists’ worldview more generally.

Clearly this varies across the disciplinary spectrum, but it seems likely that once we leave the natural sciences this problem becomes pervasive – compare astrophysics (perhaps less of a problem?) with sociology or political science, for instance.  To further complicate matters, scientists are increasingly taking normative positions up front.  The Society for Conservation Biology, for instance, has a mission to “advance the science and practice of conserving the Earth’s biological diversity”.  Many climate scientists have similar belief systems regarding earth system science.  ASU’s School of Sustainability mission is likewise normative calling to “develop practical solutions to some of the most pressing environmental, economic, and social challenges of sustainability.”  Similarly, the Planetary Boundaries literature takes scientific research and seeks to “mobilize thousands of scientists while strengthening partnerships with policy-makers and other stakeholders to provide sustainability options and solutions in the wake of Rio+20 [emphasis added]”.

With these, and countless other examples, how do we reconcile our science and our worldviews?