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: http://dx.doi.org/10.1579/0044-7447-34.4.376URL: http://www.bioone.org/doi/full/10.1579/0044-7447-34.4.376

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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.

    INTRODUCTION

    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 2005http://www.ambio.kva.se

  • 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.

    THEORY

    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,neighbors, and others within the local community, social iden-tities are strengthened and a relational network is built that is ofhigh importance in both good times and bad. Finally, the uniquerelationship and interactionwith the physical world, animals, andthe land enables a stronger sense of self-in-place (16), which isimportant for the development of self and a personal identity.

    Many farmers perceive themselves as marginalized in society(11). Their relative power in society is decreasing, both fromeconomic and cultural points of view. On the other hand,farmers tend to value their personal skills and consider themrelevant for the development of functional managementstrategies in farming and for rural development (8). Suchexperiential knowledge originates from farmers daily interac-tion with the environment when managing the naturalresources. Nevertheless, creating opportunities for participationis not enough. Designing the processes in such a way thatfarmers experiences are integrated and that they feel involvedand empowered is also necessary, and their engagement musthave an impact on decisions made [what Senecah (17) callsvoice, standing, and influence]. This is a process of social andcollaborative learning (18) in which farmers become part of thewider community and develop new knowledge together.

    Recognition

    Central to our theoretical perspective and analytical model isthe notion of recognition as important for social well-being as itwas developed by Honneth (19) and Taylor (20)]. Our modeldescribes three levels of recognition, how recognition affectsidentity, and the effects of nonrecognition.

    Identity and recognition. Apersons identity canbedefined asones perception of who he or she is andwhat characteristics he orshe has as a human being. Personal or group identity develops inthe complex interrelationship between self/individuality andculture/society. Identity is thus influenced by the amount ofrecognition the person or group receives from other people orother groups (20). Our identity is partially created by both recog-nition and the absence of recognition. The absence of recognitioncould be a form of oppression and could cause great damage,forcing people into a false, distorted, and narrow way of life. Todevelop a strong personal identity, or a positive relationship tooneself, one needs multidimensional recognition from others.Individuals need to be able to refer to themselves from the per-spective of approving and encouraging significant others (i.e.a friend or partner) and generalized others [i.e. politicians andconsumers (21)]. Recognition affects peoples identity by leadingto a disparaging image of people and groups. The image of in-feriority gets internalized within the group or individual identity:Due recognition is not only a courtesy we owe people, it is a vitalhuman need, according to Taylor (20). Without recognition,farmers might develop a weak personal and social identity.

    Figure 1. Relationships that con-tribute to the social dimension insustainable development ofSwedish agriculture.

    Ambio Vol. 34, No. 45, June 2005 377 Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences 2005http://www.ambio.kva.se

  • Three levels of recognition. Recognition can be found inthree independent modes (19). The three different levels ofrecognition are as follows (Fig. 2):

    i) The individual is recognized as a person whose needs anddesires are of unique value to another person. This mode ofrecognition is often referred to as love or care and impliesa conditional care for the well-being of the other for his or hersake. Love and care build a persons self-confidence.ii) The individual is recognized as a person who is ascribed thesame moral accountability as every other human being. Thiskind of recognition has the character of universal equaltreatment and is often referred to as moral respect. It impliesthe moral duty to recognize the accountability of all others. Theexperience of moral respect builds a persons self-respect.iii) The individual is recognized as a personwhose capabilities areof constitutive value to a specific community. This kind of recog-nition has the character of particular esteem and is often referredto as solidarity or loyalty. It implies the conditional care for thewell-being of the other for the sake of our common goals. Theexperience of solidarity or loyalty builds a persons self-esteem.

    The three dimensions of recognition present us with moralobligations and duties. In the context of sustainable developmentof agriculture, this implies that we have a moral obligation toemotionally care for farmers from the perspective of the first levelof recognition.We also have themoral obligation to treat farmersequally from the perspective of the second level of recognition.And finally, we have the moral obligation to show solidarity,interest, and commitment to farmers work and activities in thelight of the third level of recognition. If so, farmers, as all people,will develop a strong personal and social identity.

    The consequence of nonrecognition. What happens whenpersons and groups lack recognition on one or more levels?Here are examples of violations on the three different levels ofrecognition:

    i) On the first level, t...

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