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Top and Bottom Down Approaches in Research

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Published: Tue, 20 Feb 2018

1.1 Introduction: The theoretical challenge of managed environments

General works in the field of development studies or environmental management typically imitate structural, institutional and political economy analyses. This dissertation however focuses on the theoretical and methodological foundations of an actor-oriented, process-based and social constructionist form of analysis. It also aims to show the usefulness of such an approach for providing new insights into critical areas of empirical enquiry.

In the introductory chapter I posed the dilemma confronting change managers and citizens with existing practices of environmental governance reform that are performing inconsistently. My starting point is the premise that experiences of decision-making over environmental management practices have not reflected the intent of smoother transitions and greater legitimacy that a turn to more participative approaches had promised. More democratic methods are not consistently producing more democratic outcomes, at least so are reports from practice warning. Instead, governance reform is experienced as frustrating struggles by actors brought together using ideals of collaborative practice that are frequently proving disappointing in application.

The stories that this report recounts are indicative of the type of struggles and indeterminacies more and more encountered by policy actors in addressing issues of society-nature relations. It will be shown that the day-to-day tensions are not well expressed in the languages of social science or practitioners. Are there better ways to conceptualize these problems? Do we have language for this? To answer this, I will have to look for alternative ways to enter the subject and pose questions in different ways.

A search for models of practice and theoretical foundations that may prove relevant to the rapidly changing contexts of managed environments encounters a rich literature that has engaged with the problems posed by the environmental pressures of population increase and technological development. However, as will be seen, existing conceptualisations encounter limits of abstraction. The implicit recognition of that has seen practitioners develop a wide range of approaches that are nearer to a recognition of actor perspectives in the field of environmental governance reform that more anthropological perspectives will highlight. A closer examination shows that abandoning abstraction in order to acknowledge the natural complexity of modern contexts in a post-modern time does not resolve the problem of constructively navigating changing knowledge systems. I therefore turn to post-structuralist thinking which allows me to give more attention to the social constructivist view and, in particular, to the co-constructed nature of knowledge, framing and subjectivities. The method that proves most promising to demonstrate – and resolve – the ambiguous nature of social knowledge is a dialectical approach to mapping the deliberative spaces of 21st century environmental governance reform.

To do this work, perspectives from different disciplinary areas are brought together, including environmental sociology, environmental policy, anthropology, development studies, conservation management, political ecology and public policy. The discussion will seek to ‘ambiguate’ key notions in the society-nature literatures, that is, work with the ambiguity that becomes exposed when different scholarly worldviews are applied to core concepts of environmental governance. Working dialectically with the framings of theorists and practitioners means moving at different levels of extension, probing generalisation and rethinking subjects. This will show how ideas of nature, knowledge, community, and identity are central.

The journey I will pursue in this chapter – and effectively continue in the following – transects key themes in the literature on environmental and development issues that I will not attempt to treat comprehensively – a futile task even with the best of intentions – but instead I want to trace insightful tensions and contours in the landscapes of academic, practitioner’s and subjective knowledges that shape the individual and institutional behaviour of social actors. By focussing on boundaries, and the conceptual or physical movement across these, I claim that I can show useful insights into the processes through which actors engage in participative, democratic spaces.

By evoking a journey through the literature, I shadow the journey that I myself followed when I entered into and pursued this research, coming from a career as aid worker and encounter with the Great Barrier Island setting. Entering into academic reflection on social and political situations from that background opened perspectives that are not easily available to a researcher arriving from the outside or evaluating social processes with less reference to practical experience. At the same time, a positioning on the boundaries of the settings studied that my own background with the frequent geographic and career changes allowed, can be said to have greatly elevated my ‘hermeneutical’ horizon, opening up better appreciation of multiple, overlapping contexts.

The aim of this chapter is to reveal a range of features and entry points into a number of settings that I gained access to, even if not comprehensively but certainly illustrative. I want to show that abstraction needs to adopt not only an actor-grounded and situated methodology but equally a more subjective theorisation, in order to give new meaning to abstraction. The literature I will bring into the discussion will help me elaborate how simultaneously seeking out top-down, bottom-up and reflective positions can give complementary insights into processes of actor engagement over environmental governance. The reason is that the political, social and cultural complexities that determine human-nature, and particularly society-nature, relations impose a need for multiple perspectives.

In the following sections I will construct several positions located on metaphoric boundaries that offer perspective on subject areas and cultures of practice. To do that, I will open three views, or categories of view: one as a top-down view, which uses analytical thinking looking at overviews, comparisons and indicators to form structural explanations that underlie theory and practice. A second position approaches actors within a situation and is interested in narratives that convey the struggles and explanations present in a given situation, as they are seen from the bottom up. And with a view that is neither top-down, nor bottom-up, I want to emphasize a self-conscious, reflective treatment of knowledge and the co-construction of world views that deliberative practices can entail.

