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Framing Choices in Environmental Policy Situations

Efforts focused on integrating social sciences into policy require an appreciation of the kinds of situations which are encountered by policy-makers, practitioners and scientists of any discipline.

In the runup to Rio + 20, the Planet under Pressure conference in London 2012 was notable for its conference declaration that humans have entered the Anthropocene – the planetary era defined, for the first time, by human activity where 'many Earthsystem processes and the living fabric of ecosystems are now dominated by human activities' (Brito and Stafford Smith 2012: 2). At the same time, the Global Environmental Outlook report published prior to the Rio + 20 conference also endorsed the message of human initiated climate change. In particular, it noted that 'As human pressures on the Earth System accelerate, several critical global, regional and local thresholds are close or have been exceeded. […] The impacts of complex, non-linear changes in the Earth System are already having serious consequences for human well-being. […] Because of the complexities of the Earth System, responses need to focus on the root causes, the underlying drivers of environmental changes, rather than only the pressures or symptoms' (UNEP 2012: 9).

Although debates will continue about the primacy or otherwise of anthropogenic climate change, these assessments make two things clear: (1) that our understandings of natural resource management are changing and (2) that understandings and practices that are 'more of the same' are no longer good enough (Schön 1995). At the core of prospects for integration and changing policy and practice is the need to change the way many environmental situations are conceptualised or framed (Schön and Rein 1994). The importance of being aware of how a situation is framed is as true for the social sciences as natural sciences. However, as Redman et al. (2004:168) observe, while 'most scientists agree that interdisciplinary collaboration is essential […] our academic training and administrative barriers make that goal difficult to accomplish'. The extent to which the barriers can be reduced depends to some extent on how each discipline within the social sciences seeks to frame the situation through its particular disciplinary lens: whether political; psychological, geographical or economics for example.

Frances (1951) suggests that efforts towards the integration of the different branches in social science requires clarity of epistemological and ontological principles underpinning each of the disciplines (Frances 1951). Scrase and Sheate (2002), in their assessment of integration in environmental assessment, identify over 14 meanings of integration prevalent in practice, suggesting that value judgements as much as technical clarity are key to shaping understandings of integration.

Building on these concerns about existing framings, Dovers suggests any understanding of integration as a principle needs to acknowledge spatial and temporal dimensions, disciplinary boundaries, prevailing cultures and the dynamics of social systems, information and knowledge systems (Dovers 1997). In other words, the imperative for integration 'stems from recognition of the interdependence of human and natural systems, expressed in the research and policy agendas of sustainability' (Dovers 2005:3).

In recognising interdependence, the challenge of integration begin to centre on 'development of methods, processes, data streams, and so on to create integrative capacity [which, in turn,] demands a sophisticated understanding of the interactions between highly complex, non-linear, and often closely interdependent human and natural systems' (Dovers 2005: 3, emphasis in original).

Writing from a systems perspective, Ison also extends the boundary of our concern away from individual disciplines within social science, to the situation itself with which social scientists engage, arguing 'the nature of situations cannot be divorced from our own epistemological, theoretical and methodological commitments' (Ison 2008a: 244). In other words, the individual disciplines frame understandings of situations. Efforts for integrating social sciences must therefore pay attention to these framings.

Some possible framing choices include seeing situations either as difficulties or messes (Ackoff 1974); tame or wicked problems (Rittell and Webber 1973); or existing on the high ground of 'technical rationality' or part of the 'swamp' of real life issues (Schön 1995).

The conventional environmental policy paradigm tends to focus on bio-physical systems and frames many natural resource situations as technical issues – ie more as 'problems' or difficulties rather than 'messy situations' (Collins and Ison 2009a). But some examples of re-framing are evident in policy. The Australian Public Service Commission noted that climate change is characterized as a 'wicked problem' because it is

pressing . . . highly complex . . ., involving multiple causal factors and high levels of disagreement about the nature of the problem and the best way to tackle it (APSC 2007: 1).

Of particular interest from a methodological point of view, the ASC recognises the need to address 'wicked problems' with approaches that are, among other things, (i) holistic, (ii) innovative and flexible, (iii) work across agency boundaries, (iv) increase understanding and stimulate a debate, (v) engaging of stakeholders and citizens in understanding the problem and in identifying possible solutions; and (vi) tolerate uncertainty and accept the need for a long-term focus. This assessment by the ASC points to the need to understand more clearly how different elements of the situation inter-relate and give rise to the 'messiness'.

