Process and Contextual Factors Supporting Action-Oriented Learning: A Thematic Synthesis of Empirical Literature in Natural Resource Management

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Despite a long-term focus on learning in natural resource management (NRM), it is still debated how learning supports sustainable real-world NRM practices. We offer a qualitative in-depth synthesis of selected scientific empirical literature (N=53), which explores factors affecting action-oriented learning. We inductively identify eight key process-based and contextual factors discussed in this literature. Three patterns emerge from our results. First, the literature discusses both facilitated participation and self-organized collaboration as dialogical spaces, which bridge interests and support constructive conflict management. Second, the literature suggests practice-based dialogues as those best able to facilitate action and puts a strong emphasis on experimentation. Finally, not emphasized in existing reviews and syntheses, we found multiple evidence about certain contextual factors affecting learning, including social-ecological crises, complexity, and power structures. Our review also points at important knowledge gaps, which can be used to advance the current research agenda about learning and NRM.
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Society & Natural Resources
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Process and Contextual Factors Supporting
Action-Oriented Learning: A Thematic Synthesis
of Empirical Literature in Natural Resource
Monika Suškevičs, Thomas Hahn & Romina Rodela
To cite this article: Monika Suškevičs, Thomas Hahn & Romina Rodela (2019) Process and
Contextual Factors Supporting Action-Oriented Learning: A Thematic Synthesis of Empirical
Literature in Natural Resource Management, Society & Natural Resources, 32:7, 731-750, DOI:
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Process and Contextual Factors Supporting Action-Oriented
Learning: A Thematic Synthesis of Empirical Literature in
Natural Resource Management
Monika Su
, Thomas Hahn
, and Romina Rodela
Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University, Stockholm, Sweden;
Institute of Agricultural and
Environmental Sciences, Estonian University of Life Sciences, Tartu, Estonia;
School of Natural Sciences,
Technology and Environmental Studies, S
orn University, Huddinge, Sweden;
Laboratory of Geo-
Information Science and Remote Sensing, Wageningen University, Wageningen, Netherlands
Despite a long-term focus on learning in natural resource manage-
ment (NRM), it is still debated how learning supports sustainable
real-world NRM practices. We offer a qualitative in-depth synthesis of
selected scientific empirical literature (N¼53), which explores factors
affecting action-oriented learning. We inductively identify eight key
process-based and contextual factors discussed in this literature.
Three patterns emerge from our results. First, the literature discusses
both facilitated participation and self-organized collaboration as dia-
logical spaces, which bridge interests and support constructive con-
flict management. Second, the literature suggests practice-based
dialogs as those best able to facilitate action and puts a strong
emphasis on experimentation. Finally, not emphasized in existing
reviews and syntheses, we found multiple evidence about certain
contextual factors affecting learning, including social-ecological cri-
ses, complexity, and power structures. Our review also points at
important knowledge gaps, which can be used to advance the cur-
rent research agenda about learning and NRM.
Received 28 February 2018
Accepted 14 December 2018
Ecosystem governance;
intermediaries; qualitative
review; social-ecological
systems; social learning;
structural constraints
Natural resource management (NRM) has shifted away from deterministic, top-down
thinking to integrative and participatory approaches, where learning is a key concept
guiding research and practice (Schusler, Decker, and Pfeffer 2003; Armitage et al. 2018).
Despite long-term attention to learning in NRM, a more precise account of how process
characteristics and contextual factors affect learning by NRM users, however, is still
lacking. The NRM literature commonly assumes that learning happens through inter-
active processes, either as part of facilitated participation (e.g., Diduck et al. 2012), or
by self-organized collaboration (Armitage, Marschke, and Plummer 2008). For example,
cs Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University,
aftriket 2B, Stockholm SE-10691, Sweden.
Supplemental data for this article is available online at on the publishers website at
ß2019 The Author(s). Published by Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group.
This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives License
(, which permits non-commercial re-use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium,
provided the original work is properly cited, and is not altered, transformed, or built upon in any way.
2019, VOL. 32, NO. 7, 731750
Diduck et al. (2012, 1313), argue that transformative learning occurs through deliberate
interventions in which stakeholders in a complex NRM situation are brought together
to engage in an iterative, facilitated process of critical reflection and inquiry aimed at
provoking transformational changes in cognition and practice.However, learning may
emerge from self-organized interactions as well, as often described by the adaptive
co-management (ACM) literature (e.g., Plummer, Armitage, and de Lo
e2013). The con-
text within which learning takes place includes the socio-economic and political setting,
the governance arrangements, but also geographical and ecological conditions that vary
from case to case (Mostert et al. 2007; Pahl-Wostl 2015). Yet, while how context affects
learning has been addressed in individual empirical cases (e.g., Pahl-Wostl 2015), the
context has not been subject to more systematic knowledge synthesis methods, i.e.
reviewing how context is reported to be affecting learning (e.g., Rodela 2011). An excep-
tion to this is the review by Siebenh
uner, Rodela, and Ecker (2016) which, for instance,
considers formal and informal institutions.
In this study, we aim to fill this gap. We address the following research question:
how are the factors (assumed to) support action-oriented learning constructed in the
empirical literature? To this end, we draw on one of the most recent reviews under-
taken in this field (Su
cs et al. 2018). We start from their sample (N= 53 empirical
articles), which we further analyze to find answers to our question. In doing so, first,
we intend to provide a synthesis of process-based and contextual factors affecting
action-oriented learning as found in the selected literature. We acknowledge that analyt-
ical frameworks applied in individual empirical studies take into account the process
and context; however, process/context was not subject to thorough assessment in earlier
knowledge syntheses (cf. Ensor and Harvey 2015). This we assume might have been due
to the limited opportunities some methods of knowledge synthesis offer for the analysis
of an evidence base that is often qualitative (e.g., in the NRM research field). Existing
literature reviews take a predominantly quantitative approach where quantification and
distribution across variables of interest are reported upon (e.g., Siebenh
uner, Rodela,
and Ecker 2016). While quantitative approaches are useful to survey the breadth of
research, they are however limited in analytical depth. We take note of the observations
by Hannes and Macaitis (2012) on qualitative syntheses being promising but a poorly
used approach in the field of NRM. With this study, we intend to assess the suitability
of thematic synthesis, i.e., a method used to analyze and synthesize results from primary
qualitative research (Thomas and Harden 2008), for use in the field of NRM. Further,
earlier reviews have often focused on mapping the broader discourse and analytical
frameworks, while in this study we focus on the empirical evidence as reported in the
selected literature. This we believe is appropriate since all of the 53 articles report on
qualitative case study methodology. Additionally, earlier reviews have mostly focused on
the social learning concept (e.g., Cundill and Rodela 2012; Ensor and Harvey 2015;
uner, Rodela, and Ecker 2016) but we include further learning concepts, to cre-
ate a wider basis for understanding the role of learning for NRM action (cf. Gerlak
et al. 2017;Su
cs et al. 2018).
Our approach to the analysis and synthesis is explicitly inductive. We use the next
section (background) only as a broad frame to (i) depict the state of the art on different
learning concepts currently used in the broader NRM literature, and (ii) summarize
732 M. SU
what the literature says about the factors affecting them. Thereafter we describe our
method, the thematic synthesis of 53 empirical articles, which have been identified and
selected by a recent review (i.e., Su
cs et al. 2018). After this, we summarize our
results: emergent themes of factors affecting action-oriented learning. We then discuss
how these themes relate to different sub-groups of NRM literature on learning, such as
from the ACM and participatory environmental governance domains. We conclude
with recommendations for further research and NRM practice.
The NRM literature refers to learning in various ways. To set a general background for
our study, we give a brief overview of the main concepts used by some of the most
prominent and well-cited literature and summarize key factors, which are found to sup-
port learning. We also introduce the concept of action-oriented learning.