1.1.1 Case study or research intervention? The scholarly practitioner as participant in knowledge production

Before I enter the subject area however, I must first clarify my point of entry into and positionality within the subject. In particular, the performative character of social science research needs to be acknowledged.

Scientific inquiry is recognized as a social practice mediated contextually through symbolic means {Foucault, 2002; Pryke, Rose, & Whatmore, 2003}. Sociological research has documented the extent to which science is as much a socio-cultural activity as a technical enterprise. The post-positivist challenge to the social sciences that was evoked by Fischer and quoted introductory chapter, derives from evidence that the elements of empirical inquiry – from observation and hypothesis formation through data collection and explanation – are grounded in often limited theoretical assumptions of the socio-cultural practices through which they are developed {Root, 1993}.

Scientific explanations therefore have to be understood as explanations offered by specific communities of inquirers situated in particular places and times, so Fischer emphasizes (1998). These are discursive communities that are located alongside and intermeshed with other political communities in the social landscape. This draws attention to positioning researcher and science within the political communities that are present. Attention must be paid throughout the approach, engagement and interpretation of social situations to be reflective about the relation of the researcher to the subject.

In my engagement with the actors within the settings I investigated, my approach and interest was shaped by all of my curriculum vitae but especially by my background as former aid worker. At least three specific aspects of this career were particularly significant in forming my approach to this study and, in particular, the lines of questioning that I adopted.

For many years while working on behalf of large non-governmental aid organisations like Oxfam and Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), when I was often assigned as project planner in collaboration with medical or logistics experts with the task to research the humanitarian, political and security context in a particular setting to identify priority needs an organisation was able to address and to design the detailed aid interventions. I led needs assessment missions lasting 2 to 4 weeks to Georgia, Tajikistan, Congo, Burundi, Syria, Iraq, and Nepal among others,. The output would consist of reports documenting findings of data collection and interviews, verbal and written interpretation of implications for launching aid operations, and proposals to governmental donor agencies that complied to institutional requirements and priorities in order to maximise chances of gaining funding support. Essentially this was a research role with an action orientation.

My primary role while working for these international aid organisations was project manager and/or country representative, positions that I held in Russia. Chechnya, Congo, Kenya, Lebanon, and Mauritania among others. Aid projects would be managed by a team of expatriates and local staff, often growing into large, well-resourced and formalised organisations with up to 50 staff. This required me to manage teams and situations with a view to producing outcomes, conforming to organisational policies. As head of usually one of the larger NGOs in a sector, I would frequently also act on behalf of a wider community of aid agencies that shared similar values and objectives in collaborating and representing interests to government counterparts. The emphasis on advocating for universal rights and principles on behalf of vulnerable and victims under threat was an important advocacy priority for organisations like Oxfam and MSF, and thus was a critical rationale for situating, maintaining, and promoting many aid activities. At the same time I would be representing associations that had explicitly defined visions and principles in an organisational environment and so I had to be very self-conscious about the philosophical distinctions between advocacy, religious, purely charitable, bilateral or inter-governmental agencies. In other words, through this work I had been sensitized to the subtleties of organisational culture and its relationship to operational policies. In general, as a project manager I shared an outcome orientation that allowed me to identify with the role of other project managers in comparable organisational settings, even outside the domain international aid.

The reason I found myself in a ten-year career as aid worker was in part due to a long-standing interest in foreign settings and the extensive time I had already spent living abroad. The familiarity with different cultures from growing up in the Middle East, emigrating during school years to New Zealand and working in several European countries not only opened my appreciation of how cultures and societies are distinguished but also permitted me to acquire conversational fluency in eight languages. Overhearing the words our interpreter used to translate my speech into Arabic for a group of village elders in a Sahel village, or joking with Russian militia officers to be able to enter an ethnic enclave in the Caucasus, added diverse points of view that only first-hand knowledge can make relevant to other situations. The value of knowing how language and cultural upbringing can shape world views, understanding and humour is invaluable when attempting to reflect on other situations from a position that is neither entirely inside nor outside but on the boundary between cultures and places that are in (dialectical) relation.

1.1.1.1 Adopting an inside-out view: focus on protagonist, on the relationship between identity and subject.

While it is tempting to examine a situation from the point of view of those with the power to affect it – the change makers and potential audience for the research findings – it can be critical to also adopt the point of view of less influential actors. An inside out view seeks to show how outside forces influence the nature of polity, rather than using the people in the area of interest to provide a background against which to set the actions of outsiders {see also Routledge, Pacific History as seen from the Pacific Islands, Pacific Studies Spring 1985}. This study, in other words, seeks to be not merely island-centred but islander-oriented.

