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Research Review: Agenda setting articles and their approaches to couplings, complexity, and a functional diversity.

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By Bethany Cutts - Posted on 17 March 2011

After a few weeks of hearing practice job talks and learning about visiting scholar Karin Ingold’s work, the folks associated with the Center for Environmental Behavior and Policy discussed two articles of suggested by Kelly Garabach. Both the Liu et al. (2007) and Diaz et al. (2011) articles were short articles that we classified as most useful in their ability to contribute to ‘agenda setting’ in research related to social-ecological systems. Due to illness, Kelly was not present to lead the discussion however, I was pleased to later learn that she had intended the discussion to center around the utility of agenda setting papers and their relevance to the way our lab frames its research interests and priorities. As a group, we talked about the ability of both frameworks to appropriately embody social-ecological research questions and the challenges of collaborative research in all its disciplinary forms.

Liu et al. published “Complexity of Coupled Human and Natural Systems” in Science in 2007. In the article, the authors use six long-term integrated studies of coupled human and natural systems to illustrate the ways that thinking about social and ecological processes. They describe sites in (1) Wisconsin, USA, (2) Vattenriket, Sweden, (3) Altamira, Brazil, (4) the Puget Sound in Washington, USA, (5) Wolong Nature Preserve in China, and (6) the Kenya Highlands. The studies each explicitly integrate researchers, methods, and outcome variables in pursuit of questions that address complex interactions between human and ecological systems. They are each context specific and longitudinal. Collectively, the sites have provided opportunities to realize nonlinearities, reciprocal feedback loops, time lags, resilience, heterogeneity, and surprises. Each study provides insight in possible only through considering both social and ecological data types and methods.

In their 2011 PNAS paper, “Linking functional diversity and social actor strategies in a framework for interdisciplinary analysis of nature’s benefits to society” Diaz et al. present a conceptual model for considering functional biodiversity and social actor strategies as constructs that can incorporate multi-scalar social and ecological drivers of environmental change. They argue that biodiversity and ecosystem services are often used as generic and ill-defined terms. They offer functional diversity and social actor strategies as more specific concepts that operationalize both perspectives and offer specific opportunities to ask research questions that span social and ecological systems to address biodiversity conservation. The authors define functional diversity as the value, range, distribution and relative abundance of functional traits of the organisms that make up an ecosystem collectively. Social actor strategies is defined as the group of actors, or stakeholders, with a direct and indirect claims to land uses and ecosystem services. They suppose that each stakeholder elects a decision-making strategy and priority setting agenda that is most likely to elevate their own social position and well-being. They argue that this perspective allows for concerns over justice and equity. Functional diversity links to ecosystems services because it is tied to process more explicitly than abundance and richness. The paper focuses on rangeland systems that might include subsistence farmers, ranchers, agribusiness companies, and regional conservation groups. The authors’ note that alliances emerge and dissolve based on values upon which they are structured. Diaz et al. argue that their model offers a novel approach to connecting biodiversity to human wellbeing through a mechanism that does not rely on creating single value system, incorporates perceptions of justice, and is transparent to stakeholders.

Collectively, we agreed that the approaches offered by both Liu et al. and Diaz et al. clearly move away from homogenized views of either nature or society and imply that the world is dynamic and ever changing.

The Liu paper drew us in to a deeper discussion of our research, interdisciplinary endeavors, and what new projects can learn from the formidable success rates of the six projects mentioned in the paper. While many of use saw the authors’ use of concepts like legacies and surprises and non-linearities as an interesting way to scientize the “wicked problems” facing environmental research, many of us finished the article looking for more information on the process of building interdisciplinary projects that work successfully. Certainly, Karin argued, they are also full of nonlinearities, reciprocal feedback loops, time lags, resilience, heterogeneity, and surprises! Her frustration with collaborative projects that fall flat spawned discussion about how to do good interdisciplinary science – what sorts of interactions and forms of disciplinary integration work? How do things evolve and devolve over time? We discussed many approaches to interdisciplinary research Matthew mentioned the (Max-Neef 2005 paper and provided the link to the Kajikawa et al. 2007 paper for which I’ve provided references below) and shared anecdotes about success (good leadership, questions that are interesting from disciplinary as well as interdisciplinary perspectives) and failures (add-on disciplines, parallel tracts with no eye toward integration, asking questions that are either mind numbing or require researchers to summarize all work across several disciplines). Interspersed in the anecdotes were references to interesting literature that addresses some of these very issues and research questions appropriate to the social network analysts in the room. I mentioned work by John Parker (2010) that addresses how disciplines interact across several social-ecological research groups. I also found the Broto (2009) article referenced below useful and interesting.