Drawing on a tradition of systems in a range of natural resource contexts, including agricultural extension, the EU funded Social Learning for Integrated Management of Water (SLIM) project identified a series of system-level characteristics of messy situations comprising: interdependency, complexity, uncertainty, controversy and multiple stakeholdings and thus perspectives (SLIM 2004a; Steyaert and Jiggins 2007). How these characteristics commonly frame a 'messy' situation, and thus what constitutes 'acceptable' responses, can be summarised as:

• multiple stakeholding – where diverse sets of actors actively construct their stake or interest in a situation

• interdependencies – existing when there is little agreement on the boundaries of an issue, or how it will be represented and communicated to others.

• complexity – arising from interdependencies and the diverse cause-effect relationships between local ecosystems, global climate systems and society. It is often linked to partial or complete lack of knowledge about a range of ecological and technical processes and risk (see Skidelsky 2008), social values and wants, and public policy-making imperatives.

• controversies – emerging from an interplay of the previous elements in particular contexts as seen through stakeholders' perspectives and value judgements, traditions of understanding (Russell and Ison 2007), and in the process of constructing their 'stakeholding' (after SLIM 2004b).

These system characteristics and elements combine and are expressed in different ways in different contexts: in some situations, complexity will be associated with data gaps and interpretation of cause and effect; in others complexity could be linked to scale issues or numbers and diversity of stakeholders involved. While it is impossible to pre-determine the exact mix, key to integration in these kinds of situations is epistemological awareness of how those involved in the situation are choosing to frame it. In turn, this can lead to an appreciation of the methodological choices that can be made for managing the natural resource situation in question and in particular what 'integration' among the diverse perspectives might entail.

Arising out of the SLIM project, Ison et al. (2007a) developed the following diagram to depict the importance of being aware of the different kinds of situations and the corresponding methodological approaches that can be chosen as part of the framing of situations.

On the left of Fig. 11.1, the problem is well defined and agreed and therefore a known set of responses, such as education or fiscal measures, can be readily deployed, accepted and used by those involved in this 'difficult' situation. On the right hand side, the situation is indeterminate (as shown by the incomplete boundary). The 'messy' situations extant on the right hand side of Fig. 11.1 can be seen in many natural resource policy contexts and are often evidenced by uncertainties about the nature of the situation itself; concerns about data gaps; and disagreements among stakeholders about what effort is required and how it should be focussed, to name but a few.

Where uncertainties, interdependencies and complexities are experienced, natural resource managing cannot be done by one or two actors in isolation. Instead, it requires a range of views and perspectives to be engaged in defining the situation and issues and determining an approach which is context relevant.

Fig. 11.1 The epistemological basis from which social learning for promoting concerted action can be developed as a purposeful choice. In (a), a known and agreed problem can be addressed by stakeholders using a known form of knowledge. In (b), social learning systems are required to determine responses to contested and incomplete understandings of the environmental issue (After SLIM 2004a; Ison et al. 2007a; Collins and Ison 2009b)

Appreciation of the characteristics of the situation through some form of learning can provide opportunities for a re-framing of the situation to enable integration of different disciplines.

The potential contribution of social science to the re-framing of research was explored by an EU expert group exploring research required for sustainable development. This group noted that:

social scientists studying how research results get used or ignored in policy systematically come to the conclusion that a linear process does not work: there is not a clear domain of science, that produces knowledge, that feeds into or 'impacts' upon a separate system of policy. Rather, there is a set of multiple forms of knowledge, including a variety of research fields, which have to relate to a variety of policy areas and specific policies. (Anon 2007: 4)

Atkinson and Klausen's (2011) review of EU policies provides a similar assessment of integration. They note a 'high degree of comprehensiveness is necessary in order to accommodate concerns for the social and economic aspects of sustainability, not just the environmental aspects.' With this widening of concerns, however, they suggest consistency and aggregation are diminished leading to a well-known policy dilemma: 'the more aspects of an issue policy makers attempt to take into account, the more difficult it is to aggregate these aspects into a consistent policy' (246).

This perspective makes clear that while integration may be widely supported as an ideal principle in order to bring about improved policy and practice, a linear conceptualisation of the process of knowledge and practice, as typified by an emphasis on science – policy – action, will always be deficient as a means to enable

integration of social science. Furthermore, an aggregation model of integration is conceptually and methodological flawed as policy-makers will struggle to cope with, literally, the added complexity.

These imperative of integration, constraints of framing and criticisms of linear policy suggest an alternative, more systemic conceptualisation of, and methodology for, integrating social science into policy is required. The potential for integrated natural resource managing from a systems perspective is explored next.

 
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