A Brief Overview of the Main Theoretical Approaches to Learning in the
NRM Literature
The construct of social learning(Rodela 2011) is probably among the most widely
used notions in the NRM literature but is also one of the fuzziest (Muro and Jeffrey
2012). It is used to refer to learning based on individual experiences, with changes often
observable at a cognitive, relational and moral level. Social learning is also used to refer
to wider social change processes, also sometimes termed societal learning(e.g., Reed
et al. 2010).
The NRM literature uses other theoretical frameworks as well, as is transformative
learning and policy learning. Transformative or transformational learning originates in
social psychology (e.g., Mezirow 1991) and the theory initially focused on individual adult
learning. Since then, the focus has broadened, e.g., according to Taylor (2008,10):
transformative learning is as much about social change as individual transformation.The
concept has been widely applied in the literature on ACM and participatory NRM (e.g.,
Keen and Mahanty 2006; Marschke and Sinclair 2009;Diducketal.2012). The literature
on ACM has explored transformational learning of individuals and groups, inclusive of
potential changes in management practices (e.g., Plummer, Armitage, and de Lo
Policy learning originates in studies on public policies (e.g., Bennett and Howlett
1992) and it conceptualizes how policy actors (e.g., state officials or policy networks)
learn about organizations, programs or policies (Heikkila and Gerlak 2013). This con-
cept has been taken up by the NRM literature more recently (Gerlak et al. 2017).
Other concepts are also used, such as organizational learningor experiential
learning.We do not focus on them here, as the theoretical basis of the empirical
articles included in this paper (i.e., the sample from Su
cs et al. 2018) mainly cov-
ered the three above-mentioned concepts.
What Affects Learning? A Critical Reflection on Existing Assumptions
The literature suggests that various process-based and contextual factors affect learning.
Based on current theoretical and empirical publications (Table S1) we summarize below
these assumptions. By process, we understand the internal factors to learning, includ-
ing the actors, facilitators or organizers, and social dynamics occurring in a group. By
context, we understand attributes that are external to processes, such as characteristics
of the issue and decision-making. Note that in this article, we use these the terms
processand contextmainly as broad categories (i.e. realms) meant to structure
the findings found in the empirical literature in our synthesis (section Results).
Process characteristics in existing literature include various types of interactions
(e.g., deliberations) among different stakeholders and/or the public, which are moder-
ated by skilled facilitators. The literature sets several normative criteria to these
processes, such as the process has to be widely inclusive, promote unrestrained think-
ing, effective information exchange and support continuous interactions (Mostert
et al. 2007; Koontz and Newig 2014; Pahl-Wostl 2015). The literature on ACM often
describes cases where learning occurs through self-organizing processes and learning
by doing (e.g., Plummer et al. 2012;2013), in social networks or network governance
(e.g., Crona and Parker 2012). A focus on the role of networks in learning is also
characteristic of the environmental governance literature (e.g., Koontz and
Newig 2014).
Examples of contextual factors not only include organizational and political cultures
but also institutions, which are especially evident in the policy learning literature (e.g.,
Dunlop and Radaelli 2018). Other key contextual factors include resources (e.g., time)
available for the actors, and the nature of the topic under question. The latter is empha-
sized in the ACM literature (e.g., Folke et al. 2005) and in the literature using the social
learning construct (e.g., Mostert et al. 2007; Pahl-Wostl 2015).
Action-Oriented Learning
Attention has been directed to study the learning process, less to analyze the context
within which it takes place. However, researchers have matured interest in approaches,
methodologies, and tools with the potential to stir real-world changes (Collins and Ison
2009; Reed et al. 2010; Cundill and Rodela 2012). In this study, we are interested in a
specific type of learning that we term action-oriented learning. Action-oriented learn-
ing refers to not only changes observable at the levels of individuals and groups learn-
ing outcomes (e.g., cognitive or relational advancement) but also to changes in the
NRM domain (e.g., new management practices, policies or institutions) (Su
cs et al.
2018). While Su
cs et al. (2018) analyzed outcomes of action-oriented learning;
here, we focus on how action-oriented learning occurs.
Study Design and Literature Sample
The field of NRM on learning has been subject to several subsequent reviews. Given the
relevance to our objectives, we chose to use the sample of 53 papers identified by
cs et al. (2018) over other reviews for the following reasons: (i) this is one of the
last systematic attempts to identify and select literature on learning and NRM, (ii) their
sample focuses on empirical papers, and (iii) their inclusion and exclusion criteria for
734 M. SU
paper selection focus on studies that reported on (successful) outcomes related to learn-
ing a circumstance key to meet our objective to analyze the factors support-
ing learning.
cs et al. (2018) undertook a systematic literature search (Figure 1) aimed to
map empirical NRM literature discussing learning effects as manifested in NRM. They
used: TS (Topic Search) = social learningor experiential learningor participatory
learningor collaborative learningor societal learningor transformative learning
or policy learningand forestor ecosystemor ecologyor water or biodiversity or
agricultureor wetland or landscapeor climate or land useor restore. The search
was done in the WoS database core collection (citation indexes: SCIE, SSCI, CPCI-Sci,
CPCI-SocSci and Hum, ESCI) in November 2015. No time limits were applied.
The final sample includes 53 articles listed under References and Table S2. For fur-
ther methodological details see Su
cs et al. (2018).
Data Analysis: Thematic Synthesis
Given that all 53 selected articles were qualitative case studies or comparative case stud-
ies, we chose to use thematic synthesis, which is a method suitable for in-depth explor-
ation of research questions. Thematic synthesis is a method for knowledge synthesis
that extracts data from primary studies through coding and then organizes the extracted
data into emerging themes (see: Thomas and Harden 2008, reformulated). Thematic
synthesis belongs to the family of qualitative meta-studies, i.e., interpretive translations
deriving from the integration and comparison of findings from qualitative studies
(Sandelowski et al. 1997, 366). As such, thematic synthesis combines principles
from meta-ethnography and grounded theory (see: Zimmer 2006; Hannes and
Macaitis 2012).
Our approach to the thematic synthesis is summarized in Figure 2. Thematic synthesis
inevitably raises questions about different levels of interpretation (Zimmer 2006).
Figure 2 illustrates our interpretation of the interpretations of primary data by the ori-
ginal authors of the constituent studies(Zimmer 2006, 312). The data for this paper
are the first-order constructs made by the authors of the included articles about the fac-
tors affecting action-oriented learning (Data for analysis, Figure 2).
Our synthesis includes two steps. The first step Data-driven analysis(Figure 2)isa
reciprocal translation of key concepts and themes from one article in another articles
terms (Thomas and Harden 2008), using descriptive coding of line-by-line text passages
of the 53 articles. Descriptive coding relies on an open coding principle, where ultim-
ately descriptive themes second-order constructs by the synthesists are developed. We
organized text sections into eight factors, some of which concerned processand
some context.
The second step Synthesis(Figure 2) involves further interpretation of descriptive
themes. We systematically compared and contrasted the eight themes (groups of
text sections), based on our research questions. We synthesized key factors supporting
and hindering learning into key themes and sometimes sub-themes. These are third-
order constructs, i.e., new concepts and understandings. Table 1 summarizes the results
of our thematic synthesis.
Figure 1. Systematic search and study selection, modified from Su
cs et al. (2018).
Figure 2. The process of thematic synthesis.
736 M. SU
Table 1. Factors supporting action-oriented learning: results from the thematic synthesis of the 53
selected journal articles.
(no. of
Analytical themes
References to the reviewed articles
Key theme:
Decisive FACTOR
No. of
to action-oriented
No. of
I - Process
(41 articles)
1. Participatory and
24 1.1. Facilitated space
for dialog
13 Benson, Lorenzoni, and Cook (2016);
Hoverman et al. (2011); Huntjens et al.
