Meaning and Action in Sustainability Science : Interpretive approaches for social-ecological systems research

Abstract: Social-ecological systems research is interventionist by nature. As a subset of sustainability science, social-ecological systems research aims to generate knowledge and introduce concepts that will bring about transformation. Yet scientific concepts diverge in innumerable ways when they are put to work in the world. Why are concepts used in quite different ways to the intended purpose? Why do some appear to fail and others succeed? What do the answers to these questions tell us about the nature of science-society engagement, and what implications do they have for social-ecological systems research and sustainability science? This thesis addresses these questions from an interpretive perspective, focusing on the meanings that shape human actions. In particular, the thesis examines how meaning, interpretation and experience shape the enactment of four action-oriented sustainability concepts: adaptive management, biosphere reserves, biodiversity corridors and planetary boundaries/reconnecting to the biosphere. In so doing, the thesis provides in-depth empirical applications of three interpretive traditions – hermeneutic, discursive and dialogical – that together articulate a broadly interpretive approach to studying social-ecological complexity. In the hermeneutic tradition, Paper I presents a ‘rich narrative’ case study of a single practitioner tasked with enacting adaptive management in an Australian land management agency, and Paper II provides a qualitative multi-case study of learning among 177 participants in 11 UNESCO biosphere reserves. In the discursive tradition, Paper III uses Q-method to explore interpretations of ‘successful’ biodiversity corridors among 20 practitioners, scientists and community representatives in the Cape Floristic Region, South Africa. In the dialogical tradition, Paper IV reworks conventional understandings of knowledge-action relationships by using three concepts from contemporary practice theory – ‘actionable understanding,’ ‘ongoing business’ and the ‘eternally unfolding present’ – to explore the enactment of adaptive management in an Australian national park. Paper V explores ideas of human-environment connection in the concepts planetary boundaries and reconnecting to the biosphere, and develops an ‘embodied connection’ where human-environment relations emerge through interactivity between mind, body and environment over time. Overall, the thesis extends the frontiers of social-ecological systems research by highlighting the meanings that shape social-ecological complexity; by contributing theories and methods that treat social-ecological change as a relational and holistic process; and by providing entry points to address knowledge, politics and power. The thesis contributes to sustainability science more broadly by introducing novel understandings of knowledge-action relationships; by providing advice on how to make sustainability interventions more useful and effective; by introducing tools that can improve co-production and outcome assessment in the global research platform Future Earth; and by helping to generate robust forms of justification for transdisciplinary knowledge production. The interventionist, actionable nature of social-ecological systems research means that interpretive approaches are an essential complement to existing structural, institutional and behavioural perspectives. Interpretive research can help build a scientifically robust, normatively committed and critically reflexive sustainability science.

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