A relational turn for sustainability science? Relational thinking, leverage points and transformatio

A relational turn for sustainability science? Relational thinking, leverage points and transformatio - Simon West et al 2020



The problem: Modernism and the illusion of separation

▪ Modernist paradigms and their embodied forms and tools have of course been useful in improving many aspects of human-wellbeing, but have also been widely implicated in unsustainable pathways (Raudsepp-Hearne et al. 2010). Examples range from command-and-control approaches to natural resource management (Holling and Meffe 1996), to the policies of the green revolution (Lansing et al. 2017), to instances of ‘green-grabbing’ (Fairhead et al. 2012) (Useful references potentially for philosophy application)

Capture of Complexity

▪ studies have increas­ingly questioned the ability of dominant strategies in coupled systems research to nurture truly transfor­mative change (Schneider et al. in press; Walker and Cooper 2011). For instance, Nelson (2014) and Braun (2015) suggest that the policy and business resonance achieved by concepts like natural capital, ecosystem services, and science-based targets, represents the ‘capture’ of the transformative promise of complex systems research by neoliberal and new public man­agement institutions, actors, and agendas, that are inherently resistant to transformative change. It is therefore vital that sustainability researchers continu­ally interrogate the concepts used to navigate com­plexity and foster change, in order to better capture empirical experience and articulate truly transforma­tive socio-political-ecological possibilities (Johnson and Lidström 2018). (Also useful for application)

▪ ). Not only does this separation of ecological and social limit the ways that sustainability researchers can represent the complexity and inextricability of humans and nature they experience in empirical field studies, but also – and more importantly per­haps – risks perpetuating the same kinds of ineffec­tive and inequitable interventions fostered by modernist approaches

Positive from SES

▪ social-ecological systems approaches have been useful for (i) fostering recognition of the links between human well-being and ecosystem integ­rity within academia, policy and business, (ii) improv­ing collaboration and communication between scientific disciplines and between science and society, (iii) fostering methodological pluralism as a means of addressing sustainability problems, and (iv) influen­cing major policy frameworks to consider social and ecological aspects.

the map is not the territory - misplaced concreteness - ▪ Rapid movement between epistemology and ontology without regular clarification can lead to the naturalization of con­cepts, where the concepts we use to navigate the world (human/social, natural/ecological) become mistaken for the world itself. This is what process- relational philosopher Alfred North Whitehead refers to as the ‘fallacy of misplaced concreteness’ (e.g. Daly 1987).

Relational Turn

▪ In the West, we are so steeped in process-reduction that it is almost impossible to avoid working with substance- based concepts like ‘society’ and ‘nature’. Relational thin­kers have made various suggestions for developing more dynamic accounts. Latour (2005) recommends that instead of invoking received concepts to explain phenom­ena (e.g. the suggestion that the human components of coupled systems are the ‘human variables’), researchers should trace empirical relations to explain the concepts (e.g. identifying what constitutes the ‘human aspects’ in particular situations (Eve thinking of nature as nature, as a separate entity from everything is in itself damaging)

In recent years, systems perspectives have begun to locate many sustainability challenges in a collective human failure to cognitively recognize our inextricable material connections with the world around us, arguing that we need to ‘reconnect’ to the biosphere (Folke et al. 2011) or nature (Ives et al. 2018).

Relational Ontology

▪ Speaking very broadly, relational approaches do not seek to ‘cut through’ our experience of con­tinual change to find foundational entities under­neath, but rather view this experience as the core of existence (Mesle 2008). The term ‘experience’ here does not refer simply to human mental representa­tions of an external material world, but rather to the embodied engagement and responsiveness between all things (human and otherwise) in holistic situa­tions – of which representation is but one possible aspect (Murdoch 2006, p. 197). These holistic situa­tions represent momentary instantiations of continu­ally unfolding processes and relations (Mesle 2008). From relational perspectives, the enduring objects that we generally perceive as substances or entities – bodies, trees, rocks – are reconceived as temporary convergences, stabilizations or ‘events’ within flows of dynamic relationships that already encompass what we tend to think of as ‘human’ and ‘natural’ aspects (DeLanda 2006, p. 28; Debaise 2017). This inverts the substantialist ideas still found in complex systems

▪ Relational ontologies – understandings about the nat­ure of reality – suggest that the world exists in a perpetual state of ‘becoming’, composed of dynamic unfolding processes and relations (Whitehead 1978; Connolly 2011). Relational thinking does not reject the idea of entities per se – indeed, many aspects of the world appear to us as relatively stable and pre­dictable – but rather reframes our understanding of them (DeLanda 2006). Whereas modernist approaches propose that entities are distinct and essentially static, and systems approaches that entities are distinct but move and interact with each other, relational approaches suggest that what we perceive as entities are themselves already constituted by movement (Ingold 2011).

