Academic journal article European Journal of Sustainable Development

Integrating Social Power and Political Influence into Models of Social-Ecological Systems

Academic journal article European Journal of Sustainable Development

Integrating Social Power and Political Influence into Models of Social-Ecological Systems

Article excerpt

1. Introduction: Integrating Different Ways of Knowing

One of the challenges for transdisciplinary sustainability-science research is to integrate different kinds of knowledge into usable forms relevant to the diverse audiences tasked with addressing sustainability problems. Bringing scientific, technical, experienced, and tacit views of a system into alignment with each other is critical for developing a shared body of assumptions from which to make decisions. Shared conceptualizations of a system must be salient, legitimate, and credible to all parties' perspectives involved in planning if those policies made are to satisfy the persons expected to implement them (Clark et al., 2011). This task moves past multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary efforts at social and biophysical science collaboration. Combining scientific and lay knowledge into an accessible-and politically acceptable- representation of a system that then becomes a tool for deliberating about environmental problems and making decisions requires treating local social and political complexities with the same quality of attention typically afforded to the biophysical components.

One way in which to explore transdisciplinary knowledge integration is through "boundary objects", a category of shared tools for deliberation. Boundary objects are collaborative products-maps, reports, decision tools, forecasts, models, others-created by various actors that are adaptable to different viewpoints and yet robust enough to be meaningful to each group's adherents (Cash et al., 2003; Clark et al., 2011; Star & Griesemer, 1989). Boundary objects are useful ways of representing constituent knowledge relevant to all interested parties. By pursuing strategically the interests of all parties, boundary objects project authority. Ultimately, the purpose of these intermediary tools is to facilitate relationships between science, society, and decisionmaking that lead to more productive policy making (Jasanoff, 1990).

1.1 Models as Boundary Objects

When systems models-conceptual or mathematical models of social-ecological systems designed for prediction or explanation (cf. Hall, Lazarus, & Swannack, 2014)-are constructed utilizing the expertise of many, they can serve as a boundary object that bridge seemingly disparate forms of knowledge. Models can be powerful tools for decision making with lasting implications upon social order. They can capture the dynamics of various realities' and their moving parts simultaneously. Models can represent integrated interdisciplinary science (Grant, 1998; Heemskerk, Wilson, & Pavao-Zuckerman, 2003; van der Leeuw, 2004). Furthermore, scholars are increasingly incorporating lay characterizations of resource systems into models of human-environment dynamics (Cash, Borck, & Patt, 2006; Clark, 2007; Kates, 2011; Kates et al., 2001; Pohl, 2011; Schmolke, Thorbek, DeAngelis, & Grimm, 2010; Talwar, Wiek, & Robinson, 2011).

As representations of reality, models can provide means of orientation within a problem space and shape the basis for decision making. Models are sometimes compared to maps (Robinson, 1991) that chart a course through a conceptual landscape, unfamiliar or familiar. Models have been compared to narratives (Allen, Zellmer, & Wuennenbeg, 2005) capable of making sense of complexity via a coherent, temporally structured, internally consistent, familiar, and pleasing form of story told to a specific audience. Models also have been compared to landscape paintings (Dietrich, Bellugi, Sklar, & Stock, 2003) where varying forms of realism reflect various realities. In these metaphors and in others, the power of a model is in its appeal to multiple or diverse audience as a way to lend transparency to an otherwise opaque or occluded technical idea, concept, construction, description, or argument.

Essentially, models are tools for communication (Hall et al., 2014), and the process of creating a model forces the model builders to enunciate clearly their held assumptions (Krebs, 2005; Voinov, Seppelt, Reis, Nabel, & Shokravi, 2014). …

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