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Implications for researchers

by Kate Lonsdale

Traditional ways of approaching research are no longer enough, especially where the subject of the research is highly uncertain and complex (e.g. see Funtowicz & Ravetz 1991, Gallopin 1999). Further, Pretty (1995), in his paper on learning for sustainable agriculture, neatly defines two ways of thinking about such approaches. In traditional ways of working, researchers are seen as coming from a single discipline, spending the majority of their time remote from the people they are concerned with and fairly insensitive or unaware of the full complexity of their lives. Their goal is to develop interventions, often technological ones, to improve the situation of these people but often only affecting one aspect of their lives. In the new way of working researchers are self questioning and open about their underlying values, they use flexible methodologies appropriate to each situation, work closely with other disciplines and try to encompass the complexities of people's lives starting with their understanding of the situation, their information and their experience. Questions about supporting good adaptation to climate change may thus shift from being about which are the most effective options to collaborative research on what are the good reasons why these options are difficult to implement in practice (or what exploring would make support change).

As researchers collaborative research is best be achieved using co-learning approaches (Reason and Bradbury,  2008) and by spending time working through how a decision might be made, what drives this process and what hinders action (Wals, 2007).   This requires a self questioning mindset in the researcher, to enable them to be open to their own biases and underlying personal values, in addition to a desire to learn from practitioners and test out ideas to check for robustness in the face of existing structures, available resources and other drivers for change being experienced at the organisational level.

The diagram below illustrates ways of making decisions along axes of increasing impact potential and uncertainty.  As you increase the decision stakes (the potential for a negative impact) and the complexity and uncertainty of the information the more stakeholders and lay people are brought in to participate in the decision making process.  Scientists also have a useful role to play here but as the discussion is more about values than scientific facts they are one player amongst many and other voices need to be heard.  As you start to work with 'wicked' problems the process of problem framing is also important as the framing can pre-configure what are seen to be the available solutions.  The process of problem framing can thus become an exercise in power (Slovic, 2000:411). 


Figure 8: A typology of methods after Forrester et al, 2008


Forrester, J., Å. Gerger Swartling and K. Lonsdale (2008) "Stakeholder Engagement and the Work of SEI: An Empirical Study" Stockholm: SEI

Funtowicz, S.O. and J.R. Ravetz (1991). A new scientific methodology for global environmental issues, in R. Costanza, ed. Ecological Economics. New York: Columbia University Press, 137-152.

Gallopin, G. (1999) 'Generating, sharing and using science to improve and integrate policy' Int. Jnl. Sustainable Development Vol.2(3): 397-410.

Pretty, J. (1995)  Participatory Learning for sustainable agriculture, World Development, Vol 23 (8), pp1247-1263

Reason, P. and Bradbury, H. (2008), The SAGE book of Action Research: Participative Enquiry and Practice, 2nd Edition.

Slovic, P. (2000)  The Perception of Risk (Risk, Society & Policy), Earthscan

Wals, A. (Ed) (2007) Social learning towards a sustainable world: Principles, perspectives and praxis, Wageningen Academic Publishers.

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