Modern science is often focusing on objects and entities when trying to understand the world. Instead, it should look at processes and relations. Photo: Binh Dang Nam/Unsplash

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RESEARCH METHODOLOGY

Everything flows in social ecological systems. Research needs to adapt

Focusing on processes and relations rather than entities can help solve key challenges in sustainability research

Story highlights

  • Researchers argue that focusing on processes and relations rather than entities can help us overcome main challenges in social-ecological systems research
  • By shifting perspectives researchers can move beyond presenting independent, but connected, problems toward identifying the social-ecological relations that underlie the problems
  • A process-relational perspective can offer better guidance for governance for sustainability

MORE THAN JUST OBJECTS AND ENTITIES: The Greek philosopher Heraclitus is attributed the phrase “everything flows”, around 500 B.C.

Today the notion that social-ecological systems (SES) are complex and intertwined has become established wisdom, but fully accounting for these characteristics remains to be done.

In a paper published in Ecology and Society centre researchers Maria Mancilla Garcia, Tilman Hertz, and Maja Schlüter together with colleagues from Stellenbosch University argue that a shift in ontology, the way we understand the world, can help us get there.

Current approaches are limited

Much of modern science and many of the disciplines that contribute to sustainability research are implicitly based on “substance ontologies” focusing on objects and entities in understanding the world.

The authors propose that a shift towards a process-relational perspective would better equip us to understand and navigate the complexity of social-ecological systems and environmental challenges.

Mancilla Garcia explains that current approaches are limited when it comes to analyzing how the social and ecological are co-constituted, beyond showing how one system impacts on the other.

Our tendency to understand the world in terms of fixed things and entities, rather than processes and relations, is in contradiction with the ever-changing nature of social-ecological systems.

Maria Mancilla Garcia, lead author

A new approach to overcome challenges

In the article, the authors identify four main challenges for SES research:

  1. integrating the social and the ecological
  2. better accounting for complex interactions and dynamics
  3. better accounting for dynamics across scales in time and space
  4. better combining and integrating different knowledge systems

They propose concrete steps toward developing a process-relational perspective of social-ecological systems and discuss how such a perspective can help to overcome these key challenges.

Hertz says, “ ultimately it is about reversing the order, that is, starting with processes instead of entities, and really studying one integrated system instead of two isolated but connected systems. We think this is key to changing the way we currently conduct sustainability research, and that it will offer new opportunities to increase understanding and solve problems.”

A real world example

The authors give the example of climate change adaptation in small-scale fisheries. From a process-relational perspective this would be seen as a network of processes, recognizing that the challenges of climate change are entangled with many other problems such as poverty and globalization.

Schlüter concludes, “This kind of understanding makes it possible to design new governance approaches that aim at managing relations between and among people and the natural system, instead of managing people and ecosystem elements separately.”

Further reading

The article in Ecology and Society is one of several where the authors together with colleagues explore the possibilities of a process-relational ontology.

In another article in People and Nature they go into more detail on the worldview behind the process-relational perspective – that change is more fundamental than stability (see also this introductory video).

In Environmental values (summary here) they argue for ways to study social-ecological systems that closes the gap between how we say we view social-ecological systems and how we treat them in research and practice.

Finally, in Philosophy Kitchen they provide an example of process-relational thinking when applied to “emergent phenomena”, one of the key features of a social-ecological system.

Citation

Mancilla García, M., T. Hertz, M. Schlüter, R. Preiser, and M. Woermann. 2020. Adopting process-relational perspectives to tackle the challenges of social-ecological systems research. Ecology and Society 25(1):29.
https://doi.org/10.5751/ES-11425-250129

Link to publication

For more information about the publication, please contact lead author Maria Mancilla Garcia:

Maria Mancilla-García’s research focuses on relationality in social-ecological systems, including network analysis and theoretical work on the concepts of intertwinedness and dynamism.

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