Social Sustainability and Collaborative Learning

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    Social Sustainability and Collaborative LearningAuthor(s): Helena Nordstrm Kllstrm and Magnus LjungSource: AMBIO: A Journal of the Human Environment, 34(4):376-382. 2005.Published By: Royal Swedish Academy of SciencesDOI:

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  • Helena Nordstrom Kallstrom and Magnus Ljung

    Social Sustainabilityand Collaborative Learning

    The social dimension is central to sustainable develop-ment of agri-food systems. If farmers are not satisfiedwith their situation or motivated to continue farming, manyof todays environmental goals will be impossible toachieve. Between 1997 and 2003, several case studieswere carried out on social sustainability, the importanceof recognition in the farming system, and the potentialrole of increased collaboration between actors. The mainhypothesis was that improved recognition is a basis forsustainable social conditions. Our findings show thatmany farmers today perceive an impoverished socialsituation. They believe they lack control over decisions,which hinders their ability to continue farming. Publicimages and political decisions show a lack of respect forfarmers skills and knowledge. However, increased col-laboration among actors is believed to be one importantway forward, creating stronger relationships and net-works, as well as a stronger identity for farmers. Ourfindings emphasize the need for authorities and otherorganizations to support farmers and to facilitate collab-orative learning and decision-making processes for socio-ecological sustainability.


    The social dimension of farming is a crucial part of sustainabledevelopment of Swedish agriculture. It is clear that the agri-food system faces some important social challenges:

    Strengthening social conditions for farmers (e.g. improvingsocial services and working conditions for farmers and otherrural workers, enabling participation in civic discourse,creating a sense of community and place).

    Supporting both diversity in rural lifestyle (i.e. the aestheticsof a diverse landscape, and the cultural aspects of biologicaldiversity; that is, preserving the cultural heritage).

    Balancing the negative effects of ongoing size and structuralrationalization caused by economic pressure and decreasingviability of farms, largely in regions of Sweden far fromdensely populated areas.

    Among the objectives of the research program Food 21, themany social aspects are summarized in a perspective arguingthat farmers need to be content with their social situation, aswell as not unnecessarily exposed to hazardous substances orrisk of injury.

    Sustainable development is a moving target. The complexnetworks of institutions and stakeholders in society easily createa sense of incomprehensibility and lack of control. Policy-makers and other decision-makers emphasize that there is nosingle expert or actor with the definitive answer to what con-stitutes a sustainable agri-food system or the necessary means toachieve it. Instead, collaborative, community-based, and trans-disciplinary learning, dialogue, and deliberation have beendescribed as desirable or even necessary approaches to todayssituation (13). This may be seen as a rational conclusion basedon findings in many fieldsideas about participatory de-mocracy (4); the importance of local knowledge in sustainablenatural resource management (5); the processes of experiential

    learning, adaptive management, and institutional change (6);critical discourse in environmental sociology (7); and so on.Together, these insights create a strong foundation for anemerging new paradigm that emphasizes the need for partici-pation, systemic thinking and action, critical assessment ofexisting social order, and especially how we organize andinteract within the agri-food system.

    Role of Farmers

    At the very core of sustainable development of agri-foodsystems is the farmer. Farmers perspectives and actions willultimately enable or hinder society in the implementation ofmethods for sustainable development of agriculture and thelarger agri-food system. But what motivates farmers to act in anenvironmentally friendly way? What keeps farmers farming andin good health? What basic needs have to be fulfilled in orderfor farmers to be content with their work and life situation?Farming is as much a way of life as it is a business. Farming isa social activity, although farming is seldom described in suchwords. The unique life-form and the social aspects of farminghave implications on farmers decision-making, and thus on thepossibility of realizing sustainable development, including itsecological dimensions.

    Today, the average age of farmers is relatively high, the vastmajority of those working on farms are men, and the physicaldistance between farm units is growing. Our hypothesis is thatthe ongoing changes in the Swedish farming system are notsustainable from a social point of view, and that thisunsustainable social development within the farming commu-nity will prevent society from achieving its environmental andwelfare goals. One field of potential measures is associated withfarmer participation and involvement. It appears there are atleast three strong arguments for farmers involvement indecision-making processes (8). First, farmers have importantknowledge when developing management strategies adapted tosite-specific conditions. A high degree of farmer participationenables this potential to be utilized. The best way for society tolearn from the ecosystems responses to new managementtechniques is to let citizens with a thorough knowledge of localcircumstances provide feedback, communicate their findings,and fine-tune the recommended approaches. Large bureaucra-cies operating according to standard procedures will never beable to achieve this efficiently enough to be sustainable (9).Second, farmers must feel motivated (i.e. they must perceive itas meaningful) to change their practices, something that can bereinforced by a higher degree of social interaction and publicappreciation. Third, it is the human and democratic right offarmers to be able to participate in decisions that will affecttheir future.

    Aim of the Paper

    The aim of this paper is twofold: to conceptualize and describeimportant social conditions for Swedish farmers, and to identifythe potential of collaborative processes in improving theseconditions. Core research questions concerned the role offarmers social relations, how farmers are perceived both by

    376 Ambio Vol. 34, No. 45, June 2005 Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences 2005

  • significant others and by society at large, and how recognitioncontributes to identity creation, which involves a personalcommitment and willingness to learn more about and strive forsustainable development.


    Social Sustainability

    Sustainable development is a quality of resilient social-ecologicalsystems (10). Although the social dimension of farming isnecessary to conceptualize an integrated whole, it couldparticularly be described as the living and working conditionsof farmers (11). This should include strong social relations;individual satisfaction with work tasks; the potential to discussand share responsibility with other people; and confidence in thefuture and experience of recognition from family, friends, andsociety. However, the social dimension could also be describedusing more universal social-psychological concepts (i.e. fulfill-ment of basic human needs; for instance, protection, freedom,understanding, participation, creativity, affection, etc.) (12).

    The analytical model applied was relational and aggregatedin its approach. Figure 1 summarizes the different componentsthat contribute to the social situation of farmers in Swedishagriculture. Our theoretical model aims to give an integratedview of the social conditions in agriculture as experienced by thefarmer. The model also captures different dimensions of relatingto the world, and thus the potential for both social learning (13)in which farmers can be involved, and experiential learning (14),which involves processes of learning-by-doing in both the socialand ecological environment. Figure 1 focuses on the farmersrelationships, emphasizing that both meaning and action arerelational, but also that some specific actions contribute towardfulfilling certain dimensions of social sustainability, while otherstend to do the opposite.

    By participating in decisions regarding the future conditions offarming such as regulations and incentives, and by taking part inthe public debate, day-to-day farming becomes more meaningful(15). Through collaborative activities together with colleagues,neighbor