The perspective thus adopted is that of a scholarly practitioner. Bentz and Shapiro {, 1998 #1684} use this term to recognise that in the enterprise of knowledge generation and critical reflection, there is a two-way relationship. The role of the scholarly practitioner involves “using professional practice and knowledge as a resource for the formulation and production of scholarly knowledge as well as for evaluating, testing, applying, extending, or modifying existing knowledge” (p. 66). Bentz and Shapiro stress that this requires also an awareness of the limits of knowledge, and, I would add, the contested nature of knowledge. This recognition brings attention to the production of knowledge in environmental politics.

1.1.1.2 Social science must be conscious of its performative character: Reconnecting the researcher with the researched

There are a number of research traditions that address the ontological gap between researcher and the researched. Action research for one, is a participatory methodology that seeks to produce knowledge that emerges from context of action as a collaborative project between researcher and the researched. It typically sees the researcher performing functional roles within groups working together on real world projects and tasks (Wadsworth, 1998). Participatory research finds many other outlets and emphasizes a philosophy of co-production or research, from the formulation of the question, through reflection on outcomes to the communication of findings (Cornwall & Jewkes, 1995).

A methodology that seeks to discard theoretical preconceptions completely is grounded theory. Theories are grounded in the group’s observable experiences, but researchers add their own insight into why those experiences exist. It is a method formulated by Strauss and Corbin that categorizes empirically collected data to build a general theory to fit the data (Barney G. Glaser, 2004; B.G. Glaser & Strauss, 1967; A. McCarthy, 1999). The investigator develops conceptual categories from the data and then makes new observations to develop these categories. Hypotheses are derived directly from the data, and may be tested against it. All conclusions must be ‘grounded in’ and supported by the data. Their seminal work, “The Development of Grounded Theory” (1967), moved researchers past the hypothesis-testing uses of raw data into the hypothesis-generating potential of their observations. The approach has been steadily expanding its reach within academia – through sociology and social anthropology and, more recently into applied disciplines like nursing and educational research.

Notwithstanding the uptake of grounded philosophy by researchers motivated to reconnect with the empirical subject, the lack of theorizing underlying this may be criticized by more ‘sophisticated’ theorists like Habermas, who I later want to bring into this discussion. For the German, the lack of critical framing that grounded theory represents is a crucial shortcoming that needs to be addressed methodologically. I will begin this by first discussing methodological treatment of settings and context.

1.1.2 Accounting for context with mental models and ethnographic methods

The cognitive patterns that underlie social behavior are not easily accessible to the researcher. Conceptualizing mental models that can account for communicative behavior in a way that relates to settings and context must represent basic notions of cognition such as ideology, knowledge and values.

Ideologies in the sense used here, are general and abstract, principle based, axiomatic beliefs, while knowledge are the actual facts and beliefs held as true. Attitudes are taken to comprise opinion, beliefs, feelings, and intentions about specific issues, typically socially shared (see also Leiserowitz, Kates, & Parris, 2006). A mental model then, is the categorical understanding constructed from ideologies, knowledge, and attitudes of specific contexts and situations.

An accompanying notion is that of group knowledge as those social beliefs that which a group, or imagined community, holds to be true according to its own evaluation or verification (truth) criteria (eg science) and which can be doubted by outsiders. But such cultural, common ground knowledge is not challenged within groups, and is presupposed in public discourse, even when they are shifting as are the notions of conservation, environment and sustainability did that were discussed.

1.1.2.1 Context models as subjective representation

To study context and its relation to subjective meanings, ethnographic approaches hold most promise as they work with subjective representation and group knowledge processes (e.g. Descola, 1996; Wolfe & Yang, 1996). Such a view is also interested in how context structures social relations (communicative and interactional), social dynamics (group membership and interaction). But it also brings another interest relevant to the study of participation, of how cognition has a role in terms of framing goals, knowledge and other beliefs of participants in deliberation.

The notion of context is used in scholarship as ambiguously as ‘environment’ is in wider discourses. To be able to treat it as an analytical object needs a basic model. By defining contexts and contextualization in terms of mental models and their role in discourse production and comprehension, this can account not only for the role of social representations such as attitudes and ideologies in discourse, but also allows a more subjective explanation of discourse and its variation in terms of personal mental models. The empirical studies will demonstrate this.

Van Dijk (2001) sees context as a model of relevance that shapes actors opinions and actions. He recognizes that context is subjective and individual and with that is ideologically based and has coherence within group discourse.