(2011); Lebel, Grothmann, and
uner (2010); McDougall et al.
(2013); Moellenkamp et al. (2010); Pahl-
Wostl et al. (2013); Rist et al. (2007);
Schneider et al. (2012); Sims and Sinclair
(2008); Wallis, Ison, and Samson (2013);
Watanabe et al. (2014); Yuen, Jovicich,
and Preston (2013)
1.2. Self-organizing
9 Armitage et al. (2011); Biedenweg and
Monroe (2013); Hahn et al.2006; Kumler
and Lemos2008; Lee and Krasny (2015);
Murillo, Norris, and Biernacki (2015);
Olsson, Folke, and Hahn (2004); Tidball
et al. (2010); Van Assche et al. (2013)
1.3. Conflicts trigger-
ing learning
5 Biedenweg and Monroe (2013); dAngelo
and Brunstein (2014); Dana and Nelson
(2012); Maynard (2015); Yuen, Jovicich,
and Preston (2013)
2. Proximity to
18 3.1. Intentional
12 Bos and Brown (2012); Cheng, Danks, and
Allred (2011); Cundill (2010); Hahn et al.
(2006); Hurlbert (2015); Leys and
Vanclay2011; Moellenkamp et al. (2010);
Nguyen, Seddaiu, and Roggero (2014);
Olsson, Folke, and Hahn (2004); Pahl-
Wostl et al. (2013); Puente-Rodr
et al. (2015); Van Assche et al. (2013)
3.2. Practice-based dialogs
and boundary objects
8 Albert et al. (2012); Alkan-Olsson et al.
(2011); Cheng, Danks, and Allred (2011);
Cundill (2010); Madsen and Noe (2012);
ıguez et al. (2015); Sinclair,
Kumnerdpet, and Moyer (2013);
Wise (2014)
3. Inter-mediaries 14 2.1. Bridging organiza-
tions and individuals
10 Bos and Brown (2012); Cundill (2010); Hahn
et al. (2006); Hoverman et al. (2011);
Johannessen and Hahn (2013); Leys and
Vanclay (2011); Moellenkamp et al.
(2010); Nykvist (2014); Olsson et al.
(2004); Pahl-Wostl et al. (2013)
2.2. Facilitative leadership 12 Albert et al. (2012); Bos and Brown (2012;
Cundill (2010); Hoverman et al. (2011);
Hurlbert (2015); Johannessen and Hahn
(2013); Leys and Vanclay (2011); Nykvist
(2014); Olsson, Folke, and Hahn (2004);
Pahl-Wostl et al. (2013); Secco, Pettenella,
and Gatto (2011); Sol, Beers, and
Wals (2013)
II - Context
(31 articles)
4. Power asymmetries 13 7.1. Balancing power
13 Balazs and Lubell (2014); Biedenweg and
Monroe (2013); Boyd et al. (2014); Hilden
(2011); Hordijk et al. (2014); Hoverman
et al. (2011); Leys and Vanclay (2011);
McDougall et al. (2013); Shaw and
Kristjanson (2014); Sol, Beers, and Wals
(2013); Van Assche et al. (2013); Van
Gossum et al. (2008); Vinke-de Kruijf,
Bressers, and Augustijn (2014)
Limitations of the Methodology
Meta-methods, such as thematic synthesis belong to the interpretive research paradigm
and involve a certain degree of subjectivity (Hannes and Macaitis 2012). Therefore,
working with not well-defined concepts (e.g., social learning) affects the review process.
In such cases, we debated emerging themes among coauthors and disagreements were
resolved by discussion. The first author primarily did coding; we discussed the wording
of final themes among all until we reached agreements about each theme. Additionally,
while building themes, we regularly returned to the original articles, to keep our inter-
pretations as close as possible to the meanings in original articles.
Limitations of the Evidence Base
The articles included discuss learning processes and their outcomes, however, what was
regarded as an outcome, and what were the processes facilitating it, was occasionally
not very clear. For instance, network-building would be considered a factor affecting
learning, but also sometimes a learning outcome. This made it challenging for us to dis-
tinguish with clarity how the authors of the selected papers have conceptualized the dif-
ferent components, and the assumed relationships between them.
Table 1. Continued.
(no. of
Analytical themes
References to the reviewed articles
Key theme:
Decisive FACTOR
No. of
to action-oriented
No. of
5. Social-ecological
11 4.1. Crises as triggers for
learning and action
11 Armitage et al. (2011); Benson, Lorenzoni,
and Cook (2016); Head (2014); Huntjens
et al. (2011); Johannessen and Hahn
(2013); Menzel and Buchecker (2013);
Olsson, Folke, and Hahn (2004); Pahl-
Wostl et al. (2013); Sendzimir et al.
(2010); Van Gossum et al. (2008); Vinke-
de Kruijf, Bressers, and Augustijn (2014)
6. Time 11 6.1. Allowing sufficient
time learning effects to
become evident
11 Albert et al. (2012); Balazs and Lubell (2014);
Biedenweg and Monroe (2013); Hilden
(2011); Lebel, Grothmann, and
uner (2010); Leys and Vanclay
(2011); Menzel and Buchecker (2013);
Moellenkamp et al. (2010); Puszkin-
Chevlin and Esnard (2009); Shaw and
Kristjanson (2014); Yuen, Jovicich, and
Preston (2013)
7. Complexity 6 8.1. Embracing the com-
plexity of SESs
6 Boyd et al. (2014); Huntjens et al. (2011);
Pahl-Wostl et al. (2013); Puszkin-Chevlin
and Esnard (2009); Van Assche et al.
(2013); Vinke-de Kruijf, Bressers, and
Augustijn (2014)
8. Identity 4 5.1. Addressing identity
4 Boyd et al. (2014); Hahn et al. (2006);
ıguez et al. (2015); Smith,
DuBois, and Krasny (2016)
Several articles have data clustered in more than one theme and multiple sub-themes.
An alphabetical list of the 53
reviewed articles is included in the reference list.
738 M. SU
Methodologically, the 53 articles identified as relevant for our analysis report on mostly
qualitative case studies: 35 articles on a single case study and 66 articles on comparative
case studies. Several papers report on more than one case (in total these made up to
101 cases). Further, 32 articles report on interventions in the form of facilitated proc-
esses while 16 papers report on self-organizing, emergent processes.
The analysis of the evidence reported by the 53 papers led to the identification of
eight decisive factors or key themesin total (Figure 3 and Table 1). Specifically, we
identified three themes for the process: (i) participatory and collaborative arenas, (ii)
proximity to praxis, and (iii) intermediaries. We identified five themes for context: (i)
power asymmetries, (ii) social-ecological crises, (iii) time, (iv) complexity of social-
ecological systems (SESs), and (v) identity.
Realm I: Process
Factor 1: Participatory and Collaborative Arenas
Facilitated space for dialog. Thirteen reviewed articles discuss the importance of enabling
a space for extended dialog for learning and provide descriptive evidence of how that
turned out in their case studies. For instance, as Hoverman et al. (2011) put it: creating
appropriate conditions to facilitate constructive engagements. This was evident not
only in this sub-theme (organized participation) but also in the next sub-theme (self-
organized collaboration). Most of the reviewed articles under both sub-themes highlight
the importance of co-design of participation, whereby stakeholders can develop co-own-
ership in these processes.
Figure 3. Process-based and contextual factors found to affect action-oriented learning (the scheme
of learning outcomes is modified from Su
cs et al. 2018).
Self-organizing capacities of networks. Nine articles report on research where self-
organizing collaboration was explored and evidence was observed of how learning leads
to innovative ideas and collective-action towards sustainability practices. For instance,
Van Assche et al. (2013) found that internally defined goals for learning and preexisting
networks rather than artificially created learning environments have created favor-
able conditions for a continuous exchange and implementation of innovative ideas in
the ice-fishing communities (Canadian Arctic).
