The future of the environmental social sciences

The environmental social sciences, broadly defined, have had an immense impact on the ways in which environmental planners approach the management of natural resources. The field has transformed from its roots in standard economic approaches to embrace insights from diverse fields and perspectives.  Environmental planners who had been trained to “stick to the science” and manage the threats posed by local communities were now encouraged to facilitate local participation in planning processes, integrate local and traditional knowledge, and consider local contexts when developing and implementing policies. These changes came about through the concerted efforts of environmental social scientists working in the late 80’s and early 90’s to gradually dismantle a widely-held, but poorly supported theory that communities lacked the skills, knowledge and resources to sustainably manage the use of natural resources.  Although it is now clear that approaches such as community-based management, or co-management, that rely heavily on local collective action offer viable approaches for addressing sustainability challenges, it is equally clear that many communities fail to sustainably self-organize.  Similarly, the state and market-based approaches that have been heavily criticized by some (e.g. Ostrom 1990) have proven effective at achieving certain objectives in some contexts.  However, progress in understanding the contexts in which alternative approaches are more (or less) likely to contribute to successful outcomes has been slow.  I would argue that although research in the environmental social sciences has developed rapidly in recent years, we still struggle to provide practical guidance as to how planners might implement many of the core governance principles developed within the environmental social sciences (i.e. participation, integration of local and traditional knowledge, contextually explicit institutional design) across diverse problems and contexts.  Successfully overcoming these gaps will be an immense challenge and yet I believe that we can draw significant insights from existing research by clarifying the multiple meanings of key terms such as participation, and analyzing the emergence and performance of institutions along a gradient of social and ecological conditions.

Over the next few months I plan to use this space to reflect on several of the core principles that environmental social scientists have identified as critical for sustainable environmental governance, share what I have learned about them from my own research and/or the literature, and speculate about potential future directions for research. I plan to begin by focusing on a few principles that I have examined in some of my previous research or have been particularly interested in exploring, including local participation, institutional fit and local and traditional knowledge. I am hoping that insights regarding the implementation of these concepts will be useful for members of the environmental social science community, including myself, as we continue to develop empirical research. But I am not intending for these blog entries to provide a rigorous synthesis of the current state of knowledge.

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