Thus, context models are subjective representations of social situation, including communicative events – they define what is relevant. This makes an account of context critical for understanding participation. And subjective context framing may be ideologically biased.

1.1.2.2 Frames of referenceand the ‘black box’ of mental models

The concept of frame of reference is also used commonly used to refer to the cognitive effect of contextual models (Swaffield, 1998). It describes and categorizes the attitudes displayed by individuals when discussing a management issue. The framing concepts in this study were defined as follows: – A frame of reference is an analytical model of attitudes concerning a resource policy or management issue. – A personal frame of reference refers to the attitudes expressed by an individual. – A common frame of reference refers to the distinctive pattern of attitudes that is common to a number of individuals.

However, there is no claim that the frame of reference as defined here represents cognitive processes. Rather, it is a model of the attitudes openly expressed by individuals when discussing an issue.

A basic problem that remains, is that context, subjectivities and cognition remain inaccessible to a researcher. A ‘black box’ model of subjective context therefore lacks explanatory relevance. But as the subject of deliberation, context circumscribes the cognitive boundaries of actors ‘mentalities’.

For van Dijk (2001), the advantage of such an approach is that it accounts not only for the role of social representations, such as attitudes and ideologies in discourse, but also allows a more subjective explanation of discourse and its variation in terms of personal mental models. And since contexts are by definition unique and personal, context models of framings precisely allow an individual approach to contextualization to be combined with a more social one, in which shared representations, groups, and other societal aspects play a prominent role.

1.1.3 Boundaries: Locating and moving across – by following, pushing or re-imagining phenomena ##

I will begin with the premise that the totality of relations in a socio-ecological geography are meaningful, that is the relations between people, places and things. And that the inverse of relationships are distinctions that coalesce to form boundaries between categories and instances. This is worth emphasizing since the recognition that boundaries constrain meaning can draw attention to the contrived and therefore limiting nature of abstraction. How this premise will permit established abstraction and meanings to be questioned, fragmented and reassembled is the work that this chapter will begin and will be completed in the methodological chapter that follows.

The first boundary to highlight and that can show what is meant by transgressing distinctions consists of the separation of human from non-human nature. Imagining environmental governance reform as regulating the entry of humans into nature and the export of non-human resources out of nature is counter-intuitive to any gardener. Fence lines, compost bins and patio seating all blur the boundaries. Self-identity for many derives from emotional attachments to home and garden, nurturing roles that a vegetable plot reinforces and status that manicured lawns or urban bio-diversity islands respectively can demonstrate.

Thus the domain of interest should not be a non-human nature as an object of human intervention but instead a nature as a geography of human relations that are linked to an environment through diverse interests. This is a geography that is physically located in both the commons and in private property – another paired abstraction that will prove to be divided by a blurred boundary. But this is also a geography that exists in the social imagination as social, cultural or political objects. The environment so seen can be conceived as the total of society-nature relations which relate to all material, subjective, cognitive, political, and other interests or dimensions. The challenge then becomes not in naming these complex relations but in thinking about them, in framing them.

1.1.4 Environmental governance as an adjustable lens

[## develop] The first conceptual tool to prepare will thus be the notion of environmental governance as an adjustable lens. Rather than using the literature in an inevitably selective manner to stabilize the meaning of this concept at least for the duration of this discussion, I will adopt a counter-strategy of reinforcing the ambiguity of the notion and employing it with shifting meanings to approach the research problem from different scales, extension and perspectives.

Environmental governance is a category of practices and ideas that are of interest to several perspectives. As a domain of practice it is the concern of academic text books (Durant, Fiorino, & O’Leary, 2004; Hempel, 1996; Kettl, 2002; Levy & Newell, 2005) as much as ministerial policy statements {Ministry of the Environment 2000, 2003}, international donor policy, and publications of environmental agencies.

In practice, actually relating good governance to ecological outcomes is near impossible. Choosing one arbitrary example from international experience, an in-depth evaluation of different forest management governance regimes in Madagascar showed how there were enormous difficulties in explaining the dynamics and assessing measures of sustainability and equity (McConnell & Sweeney).

The term of environmental governance can be encountered in a range of contexts. In a recent survey of issues in environmental policy and management Durant et al (ibid.) identify key topics in environmental governance as sustainability, the precautionary principle, common-pool resource theory, deliberative democracy, civic environmentalism, environmental justice, property rights, environmental conflict resolution, devolution, among others. This has introduced a range of perspectives from environmental economics, democratic theory, public policy, law, political science, and public administration. In effect, environmental governance does not so much represent a theoretical field or a professional discipline, but a theme of shared concerns in scholarship and applied practice. This chapter will consider how environmental governance can be re-approached by detaching it from the portfolio of resource managers and relocating it within a wider arena of development and democratic practices.

