Transformative Collective Action - using social movement theory to study change in ecosystem management



In an upcoming book chapter entitled "Transformative Collective Action: a network approach to transformative change in ecosystem-based management" I draw on social movement literature (espeically Mario Diani) to make the argument that in order to study 'transformative change' in natural resource management (i.e. changes towards more landscape-based approaches, or systems approaches), we need to acknowledge and take into account the collective and political character of such transformations. They rest on sustained collective action, and they have winners and losers;  those analysts claiming there exist "win-win" solutions, have not, I contend, engaged deeply enough in their case studies.

The book is edited by Örjan Bodin and Christina Prell and entitled "Social Networks and Natural Resource Management").


Transformative Collective Action

In the Introduction of my chapter, I write:
There is great need for modern societies to find more sustainable ways of securing good living environments and the resources upon which societies depend. In the academic community this has spurred an interest in what has been called transformative change, i.e. how 'old' regimes of natural resource management deemed as non-sustainable can transform so as to establish 'new' regimes of ecosystem-based management (Olsson et al., 2004, and references below). [...]
This chapter will strive to add to contributions made by other authors in describing and explaining transformative change [in natural resource management]. Special attention will be paid to elucidate the collective nature of these transformations, hence the title of transformative collective action. The analysis will show that in order to bring about radical institutional change of natural resource management, a whole network of individuals and organizations are needed that, through time, can sustain pressure for change. These actors furthermore need to relate to each other through information exchange and repeated collaborations in order to coordinate their collective action, to learn as they go along of what works and what does not work, and to negotiate their vision of change to reach some common ground that can unite their collective effort. This type of sustained collective action furthermore needs to operate through, and challenge, already established institutions, modes of thought and ways of doing things. As such we can talk about collective action as a "collective actor" - the network of actors - that over time builds enough agency to generate institutional change. [...]
With this understanding of transformative collective action, the prime focus of this chapter is to demonstrate how concepts derived from social network analysis, paired with theories from the social movement literature, can be used to analyze transformative change in natural resource management. This in turn will set the chapter on a path to unravel the relational character of transformative change, i.e. to explain and bring understanding of how key social processes emerge from the way social relations are patterned among actors. [...]
I furthermore argue that:
Social movement research is a field that par excellence has studied transformative change. A main interest has been to explain the emergence of "collective actors",i.e. how a set of individual and autonomous actors (not formally tied through lines of command) across space and time can address similar issues with similar demands, and often using similar methods and practices. During the last three decades, various theoretical approaches have been developed that broadly fall into structuralist, cultural, or rationalist modes of explanations (della Porta and Diani, 2006) [that can be drawn upon in studying transformative change in natural resourec management].

Beyond Ostrom's Theory of Collective Action in Stability

Without stating it explicitly in the chapter, this type of analysis - using social movement theory, and as here pairing it with social network analysis - gives the study of Natural Resource Management (NRM) a theory for studying collective action of change. This should rightfully be seen as a complement - or as a contender - on theories of collective action that focus on stable arrangements that for instance Ellinor Ostrom has developed. In a world of ecological crises and rapid change - and with high levels of inequity - it seems that we (rather) need a theory that can understand collective action of transformation, in contrast to collective action in stability.


Merging with (Urban) Political Ecology to Move Beyond the Constraints of a Natural Resource Management Perspective 

In future papers I intend to merge this type of thinking on dynamic and contested collective action more closely with the field of (urban) political ecology. This will do the trick of moving me - and those I follow, and those that might be following me - outside the quite constraining view that the field of 'natural resource management' or 'natural resource governance' give.

One obvious constraint - as for instance argued for by David Harvey in his book on Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference (1996) - is the presumption often made that there is a self-evident and inherently stable meaning of what the "resource" (or [ecosystem] service) is, when, as a matter of concern at least -- what is of value, and for whom, can and is continuously contested. In fact, the arrangement of managing some-thing, can instead be seen as being part of articulating what that some-thing is. The practice of NRM shapes not only ecological relations (as it intentionally strives to do, and unintentionally does), but also what is to be viewed as of value, and for whom; NRM is thus involved in discursively shaping modes of thinking and acting.

This type of circularity around one of its key concepts, is difficult for the NRM research tradition to handle, and it is therefore often left outside the analysis. A political ecological perspective, and a post-structuralist perspective, helps to interrogate what it is that becomes stabilized as being of value, and the material practices that goes into stabilizing those 'scripts' - or interpretative frames - that configure those values.

Another constraining character of the NRM research tradition is the slippery meaning of the words 'nature' and 'ecosystem' and 'scale'  often used when 'applying' NRM analyses and informing policy and practice. Rather than being neutral, objective, or 'scientific', these terms can be loaded with political significance as they can be tweaked and used to different purposes. For instance, and as shown by Erik Swyngedouw in his analysis of the Spanish water scape (Swyngedouw 1999), there is politics of scale, i.e. scales are socio-materially produced; to establish the 'proper scale of management' will align a whole series of actors and processes. In Spain, what was the 'proper scale of watersheds' to serve the nation of Spain in the beginning of the 19 hundreds, became the fascist scale of Franco to undermine the political scale of the autonomous regions of Spain. Scales - and consequently ecosystem scales, or the proper scales for governance and management - are never 'objective' or 'natural', but can constructively (for the analyst and others) be looked upon with suspicion, so as for instance better understand the winners and loosers of transformative change. The post-structuralist work of Actor-Network Theory (ANT) becomes very useful for this type of analysis.


More on this on another day.


The reference to my chapter is:

Ernstson, H. 2011. Transformative collective action: a network approach to transformative change in ecosystem-based management. Page Ch 11 in Ö. Bodin and C. Prell, editors. Social Networks and Natural Resource Management: Uncovering the Social Fabric of Environmental Governance. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

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