Conflicts triggering learning. Five publications in our sample discuss cases where con-
flictual processes have supported learning. Dana and Nelson (2012, 243) write about
constructive conflictswhen facilitating learning through Environmental Risk Analysis
of biodiversity of genetically modified crops (South-Africa). Maynard (2015) reports a
similar circumstance (UK), occurring in relation to water management where conflicting
expectations were discussed in a competence group, leading to a collaborative solution.
Learning in such occasions meant that divergent opinions were recognized first, then
debated openly and finally accommodated until the issue was settled.
Factor 2: Proximity to Praxis
Eighteen articles report on learning processes being facilitated in situations where peo-
ple share a real concern about given problems. We refer to this as proximity
to praxis.
Intentional experimentation. Twelve articles connect the experimental nature of gov-
ernance processes to learning and the resultant changes. Three articles support the idea
that learning happens through intentional experimentation as it opens up actorsminds
to new ideas. For instance, Bos and Brown (2012) describe a long-term governance
experiment in the urban water sector in Australia, where open networks of actors and
their willingness to try something new enabled learning.
Practice-based dialogs and boundary objects. Eight articles suggest that boundary
objects facilitate discussions on real-world experiences and therefore have the potential
to initiate action towards NRM change. Different entities can have a boundary-role. For
instance, a conservation agreement discussed by Puente-Rodr
ıguez et al. (2015) served
as a boundary object as it brought together different identities associated with fishing
traditions, creating a common knowledge base among the actors and leading to certain
actions towards sustainable mussel fishery practices (Netherlands).
Factor 3: Intermediaries
Fourteen articles report on the significance of intermediary roles which key individuals
and organizations have for facilitating and promoting action-oriented learning.
Bridging individuals and/or organizations. Ten articles discuss examples of the import-
ance of bridging individuals and/or organizations. For instance, Bos and Brown (2012)
identify a bridging organization, which promotes sustainable water practices and shared
experiences in urban water governance experiment (Australia), and an important role in
the case(s) they worked on.
740 M. SU
Facilitative and transformational leadership. Twelve articles identify a role for individ-
ual leadership and provide evidence of ways it transmits new knowledge in learning
processes. For example, this is in the form of key individuals or groups putting forward
innovative ideas and act on them. Four papers in our sample discuss that a shared lead-
ership (rather than individual) is needed for more sustainable NRM practices (e.g., Leys
and Vanclay 2011; Johannessen and Hahn 2013).
Realm II: Context
Factor 4: Power Asymmetries
We found thirteen articles giving evidence of how power asymmetries between various
actors hinder learning. This concerns dominant coalitions (e.g., Van Gossum et al.
2008; Boyd et al. 2014; Balazs and Lubell 2014), or a lack of distributional justice (e.g.,
Biedenweg and Monroe 2013; Shaw and Kristjanson 2014). For example, differences in
commitment and power among policy officers and NGOs created tension and dimin-
ished trust within the rural planning network in the Netherlands (Sol, Beers, and Wals
2013). Three articles also discuss possible solutions to address power discrepancies (Leys
and Vanclay 2011; McDougall et al. 2013; Van Assche et al. 2013).
Factor 5: Social-Ecological Crises
Eleven articles attribute learning, and the subsequent outcomes, to social-ecological cri-
ses. Crises reported most commonly include environmental disturbances (e.g., floods or
droughts), but also contested aspects of biodiversity issues (e.g., disputes over fish stock
situations). Researchers found that such circumstances had the potential to engender a
reassessment of the status quo and subsequent change of the actions.
Factor 6: Time
Eleven articles highlight time as a key factor affecting the achievement of learning out-
comes. For example, several articles defend the view that sufficient time should be allo-
cated for preparing the interventions, e.g., workshops (Moellenkamp et al. 2010), and
for negotiation (Biedenweg and Monroe 2013). Balazs and Lubell (2014) emphasize that
certain long-term effects (e.g., structural changes in water governance institutions) may
become visible only over extended time.
Factor 7: Complexity
Six articles point at the oversimplification of complex problems as a factor hindering
action-oriented learning. Examples include the simplification of risk, adaptation options
and the complexity of socio-technical change (e.g., Puszkin-Chevlin and Esnard 2009;
Boyd et al. 2014). Certain authors emphasize misfits between top-down governance and
the bottom-up learning approach (e.g., Vinke-de Kruijf, Bressers, and Augustijn 2014),
together with difficulties in combining informal learning processes with formal deci-
sion-making (e.g., Pahl-Wostl et al. 2013; Van Assche et al. 2013).
Factor 8: Identity
Four articles point at the role of identities in affecting action-oriented learning. For
instance, when shared identity construction in a community does not occur, it can
inhibit learning processes. As Boyd et al. (2014, 140) note that social learning for adap-
tive governance requires attention to competing understandings of risk and identity,
in the context of urban planning where the informal settlements are currently largely
ignored by governmental bodies (Mozambique).
We need a better understanding of how learning, intended to support changes in real-
world NRM occurs and can be triggered (e.g., Reed et al. 2010). With the present study,
we attempt to make a step forward in this direction. In the following, we outline core
lessons that emerge from our synthesis of the current empirical literature. These lessons,
which NRM practitioners and researchers may find useful for their work, concern two
broad realms: the learning processes and the contexts.
Lesson 1: Self-Organizing, As Well As Externally Facilitated Processes, Support
Action-Oriented Learning
This lesson connects different NRM study fields that discuss learning (e.g., ACM, par-
ticipatory environmental governance), suggesting that self-organizing governance net-
works for NRM are complementary to and nested in government regimes (Hahn 2011)
or other externally facilitated processes. Yet, several authors (e.g., Collins and Ison
2009) note that participation or collaboration should be used as diagnostic tools but not
a panacea for strategic planning. Here, a key role is on intermediaries and a concept of
shared leadership, which support facilitated as well as emerging group processes. Much
of the argument on intermediaries is based on the ACM literature, which discusses
bridging organizationsas an approach to support learning (Folke et al. 2005).
A bridging organization is an arena for trust-building, vertical and horizontal collabor-
ation, learning, sensemaking, identification of common interests, and conflict reso-
lution(Hahn et al. 2006, 586). Concepts of shared leadership recognize similar ideas,
e.g., the notion of transformational leadershipfrom the ACM literature (e.g., Olsson,
Galaz, and Boonstra 2014)orfacilitative leadershipfrom the literature on environ-
mental governance (e.g., Ansell and Gash 2007)
Lesson 2: If Treated Constructively, Social-Ecological Crises May Facilitate
Action-Oriented Learning
This lesson brings together several key findings from our review: namely environmental
crises, conflictive processes, and power asymmetries. Our results suggest a distinct link
between environmental crises and action-oriented learning if crises are regarded as
windows of opportunities(Olsson, Folke, and Hahn 2004). This pattern is especially
evident in the ACM literature, and also in articles that rely on policy learning theories,
which tend to draw direct links between learning and the resultant policy changes
742 M. SU
(Weible et al. 2012). The lesson also suggests that in addition to collaborative processes,
conflicts may support learning as well, provided that conflicts are treated constructively an
idea found in earlier studies (mostly from the participatory resource management field, e.g.,
Schusler et al. 2003; Keen and Mahanty 2006). Yet, some studies from existing ACM litera-
ture suggest that learning processes may not always result in common visions (e.g., Olsson,
Galaz, and Boonstra 2014). This ultimately relates to how power relations are treated:
addressing power asymmetries may support learning. In general, existing reviews of the
NRM literature have only rarely examined the role of certain contextual factors, such as
power relations in relation to learning. Our synthesis strongly suggests that power asymme-
tries between actors hinder learning. This lesson mainly derives from the sub-groups of
NRM literature on environmental governance (e.g., Lemos and Agrawal 2006) or the ACM
scholarship (e.g., Sandstr
om 2009; Crona and Parker 2012).
