Problem and Opportunity: Integrating Anthropology, Ecology, and Policy through Adaptive Experimentation in the Urban U.S. Southwest

Article excerpt

Natural resource management agencies and governmental programs that fund research are increasingly calling for interdisciplinary research that integrates biological ecology and the social sciences in a way that can inform policy. One fundamental impediment to collaboration derives from the emphasis that biological scientists place on experimentation, which is generally not considered a viable option for anthropologists. We suggest that anthropologists could have additional influence on policy by collaborating with biological ecologists in manipulative experiments that include human subjects. Critical to this approach are the participation of research subjects in research planning and willingness on the part of social and biological scientists to rapidly adopt new hypotheses and control scenarios that may emerge from shifting political and ethical contexts-what we call "adaptive experimentation." We provide an example of an adaptive experiment being conducted at Arizona State University, which situates urban landscaping, water conservation, and human behavior within the context of problem definition in water management policy.

Key words: urban anthropology, policy, research methods, ecosystem ecology, water


We have a problem in the U.S. Southwest-a potentially big problem. Precipitation for nine of the last 11 years has been well below normal and many reservoirs are filled to less than half their capacity (ADWR 2006). Some reservoirs are nearly empty (Figure 1). In May 2006, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) designated 14 of Arizona's 15 counties as drought disaster areas. Meteorologists are suggesting that this could be a 20- or 30-year drought (Reese 2004). The cities that depend on this water continue to grow at a staggering rate while politicians and policymakers send conflicting messages to an ambivalent public. Agreements for sharing Colorado River water, a critical resource for 23 million people, are based on data collected during an unusually wet period at the beginning of the last century (Reese 2004). As a result, water allocations upon which planning and development have been based reflect assumptions about water that does not, in reality, exist-a situation that will surely complicate efforts to forge new water sharing strategies.

But what is really the problem? Is it insufficient rainfall, uncontrolled growth, an outdated legal framework based on spurious data, all of the above, or none of the above? If the drought ends next year, does the problem go away? Answers to such questions depend entirely on who gets to frame the questions. Policy analysts have written extensively about the politics, ethics, and negotiation of power involved in this process, which they call "problem definition" (e.g., Dery 1984; Weiss 1989). The most consistent point they make is that those who control problem definition also control how policies are developed and implemented. It would be beneficial if anthropologists, indeed any humanists or social scientists in addition to economists, played a role in problem definition. But the problem definition club is rarely open to new members.

On the other hand, innovation and institutional reorganization often occur during crises (Cibin and Grant 1996; Greiner 1972)-opening up political, organizational, and legal systems that comprise policy institutions to new data and ideas (Gunderson 1999). Moments of crisis may provide anthropologists and other social scientists with brief windows of opportunity to engage the policy process. The current drought in the U.S. Southwest has placed researchers and policymakers in an environment of high technical and political uncertainty in which they are reconsidering long-term management strategies and are willing to entertain new ideas.

Opportunities for social scientists to engage environmental policy are further enhanced by developments within academia and research funding agencies. Since at least the 194Os, cultural anthropologists have been influenced by ecological theory (e. …