In contrast to the Liu et al. (2007) article, Diaz et al. (2011) focuses more explicitly on the methods and broader impacts of the proposed functional diversity framework than on the interactions between researchers and social and ecological outcome variables. Matt Hamilton noted that he particularly liked the Diaz et al. paper for offering a focus that emphasized, as he put it, “not what you can do to the environment, but what it does for you.” The sentiment relays both the strengths of the Diaz paper we elaborated above, but also its weaknesses as the outcomes focus more explicitly on functional diversity conservation than on social outcomes (a noted strength of the six projects in the Liu et al. paper is that both appear as outcome variables). The critique of the role social research played in the functional diversity agenda hinged largely on Figure 1. The social boxes seem to define and evaluate the ecological system in ways that directly relate to the human systems but the discussion offers little emphasis on the feedbacks between ecology and the actions and values that relate to reality. However, Matthew Hoffman and others saw the figure as a good place to start discussion about sustainability and to situate research questions and approaches within a larger context. He noted that he is currently using a similar strategy to understand how wine growers in Lodi relate their practices to concepts in sustainability and recommended that some of the work by Tomich et al. (2010) might be useful to the group in this respect.. A strength of the work by Diaz was its ability to offer methods to quantify functional diversity through plant species (leaf size, chemical composition, seed size and longevity, canopy, root architecture in different field situations) and a way to rate the importance of functional traits in each system. While the social methods review is much less prescriptive (focusing on modes of inquiry rather than concepts or attitudes to measure), it is more detailed as a document to guide further inquiry than the Liu et al. article. The Liu article does, however, earn its place in the newly minted Sustainability Science section of PNAS by focusing on future-oriented questions like predicting the capacity for the environment to deliver ecosystems services and sources of conflict. This may allow for more rigorous consideration of long term consequences of trade-offs, vacuum areas, and probable tipping points than other approaches.

Other points of note: This week, we were joined by Maywa Montegro, a prospective student and writer for SEED magazine (among several others). She is interested in studying diversified farming systems and was a welcome addition to the discussion. We hope she enjoyed her visit to Davis and will be making regular appearances in the future!

What we read:
Díaz, S., F. Quétier, D.M. Cáceres, S.F. Trainor, N. Pérez-Harguindeguy, M.S. Bret-Harte, B. Finegan, M. Peña-Claros, and L. Poorter. 2011. Linking functional diversity and social actor strategies in a framework for interdisciplinary analysis of nature's benefits to society. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 108 (3):895. http://www.pnas.org/content/108/3/895

Liu, J., T. Dietz, S.R. Carpenter, M. Alberti, C. Folke, E. Moran, A.N. Pell, P. Deadman, T. Kratz, and J. Lubchenco. 2007. Complexity of coupled human and natural systems. Science 317 (5844):1513. http://www.sciencemag.org/content/317/5844/1513.full

Readings related to our conversation:
Broto, V. C., M. Gislason, and M-H. Ehlers. 2009. Practising interdisciplinarity in the interplay between disciplines: experiences of established researchers. Environmental Science & Policy 12 (7):922-933. doi:10.1016/j.envsci.2009.04.005

Kajikawa, Yuya, Junko Ohno, Yoshiyuki Takeda, Katsumori Matsushima, and Hiroshi Komiyama. 2007. Creating an academic landscape of sustainability science: an analysis of the citation network. Sustainability Science 2 (2):221-231. doi: 10.1007/s11625-007-0027-8

Max-Neef, M.A. 2005. Foundations of transdisciplinarity. Ecological Economics 53 (1):5-16. doi:10.1016/j.ecolecon.2005.01.014

Parker, John N. 2010. Integrating the Social into the Ecological: Organizational and Research Group Challenges. Collaboration in the New Life Sciences. London: Ashgate.

Tomich, Tom, Alejandro Argumedo, Ivar Baste, Esther Carmac, Colin Filer, Keisha Garcia, Kelly Garbach, Geist Helmut, Anne-Marrie Izac, Loius Label, Makiko Nishi, Lennart Olsson, Ciara Raudsepp-Hearne, Maurice Rawlins, Robert Scholes, and Meine van Noordwijk. 2010. "Conceptual frameworks for ecosystem assessment: Their development, ownership, and use." Pp. 71-114 in Ecosystem and human well-being: A manual for assessment practitioners, edited by N. Ash, H. Blanco, C. Brown, K. Garcia, T. Henrichs, N. Lucas, C. Raudsepp-Hearne, R. D. Simpson, R. Scholes, T. Tomich, B. Vira, and M. Zurek. Washington, DC: Island Press.

Links to the projects mentioned in Diaz et al. 2011:
DIVERSITAS www.diversitas-international.org/
Global Land Project www.globallandproject.org/
Millennium Ecosystem Assessment www.maweb.org/
Resilience Alliance www.resalliance.org/

Diaz et al. 2011 Figure 1. http://www.pnas.org/content/108/3/895/F1.large.jpg