Lesson 3: Proximity to Practice Supports Action-Oriented Learning
Our synthesis suggests that intentional experimentation, as well as reflection through
hands-on self-emergent experiences, facilitates action-oriented learning. Experimentation
is a central theme in the ACM literature (e.g., Armitage, Marschke, and Plummer 2008)
where learning outcomes are meant to inform future policies. Our results further indi-
cate that different kinds of entities can facilitate action-oriented learning. These entities
are often termed as boundary objects, which relate to bridging organizations, denoting
hybrid constructionsmeant to facilitate the negotiation and exchange of multiple
types of knowledge(White et al. 2010, 221). Boundary objects are often discussed in
the ACM scholarship (e.g., Crona and Parker 2012) but also in the literature on collab-
orative/participatory resource governance (e.g., White et al. 2010).
Implications for Further NRM Research
This review has identified two key knowledge gaps in the current empirical literature.
These are relevant for both primary research and for research syntheses.
First, despite increasing attention to contextual factors affecting learning, contextual
issues are often addressed vaguely in the current empirical NRM literature. This is an
important knowledge gap. Given that many assume these aspects can significantly affect
the outcomes of learning, more in-depth research is needed to clarify questions around
these. For instance, further studies could clarify specific links between time, identity,
and action-oriented learning. Several studies, especially from the ACM literature, under-
line that learning outcomes often require longer time-scales, e.g., years or decades, to
become evident (Plummer and Armitage 2007; Armitage, Marschke, and Plummer
2008). Our synthesis highlights that the role of time might be different in cases of
organized and self-emerging processes. In the case of intervention-based learning, future
studies could benefit from research designs that integrate ex-ante and ex-post assess-
ments. In the case of studies exploring learning outcomes within self-emerging proc-
esses, it would be useful to explicate how time frames were accounted for and what
analytical criteria were used to reconstruct past events, and their effects.
However, methodological aspects are often debated in research on learning (Cundill and
Rodela 2012) and we did not systematically explore the methods used in the reviewed
studies. This is something future syntheses could focus on.
Second, the various sub-groups of NRM literature i.e., literature which uses different
theoretical lenses to study NRM (e.g., ACM or collaborative governance) and also applies
different learning concepts (e.g., social learning or policy learning) could benefit from a
tighter exchange. For instance, the ACM literature, with its pragmatic and instrumental
approach to learning, has recently but only partly converged to the environmental govern-
ance scholarship. At the same time, the problem-based environmental governance litera-
ture has brought new topics into the learning discourse. A more dynamic exchange
between these bodies of works may help to address some of the key challenges in contem-
porary environmental governance (Plummer, Armitage, and de Lo
e2013), especially in
terms of learning outcomes in real-world situations. Our synthesis also suggests that the
various sub-groups of NRM literature have many aspects in common and, for instance,
they seem to share a position on how action-oriented learning occurs (e.g., the view on
self-organized and facilitated participation supporting learning). Future reviews of pub-
lished literature could systematically compare this and such comparisons could potentially
further reveal the specific links between learning and its implications to NRM practice.
Action-oriented learning, as used in the NRM research field, is a concept that focuses
on learning outcomes as well as their manifestations in real-world. The present review
of published empirical qualitative literature identified eight factors that are reported to
have a key effect on action-oriented learning. The sample of papers we surveyed
includes only empirical research, which allows to better comprehend how action-ori-
ented learning is suggested to emerge in real-world resource management situations.
Our review also points at important knowledge gaps, which can be used to further the
current research agenda about learning and NRM.
This study also has sought to test if thematic synthesis as an analytical method to
describe, synthesize, and catalog evidence across the NRM literature is well suited for the
task at hand. We found that thematic synthesis, as a qualitative review technique, allowed
us to investigate in a more in-depth way the ongoing discourse on learning. Thematic syn-
thesis proved especially useful for synthesizing evidence from qualitative studies, which
often have diverse designs and are not easy to compare by quantitative approaches (see:
Hannes and Macaitis 2012). While thematic synthesis allows grasping an in-depth narra-
tive about the evidence base, the method, however, is limited in generating specific man-
agement recommendations. Therefore, the lessons we are able to draw from our study
represent broad suggestions; their validity depends on the concrete management context.
The first author wishes to thank three anonymous reviewers for valuable feedback on the manu-
script and the Swedish Institute for a one-year visiting scholar grant to work at Stockholm
Resilience Centre (SRC), Sweden.
744 M. SU
Our research has been co-financed by the Formas research grant No. 2016-01556, and by the
Stiftelsen f
or Milj
ostrategisk Forskning (
Monika Su
Thomas Hahn
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... Processes supportive of social learning outcomes include bringing together differing perspectives, addressing identity differences, balancing power asymmetries, and embracing the complexity of social-ecological systems (e.g., Rist et al. 2007;Leys and Vanclay 2011;Pahl-Wostl et al. 2013;Suškevičs et al. 2019). Helpful methods include facilitative leadership, practice-based dialogues, intentional experimentation, and boundary objects (e.g., Armitage et al. 2011;Plummer and Baird 2013;Baird et al. 2014;Suškevičs et al. 2019). ...
... Processes supportive of social learning outcomes include bringing together differing perspectives, addressing identity differences, balancing power asymmetries, and embracing the complexity of social-ecological systems (e.g., Rist et al. 2007;Leys and Vanclay 2011;Pahl-Wostl et al. 2013;Suškevičs et al. 2019). Helpful methods include facilitative leadership, practice-based dialogues, intentional experimentation, and boundary objects (e.g., Armitage et al. 2011;Plummer and Baird 2013;Baird et al. 2014;Suškevičs et al. 2019). Much of the evidence about social learning comes from environmental governance contexts other than IA, such as climate change adaptation, watershed management, and community-based forestry (see reviews by Suškevičs et al. 2018Suškevičs et al. , 2019, although an early leading study was based on IA experiences. ...
... Helpful methods include facilitative leadership, practice-based dialogues, intentional experimentation, and boundary objects (e.g., Armitage et al. 2011;Plummer and Baird 2013;Baird et al. 2014;Suškevičs et al. 2019). Much of the evidence about social learning comes from environmental governance contexts other than IA, such as climate change adaptation, watershed management, and community-based forestry (see reviews by Suškevičs et al. 2018Suškevičs et al. , 2019, although an early leading study was based on IA experiences. Focusing on cognitive and moral development, Webler et al. (1995) examined learning by participants in an IA of a waste disposal facility in the Swiss Canon of Aargau and revealed the degree to which carefully facilitated public participation programs can enable the development of shared understandings, interests, and norms among stakeholders. ...
In this chapter, we contextualize meaningful public participation in relation to next-generation IA, describe its key features, principles and benefits, and canvas innovative and promising approaches and tools for achieving such participation.
... Subsequently, we initiated the PM&E project with 12 almond farmers who expressed interest in participating (Luján Soto et al. 2020). This first meeting was followed by several participatory activities using a diversity of participatory tools to incentivize social learning (Ensor and Harvey 2015, Ernst 2019, Suškevičs et al. 2019. The activities included field visits; soil assessments using technical indicators of soil quality; two participatory workshops to identify, select, prioritize, and validate local indicators of soil quality; the development and on-farm implementation of a field manual for farmers to perform quarterly visual assessment of RA; and a series of participatory workshops and activities to facilitate the exchange of monitoring and evaluation results from local indicators and technical indicators of soil quality between participating farmers and researchers, reflect on RA impacts and effectiveness, and keep participants engaged (Luján Soto et al. 2020). ...