In the development field the notion that the public, stakeholders or local people have an important role in environmental governance is emphasized. “Environmental governance includes the structures (e.g. management regimes), organizational forms (e.g. farmer research teams, water user associations), processes (e.g. multi-stakeholder dialogue), actors and rules (e.g. negotiated access rights and boundaries) that determine how resources are managed at international, national and local levels.” (International Development Research Centre)

Aside from government agencies and development practitioners, scholars will also characterize contemporary environmental governanceas a “collaborative approach to policy formulation and implementation”(Durant et al., 2004, pp. 22-23). Environmental governance therefore is relevant to several different fields of interest to scholars and can be framed in several ways. In the first instance, environmental governance is political and so a subject of political inquiry. This opens up a diverse body of literature to employ in developing an approach to environmental governance. Another dimension that arises out of the political, and that the following discussion shows to be explicitly present, is deliberative democracy. But the most promising approach to begin to problematize environmental governance lies with the notion of development and its contemporary manifestation as sustainable development, particularly its application by foreign agents in local settings. Each of these dimensions embodies unresolved tensions – tensions that can also be encountered in many sites of social theory and practice – which centre on epistemological concerns.

It may also be useful to think in terms of environmental governance as a body of political theory, as Humphrey has done (2007), that has a central focus upon environmental concerns as these relate to democracy, justice, globalization, political economy, freedom, the welfare state, and other aspects of political life. This body of work is no longer as closely related to the environmental ethics and values of nature of a deep ecology, but is more integrated into ‘mainstream’ political theory.

For the purpose of this discussion, I will develop the notion of environmental governance as a conceptual tool to approach the research problem from different scales, extension and perspectives. The complementary notions of environmental governance offer entry points into related literatures and cultures of practice: Environmental Democracy, Environmental Reform, Environmental Collaboration, and Environmental Sustainability.

Environmental governance can thus best be treated as both as assembly of practice and as a body of theory that is doing political work. To reconnect theory and practice will be the task of this chapter.

1.1.5 We are being ‘participated’ again: An incomplete typology of participative approaches

There is an emerging consensus that the public need to be more involved in the processes of environmental decision making. From the international arena – exemplified in documents such as Agenda 21 and the initiatives of the World Bank – to national government policy initiatives, local policy and planning systems such as the New Zealand Resource Management Act, and in the discourses of actors including scientists and business groups, a role for public participation has been instituted (Davies, 2002).

Implicit in the idea of participation is that the initiative lies with the reformers, the change-makers to approach the public with a project to respond to. From the perspective of an un-associated citizen, the prospect of another round of workshops and discussion groups – events that have become familiar to many villagers in target zones of international aid – the process is passive and invites the expression not surprisingly encountered in developing nations of ‘we are being participated again’.

The notion of taking part in environmental decision-making and in contrast to an authority taking top-down action is taken up by a wide range of terms and practices. Participation in the social science is an umbrella term including different means for the public to directly participate in political, economic, management or other social decisions. Participatory decision making then infers a level of proportionate decision making power and can take place along any realm of human social activity, including economic (e.g. participatory economics), political (e.g. participatory democracy), cultural (e.g. communalism) or familial (e.g. Feminism).

In practice, the term participation applies to processes initiated by an agency seeking to initiate a project or introduce reform. It thus becomes critical to ask, who is invited to participate, and by whom. What regulatory requirements may apply, is there precedent, and what resources are available are only some of the parameters that the term participation by itself does not convey.

In the government sector, at least in New Zealand, the word consultation is frequently used to describe a range of processes to engage with the community – i.e. citizens and citizen associations. These range from the prescribed processes in the Local Government Act (2002) such as the special consultative procedure (section 83) to informal processes such as e-mail chat groups or anecdotal local knowledge. In this report, the term consultation will be used in a broad sense to include any form of government agency engagement with local communities, including activities carried out by an authority to inform itself of community views as well as specific consultation exercises.

Collaboration is another category that carries the notion to work jointly with others or together especially in an intellectual endeavour. The sense that will be used here, emphasises the absence of authority, a consensual decision making process with respect to an established domain.

Dispute resolution is a related practice that seeks to reduce differences or to seek a solution when a conflict situation exists. When the services of a third party are utilized, this is often referred to as mediation.

These categories denote some of the dimensions that structure relationships in public involvement: consultation as an exercise in information exchange, participation implying a direct input into deliberation over decisions – linked to


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