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Constraints and Opportunities for Social Learning for Integration

The opportunities and limitations of a learning approach to policy integration are still being discovered and appraised as more research in this area is undertaken. Within a social learning paradigm a priority in research practice is to know how to create the circumstances for social learning to occur as part of a learning system.

Perhaps surprisingly for readers of this volume, the constraints do not include difficulties associated with integration – even if this is an element perceived as a constraint by others engaged in natural resource management situations. The reason for this is because, from a systems perspective, integration is not the primary concern. Instead, in designing a social learning system, the focus is on how to create the conditions for enabling social learning for resource managing, from which integration of the different sciences with policy can emerge. However, there are several constraints which can undermine the potential for a learning system to function effectively and thus reduce the likelihood of integration. As noted above, these do not focus on social sciences explicitly since the constraints apply to the design of social learning systems.

The first constraint – and perhaps the meta constraint of social learning processes since it affects all others – is very simple to describe: trust. Understanding what leads to trust for multiple stakeholders and designing and creating the circumstances for trust is less simple. Both the social and the learning element of social learning systems require a level of trust to begin and continue the engagement with others which leads to action. Stakeholders' prior experiences and assessments of the usefulness, quality and likely outcomes of the current learning process (including any facilitation) will be significant factors in shaping trust. Hence, a key criterion for designing any social learning process can be summed up with the question: does this process and its constitutive elements contribute to or constrain the establishment and continuation of trust amongst participants and stakeholders? Answers to that question will vary widely according to context and stakeholders' varying perspectives. Developing the answers provides an opportunity for social sciences to contribute to the substantive content in understanding the situation in terms of trust as well as the design and evaluation of learning systems for NRM.

Linked to trust, and particularly important in terms of initiating social learning, there is often a significant time element in initiating and managing social learning processes. This extends to reporting on social learning processes where the changes arising from social learning might take several years to manifest, if at all. Time frames and lags can be especially problematic if the proposed initiative is seen as 'unusual' or 'threatening' or in some way counter to organisational remits, practices which are centred on wanting answers 'in the short-term'.

Allied to time constraints, the emphasis in social learning processes on participants being part of the co-research process brings a range of commitments and responsibilities which may not align easily with expectations.

This can be most evident in the difficulties of the researcher retaining epistemological awareness and avoiding being assigned the label 'consultant' and its ramifications, particularly the expectation of 'coming up with the answer' to policymakers' questions. Designing a social learning system begins more with the participants 'coming up with a question'. This shift in thinking and practice required within a social learning process in the praxis of research and policy can be resisted by others who are keen (and under pressure from, for example, their organisations or funders) to find the solution, even though the nature of the situation has yet to be adequately defined. Added to this is that many organisations function with adherence to project management tools, such as PRINCE, which can fail to acknowledge or deal with messes and uncertainties and constrain efforts to move beyond projects as technical events.

Scale issues continue to be an issue for social learning processes. For example, how to move from localised, catchment level initiatives where trust can be built and actors have direct stakeholding, to wider, regional or national scales of policymaking. A systems approach can accommodate scale on the basis that any system of interest can also be a sub-system of a wider set of concerns. Thus a nested conceptualisation of systems for natural resource managing is possible. Even so, individual relationships, contact and commitments necessary for trust are difficult to establish and maintain across different levels of policy-making unless there is good awareness and understanding amongst those involved. Quite what this entails and how it can be enacted is context dependent, but design considerations should be led by earlier questions about trust.

The issue of scale also brings a compelling research question to the fore which positions policy-making as just one aspect or sub-system of a natural resource managing system. With such a view, the question becomes less 'what is the right scale?' and more 'what is the right knowledge and governance system for managing a particular resource'? This question address scale, but not as the determining factor, and frees up ways of connecting different scales as part of the social learning process.

This brief discussion on some constraints to social learning encountered also point to some opportunities for bringing methodological innovation into natural resource managing.

Perhaps the most important is skills development in systems thinking and practice such that researchers, policy-makers and practitioners are aware of how their histories, contexts and disciplinary training shape their understanding of a situation and the choice of management methods they deploy. Such epistemological and methodological awareness is key to moving from first to second order thinking.

An opportunity also presents itself in that the limits of participation as the means to achieve integration of multiple perspectives in situations of natural resource managing are increasingly recognised. As Collins and Ison (2009b) argue, participation is a necessary element of, but not sufficient for social learning to occur. This is because social learning is epistemologically different to participation.

Combining these two opportunities, perhaps a key opportunity for social science integration rests on the engagement with and reconceptualization of the social and the biophysical systems in natural resource managing. The notion of social-ecological system is explored widely in the literatures (see for Berkes et al. 1998; Folke et al. 2005; Armitage et al. 2009; Young 2012). Much of this literature explicitly calls for a reframing of the society-nature relationship, often associated with some element of learning. This reframing requires a new understanding of the relationship between biophysical sciences and social sciences where it is not a self-negating 'either/or' dualism, but a complimentary duality – ie each part contributing to a whole (see Collins and Ison 2009a). This brings us back to the beginning of the discussion on integration – defined earlier as the making of wholes. Contributing to the understanding of the duality (or the whole) in socio-ecological systems will be key to the ways in which social sciences can integrate into policy and become a central part of social learning systems for natural resource managing.

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