... Our results on farmer perceptions provide empirical evidence to support that a well-designed PM&E process combining different participatory activities and tools to facilitate participation, knowledge exchange, and engagement among farmers and researchers accelerates collective understanding and social learning about innovative SLM practices, which are important prerequisites for SLM out-scaling and large-scale adoption. Nevertheless, social learning is influenced by multiple, contextdependent factors (Ernst 2019, Suškevičs et al. 2019) and does not necessarily translate into collective action (Muro and Jeffrey 2008, Nykvist 2014, Newig et al. 2018. ...
... (Henly-Shepard et al. 2015), community-based management with participatory future scenarios(Johnson et al. 2012), and participatory mapping of ecosystem services(García-Nieto et al. 2019). The design of participatory research processes should be adapted to local contexts and established objectives to maximize their relevance and impact(De Vente et al. 2016, Reed et al. 2018, with facilitation being critical to ensure social learning(Harvey et al. 2013, Suškevičs et al. 2019. ...
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The advanced state of land degradation worldwide urges the large-scale adoption of sustainable land management (SLM). Social learning is considered an important precondition for the adoption of innovative and contextualized SLM. Involving farmers and researchers in participatory monitoring and evaluation (PM&E) of innovative SLM such as regenerative agriculture is expected to enable social learning. Although there is a growing body of literature asserting the achievement of social learning through participatory processes, social learning has been loosely defined, sparsely assessed, and only partially covered when measured. Here, we assess how PM&E of regenerative agriculture, involving local farmers and researchers in southeast Spain, enabled social learning, effectively increasing knowledge exchange and shared understanding of regenerative agriculture effects among participating farmers. We measured whether social learning occurred by covering its social-cognitive (perceptions) and social-relational (social networks) dimensions, and discussed the potential of PM&E to foster SLM adoption and out-scaling. We used fuzzy cognitive mapping and social network analysis as graphical semiquantitative methods to assess changes in farmers' perceptions and shared fluxes of information on regenerative agriculture over approximately three years. Our results show that PM&E enabled social learning among participating farmers, who strengthened and enlarged their social networks for information sharing and presented a more complex and broader shared understanding of regenerative agriculture effects and benefits than pre PM&E. We argue that PM&E thereby creates crucial preconditions for SLM adoption and out-scaling. Our findings are relevant for the design of PM&E processes, living labs, and landscape restoration initiatives that aim to support farmers' adoption and out-scaling of innovative and contextualized SLM.
... Similarly, the extant literature on experimentation points toward four key factors important for enabling experimentation. 4 First of all, multiple studies point to the importance of leadership that is legitimate, supportive, innovative, and committed (Bos et al., 2013;Brown & Cohen, 2019;Farrelly & Brown, 2011;McFadgen, 2019;McFadgen & Huitema, 2017;Rocle & Salles, 2018;Suškevičs et al., 2019;van Doren et al., 2020). Secondly, clearly-defined and communicated resources (Bos et al., 2013;Newig et al., 2016;Witting, 2017), transparent rules (Witting, 2017), and flexible administrative practices (Bos et al., 2013;Heiskanen et al., 2017) are more likely to lead to effective experimentation. ...
... I then made a list of factors that were important to the realization of experiments and loosely grouped them according to the four themes. Cohen, 2019;Farrelly & Brown, 2011), internal motivation for learning (Suškevičs et al., 2019), trust, andclear, participatory communication (Farrelly &Brown, 2011;Sanders et al., 2020;Suškevičs et al., 2019;Witting, 2017). Where stakeholders are involved, buyin is also imperative (Farrelly & Brown, 2011). ...
... The second factor was that learning tended to be higher in program teams where there was a higher motivation for learning (Suškevičs et al., 2019). Experimentation was mandatory, but some teams were more eager and used it as an opportunity to do something ambitious and imaginative. ...
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This article examines policy experimentation in the context of policy learning in Canadian cultural policy. Despite the attraction of experimentation to encourage learning and thus improved policy outcomes, much of the literature on experimentation does not give sufficient attention to how it is operationalized in practice. Drawing from a novel dataset based on interviews with key actors, this article focuses on how the governance of experimentation impacts learning resulting from experimentation. Findings ultimately demonstrate that while learning occurred, it was constrained overall by a hierarchical, top-down approach to experimentation. Lessons from this case study can therefore be useful for both policy scholars and public administrations embarking on experimentation or other types of public sector innovation in Canada and beyond.
... While the study of learning has evolved significantly since Lester Milbrath (1989) claimed we should "learn our way out of sustainability challenges", gaps in the literature remain (Gerlak et al., 2018;Milbrath, 1989). Such gaps have been described as lack of universal terminology and definitions when discussing learning concepts, low diversity of case studies, and insufficient analysis of the context in which learning occurs (Diduck, 2010;Gerlak et al., 2018;Suškevičs, Hahn, & Rodela, 2019;Suškevičs et al., 2018). ...
... Barriers to learning can occur within the learning process, such as limitations or conflicts in the interactions and deliberations between stakeholders, and due to contextual factors, such as organizational, political and institutional cultures (e.g. power asymmetries or insufficient time), that may reduce learning capabilities (Suškevičs et al., 2019). ...
... A review of the learning process and contextual factors in action-oriented learning by Suškevičs et al. (2019) suggest that there are several factors that can affect learning. Factors internal to the learning process include participatory and collaborative arenas, proximity to praxis and intermediaries, and contextual factors external to the learning process include power asymmetries, social-ecological crises, time, complexity and identity (Suškevičs et al., 2019) Other research on learning in NREM note that power asymmetries among participants are important, though often ignored, considerations in the study of learning processes and outcomes (Gerlak et al., 2018;Suškevičs et al., 2018). ...
While Protected Areas (PAs) are essential for the preservation of biodiversity, conservation efforts should not impose injustices onto local communities. Using a qualitative case study that included document review, semi-structured interviews, participant observation and thematic analysis, the planning and management of a network of PAs in the Kullu District of Himachal Pradesh, India were examined. The study 1) describes the planning and management approach for PAs in Kullu, 2) explains how the planning and management approach has changed since the declaration of the first national park in 1984, 3) evaluates the integration of the four attributes of environmental justice (distributive, procedural, recognitional and restorative) in PA planning and management, and 4) identifies learning outcomes for those involved in or affected by PAs in the Kullu District and relates such outcomes to environmental justice. Overall, the data reveal that the planning and management of PAs in Kullu operates under an Exclusive Model that restricts local people from accessing and utilizing natural resources within PAs, while also excluding them from participating in planning and management activities. In terms of environmental justice, the data show that there is an uneven distribution of benefits from PAs and inequitable restrictions on resource use, a lack of early and ongoing consultation with locally affected communities, and uneven and inadequate compensation for loss of traditional rights. One important learning outcome identified by forest officers is a movement away from the practice of forced displacement of people. Although this suggests a transition toward a more inclusive model, much work remains to advance environmental justice in PA planning and management in the Kullu District. The data also indicate that inclusivity and advancement of environmental justice in PA planning and management could be achieved through: collaborative knowledge exchange between forest officers and community members; opportunities for community members to participate in planning and management activities; and the recognition of marginalized members of society in PA planning. iii ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
... Social learning continues to receive considerable attention in natural resource and environmental studies. Plagued by ambiguity because of its diverse traditions and disciplinary roots (Parson and Clark 1995;Blackmore 2007;Armitage et al. 2008;Muro and Jeffrey 2008;Diduck 2010;Reed et al. 2010;Ensor and Harvey 2015), recent research has helped clarify its defining features, salient context and process factors, range of learning outcomes, and implications for environmental resource management (see reviews in Johannessen and Hahn 2013;Ensor and Harvey 2015;Siebenhüner et al. 2016;Mudombi et al. 2017;Thi Hong Phuong et al. 2017;Suškevičs et al. 2018;Gonzales-Iwanciw et al. 2019;Suškevičs et al. 2019). ...
... Whether self-organized or planned, social learning can be shaped by an array of process and context factors. In a recent thematic synthesis of 53 studies, Suškevičs et al. (2019) identified seven key process factors and another five important context factors. Process factors were defined as variables internal to the learning process: facilitated space for dialog; self-organizing capacities; conflicts triggering learning; intentional experimentation; practicebased dialogs and boundary objects; bridging organizations and individuals; and facilitative leadership (e.g., Rist et al. 2007;Leys and Vanclay 2011;Pahl-Wostl et al. 2013). ...
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The impact of climate-related changes on northern Canada’s renewable resource sectors makes bolstering adaptive capacity an urgent imperative throughout the region. Although social learning is a key ingredient of adaptive capacity, our understanding of the relationships among social learning, adaptive capacity, and climate change adaptation is limited. Building on previous conceptual and empirical studies, this paper develops a framework that clarifies the interactions among social learning, adaptive capacity and climate change adaptation pertinent to a regional scale of analysis. The framework is multi-layered and consists of different levels of governing variables, units of analysis, learning outcomes and climate change adaptations. It is also integrative in that it encompasses social learning motivations, context and process factors, and outcomes, along with key determinants of adaptive capacity. A post hoc assessment of two climate change disturbances in northern boreal resource systems reveals the applicability of the framework to a regional scale analysis.
... And yet, although social learning remains an important process for conservation and natural resource management, there has been widespread critique regarding an overall lack of theoretical rigor in the research on social learning, which has limited scholars' ability to generate cumulative insights and substantive understandings of the phenomenon (Muro and Jeffrey 2008, Reed et al. 2010, Rodela 2013, Gerlak et al. 2019. Some of this critique has explicitly highlighted inadequacies in attending to context (Suškevičs et al. 2019), power (Suškevičs et al. 2018), and the links between individual and collective learning (Gerlak et al. 2019). We respond to these critiques by asserting that theories from the learning sciences, specifically sociocultural theories of learning, can provide a lens to address them while simultaneously offering ...
... Because these theories allow for studying units of analysis beyond the level of the individual learner, they can be used to understand how exogenous sociocultural factors affect learning and vice versa. Suškevičs et al. (2019) argue that contextual issues are often addressed vaguely in the current empirical natural resource management literature. Thus, designing studies that use sociocultural learning theory as their foundation can provide the necessary analytical tools to understand the relationships between social learning contexts, processes, and outcomes. ...
Involving multiple stakeholders in conservation and natural resource management through participatory and collaborative approaches has been lauded as having great potential for achieving healthy and resilient social-ecological systems. Within these approaches, social learning has come to be understood as a key process that can support resilient systems by fostering trust and mutual understanding between stakeholders, bringing diverse types of knowledge into management schemes, and increasing the adaptive capacity of social-ecological systems so they are better equipped to accommodate change and disturbance. Yet, research on social learning with respect to conservation and natural resource management has thus far failed to consequentially attend to the intensive research and theoretical perspectives on learning from the learning sciences and educational research more broadly, perspectives that we argue can offer new insights to the social learning scholarship. Specifically, we synthesize and assess the value of sociocultural theories of learning to improve research on social learning processes and outcomes in the context of social-ecological resilience. Sociocultural learning theories help explain learning at both the individual and collective level, as well as the role of social, cultural, and historical contexts as constitutive components of learning. We argue that future studies of social learning should consider engaging with these theories to yield more rich and nuanced insights for the conservation and natural resource management fields with the goal of bolstering social-ecological resilience.
... Others include boundary objects, boundary spanning, and deliberation framing (O'Doherty, 2013;Sarkki et al., 2020;Turnhout, 2009). We can expect significant organizational and action oriented (Suskevics et al., 2019) learning, because risk taking within the realm of emergent properties has both beneficial and short-term detrimental effects. The key is to have good measures of effectiveness so that detrimental effects may be recognized and dealt with before they exhaust too many resources. ...
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This paper incorporates systems thinking in the design of a knowledge networked systems model (KNSM) for supporting knowledge‐to‐action in conservation organizations. It assumes that organizations are complex entities with properties that should be considered normatively. The synthesis of these properties into a KNSM revolves around the most common question many conservation practitioners are asked by the public: how is X doing? X typically reflects a concept easily grasped by the public such as a species or ecosystem. To operationalize a KNSM, one should consider that (1) information, not authority, empowers the network, (2) structural or bureaucratic impediments to maximizing utility of knowledge are minimized, (3) interacting agents direct the flow of information and knowledge and guide agency outputs, (4) boundaries between offices, programs, departments, and organizations are treated as porous, (5) transparency is fundamental to successful model operation, (6), most conservation problems are spatial, and (7) ecological and knowledge hierarchies organize the network. Benefits of this approach include facilitating research outcomes that support management decisions, a tool for strategic planning and implementation, greater transparency and operational clarity, foundation for team building, means for identifying knowledge gaps, a platform for organizational in‐reach and public outreach, facilitated communication in general, and an important tool for collaborative conservation decision making. An example using a hypothetical listed species is presented to illustrate how a KNSM can be designed and implemented.
... Even in cases where epistemological frameworks between different groups is quite divergent such as between foresters and harvesters in Washington, USA (Ballard and Belsky 2010) or foresters, nature reserve staff, and villagers in Yunnan, China (Van Rijsoort and Jinfeng 2005), collaborative research can still provide a forum for learning and boundary work should there be careful attention to designing processes that support the meaningful participation of all involved. However, it is important to note that collaborative processes-regardless of the similarities in epistemological frameworks between groups-will not inherently result in learning (Reed et al. 2010), and there are a number of additional factors that facilitate or hinder learning such as power, status, and rank (Suškevičs et al. 2019). ...
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Multi-stakeholder initiatives for biodiversity conservation on working landscapes often necessitate strategies to facilitate learning in order to foster successful collaboration. To investigate the learning processes that both undergird and result from collaborative efforts, this case study employs the concept of boundary work as a lens to examine learning between rice growers and conservation professionals in California’s Central Valley, who were engaged in a collaborative research project focused on migratory bird conservation. Through analysis of workshop observations, project documents, and interviews with rice growers and conservation professionals, we identified five distinct factors of the collaborative research process that influenced learning amongst these two groups: having mutually beneficial goals, sharing ownership of the collaborative research process, building trust, integrating knowledge, and institutional alignment. We also examined and identified learning outcomes for both rice growers and conservation professionals, which included new knowledge of the social-ecological system, new practices around farming and collaboration, and shifting identities. Our findings suggest that applying these factors and outcomes for learning when structuring collaborative research, and other multi-stakeholder initiatives, can foster learning amongst diverse stakeholder groups to support new approaches for balancing resource use and adaptive management.
... Regarding the achievement of the second goal; along the whole PM&E project multiple mechanisms were activated to enhance individual and social learning (Suškevičs et al., 2019) as critical steps towards adoption and out-scaling of RA (Sol et al., 2013;Suškevičs et al., 2018). The iterative feedback processes (Fig. 2) aimed, among other reasons, to help farmers' self-reflection, ownership and empowerment to implement locally adapted RA. ...
Participatory action research involving farmers and researchers is crucial to enhance the adoption of farming innovations and ensure the long term sustainability of agroecosystem restoration. However, the factors for successful participatory research for agroecosystem restoration are not always clear and have been rarely evaluated from the perspective of the subjects from whom change is expected. Despite the increasing call for agroecosystem Living Labs, farmers are still seldom involved in structured and shared co-monitoring and co-evaluation of farming innovations as part of participatory monitoring programs. Therefore, we developed a participatory monitoring and evaluation project to evaluate the impacts of regenerative agriculture between farmers and researchers in the Mediterranean drylands of Spain. Here we present and evaluate the project outcomes by reporting farmers’ monitoring results using a co-developed visual soil assessment (VSA) manual, and by documenting farmers’ evaluation of the VSA and other key aspects of the participatory monitoring and evaluation in the third year since the beginning of the project. Farmers’ VSA results pointed out regenerative agriculture as a promising solution to restore degraded agroecosystems in Mediterranean drylands with insights that are complementary to the scientific monitoring. Farmers’ evaluation of the participatory monitoring process revealed the need to enhance farmers’ support for implementation of VSA tools in initial stages, and to include farmers in the design of VSA tools to adjust them to farmers’ priorities, possibilities and needs. Farmers highlighted the importance of the participatory monitoring and evaluation process to enhance knowledge exchange, learning, and capacity building regarding soil quality management to adapt and adopt regenerative agriculture. Our results confirm that including farmers in the design, decision-making and evaluation of research projects for agroecosystem restoration is imperative to enhance efficient, sound and inclusive transitions towards long term sustainable agroecosystems.
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Science-informed, reductionist policy has systematically failed to address wicked situations. Such situations are highly interconnected and unpredictable. As a consequence, the implementation of so-called desirable interventions can lead to the export of vulnerabilities within and across different societal domains, sectors, intersections and scales. Systemic practice is an emerging field, and highlights the need to enrich scientific inquiry and policy actions through action learning with an “extended peer community'' as a means to navigate wicked situations. In this paper, we report on the potential of game co-design as a systemic practice to improve the situation of Baltic Sea nutrient enrichment. Findings from water catchments in Finland, Sweden and Poland suggest that the co-design of serious games can both enhance the comprehension of wicked situations, and foster self-organized concerted action without imposing a convergence of perspectives amongst diverse stakeholders.
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Policy learning is an attractive proposition, but who learns and for what purposes? Can we learn the wrong lesson? And why do so many attempts to learn what works often fail? In this article, we provide three lessons. First, there are four different modes in which constellations of actors learn. Hence our propositions about learning are conditional on which of the four contexts we refer to. Second, policy learning does not just happen; there are specific hindrances and triggers. Thus, learning can be facilitated by knowing the mechanisms to activate and the likely obstacles. Third, learning itself is a conditional final aim: although the official aspiration of public organisations and politicians is to improve on public policy, policy learning can also be dysfunctional - for an organisation, a policy, a constellation of actors or even democracy.
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We empirically examine relationships among the conditions that enable learning, learning effects and sustainability outcomes based on experiences in four biosphere reserves in Canada and Sweden. In doing so, we provide a novel approach to measure learning and address an important methodological and empirical challenge in assessments of learning processes in decision-making contexts. Findings from this study highlight the effectiveness of different measures of learning, and how to differentiate the factors that foster learning with the outcomes of learning. Our approach provides a useful reference point for future empirical studies of learning in different environment, resource and sustainability settings. © 2017 The Authors. Environmental Policy and Governance published by ERP Environment and John Wiley & Sons Ltd
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Learning is considered as a promising mechanism to cope with rapid environmental change. The implications of learning for natural resource management (NRM) have not been explored in-depth and the evidence on the topic is scattered across multiple sources. We provide a qualitative review of types of learning outcomes and consider their manifestations in NRM across selected empirical literature. We conducted a systematic search of the peer-reviewed literature (N=1,223) and a qualitative meta- synthesis of included articles, with an explicit focus on learning outcomes and NRM changes (N=53). Besides social learning, we found several learning concepts used, including policy and transformative learning, and multiple links between learning and NRM reported. We observe that the development of skills, together with a system approach involving multi-level capacities, is decisive for implications of learning for NRM. Future reviews could systematically compare how primary research applies different learning concepts and discusses links between learning and NRM changes.
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In acknowledgement of the complexity of environmental challenges, research on learning in environmental policy has grown substantially over the past two decades across a range of disciplines. Despite this growth, there are few comprehensive assessments of the literature on learning in environmental policy. This article fills this gap by providing insights on the overall coherence and impact of this body of scholarship. To do so, we analyze a sample of 163 articles from 2004 to 2014 using a standardized coding framework. The results provide an in-depth assessment of the status of the literature on learning in the context of environmental policy, as well as the quality of the literature. We demonstrate that despite the diversity in research questions and goals, the literature is lacking with respect to diversity in cases and context, theoretical development, clear conceptualization and operationalization of learning, and advancements in empirical approaches to study learning. From these insights, we discuss the challenges and opportunities for scholars in studying learning and provide recommendations for building the theoretical and methodological rigor of the field.
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The paper analyzes how adaptability (adaptive capacity and adaptations) is constructed in the literature on resilience of social-ecological systems (SES). According to some critics, this literature views adaptability as the capacity of SES to self-organize in an autonomous harmonious consensus-building process, ignoring strategies, conflicting goals, and power issues. We assessed 183 papers, coding two dimensions of adaptability: autonomous vs. intentional and descriptive vs. normative. We found a plurality of framings, where 51% of the papers perceived adaptability as autonomous, but one-third constructed adaptability as intentional processes driven by stakeholders; where social learning and networking are often used as strategies for changing power structures and achieving sustainability transformations. For the other dimension, adaptability was used normatively in 59% of the assessed papers, but one-third used descriptive framings. We found no evidence that the SES literature in general assumes a priori that adaptations are harmonious consensus-building processes. It is, rather, conflicts that are assumed, not spelled out, and assertions of "desirable" that are often not clarified by reference to policy documents or explicit normative frameworks. We discuss alternative definitions of adaptability and transformability to clarify or avoid the notion of desirability. Complex adaptive systems framing often precludes analysis of agency, but lately self-organization and emergence have been used to study actors with intentions, strategies, and conflicting interests. Transformations and power structures are increasingly being addressed in the SES literature. We conclude that ontological clashes between social science and SES research have resulted in multiple constructive pathways.
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Learning provides the basis for fostering transitions toward adaptive comanagement. Understanding the ways in which arenas for collaboration and learning are created, and the outcomes of these processes in different contexts, is therefore crucial. This paper presents the results of an experimental research process that identified a small set of key variables that influence effective collaboration and learning, and tested a methodology for monitoring these in a collaborative way in three case studies in South Africa. The small set of key variables tested in this study was sensitive enough to register change over a period of 18 months. Results suggest that the background conditions necessary for social learning can be externally managed during an initiative, with positive outcomes for collaboration and learning. Monitoring outcomes suggest that for learning to be effective, a balance needs to be sought between maintaining key individuals within the system, preventing rigidity and vulnerability when this is achieved, and encouraging active participation within communities of practice. Effective facilitation by an 'honest broker' is one of the ways in which this can be achieved. The results point to an over simplification in the rhetoric that currently surrounds the learning outcomes of multilevel networks, and challenges the idea that democratic structures are necessarily important for effective natural resource management at the community level.
There is an instinctive drive among all humans to make meaning of their daily lives. Since there are no enduring truths, and change is continuous, we cannot always be assured of what we know or believe.
This book offers the first comprehensive treatment of multi-level water governance, developing a conceptual and analytical framework that captures the complexity of real water governance systems while also introducing different approaches to comparative analysis. Applications illustrate how the ostensibly conflicting goals of deriving general principles and of taking context-specific factors into account can be reconciled. Specific emphasis is given to governance reform, adaptive and transformative capacity and multi-level societal learning. The sustainable management of global water resources is one of the most pressing environmental challenges of the 21st century. Many problems and barriers to improvement can be attributed to failures in governance rather than the resource base itself. At the same time our understanding of complex water governance systems largely remains limited and fragmented. The book offers an invaluable resource for all researchers working on water governance topics and for practitioners dealing with water governance challenges alike. © 2015 Springer International Publishing Switzerland. All rights are reserved.