▪ For instance, what we experience as a (relatively) stable human being is produced through the temporary convergence of var­ious processes (breathing, cell renewal, occurrence of thoughts) that unfold through the formation of rela­tionships within the surrounding world (Ingold 2004; Hertz et al. 2020). This applies from complex organ­isms like humans ‘all the way down’ to genes and molecules

We can’t be spectators

▪ In contrast to modernist ‘spectator theories’ of knowledge (Hacking 1983), where humans obtain knowledge about the world by viewing it ‘from the out­side’, relational approaches posit that ‘we know because we are of the world’ (Barad 2007, p. 1

▪ relational approaches, which locate humans fundamen­tally in the material world, this notion of private cogni­tion is only one possible aspect of experience – which is understood more broadly in terms of our embodied engagement within the social, material and technological aspects of holistic, unfolding situations

Agency reframed

▪ In reframing ideas of agency away from purely cognitive-reflective abilities, and towards ‘the capacity to affect and be affected’ (Deleuze and Guattari 1988, p. 127), relational thinking expands agency beyond the human (Whatmore 2002) and distributes it within relational networks, assemblages and configurations (Latour 2005)

Language & Concepts

▪ Relational approaches suggest that language and con­cepts do not refer to essential categories of existence, but are tools that enable us to capture and compare different aspects of experience and navigate the world (Cook and Wagenaar 2012). Therefore, language does not simply reflect the world but actively intervenes in and shapes it – it is ‘performative’ (Butler 1988). Language is therefore vital when it comes to under­standing and responding to complex sustainability challenges. Indo-European languages have evolved within substantialist paradigms and are predicated on the notion of static entities with derivative rela­tions.

Ethical ways of living - Care

Darnhofer (2020) suggests that if categories are not inherently fixed, then it becomes possible – even obligatory – to rethink them in ways that nurture more ethical and sustainable ways of living and doing. Ethical discourses in the relational turn have centered on fostering notions of ‘care’ (Puig de la Bellacasa 2015). Tronto (1993, p. 103) describes care as: ‘everything we do to maintain, continue and repair our “world” so that we can live in it as well as possible. That world includes our bodies, our selves, and our environment, all of which we seek to interweave in a complex, life- sustaining web.’ In a relational sense, care is not simply an emotional sentiment in the individual human mind, but an embodied, collective and reciprocal practice involving humans and nonhumans.

Knowledge (situated, pluralistic)

▪ Relational approaches, therefore, suggest that all knowledge is ‘contingent’ (could be otherwise – but by no means anything) and ‘situated’ (reflective of the context in which it was produced). This framing has helped sustain­ability researchers explore knowledge practices as diverse as the production of quantitative ecological science (Box 2) and the generation of cultural values (Box 1), in ways that avoid dichotomies between either subjective values or objective facts.

▪ the embrace of multiple knowledges in rela­tional thinking generates its own dilemmas, chal­lenges and ambiguities. For example, how to reconcile multiplicity with calls for a paradigm shift in sustainability science?

Use in Sustainability Science

▪ The greater presence of relational thinking in sustainability science seems particularly useful at a meta-philosophic level, pro­viding the conceptual tools for different approaches to better recognize and situate themselves relative to one another in transdisciplinary contexts (e.g. by incorporating relational ideas, researchers adopting positivist methods might re-frame their work as use­ful for particular purposes, rather than arbitrating universal truths). A relational turn in sustainability science might, therefore, be better thought of as nur­turing a ‘paradigm-opening’ rather a ‘shift’ per se.

▪ We have argued that, while the complex coupled systems perspectives that sit at the heart of sustainability science continue to produce rich insights and nurture progressive change in certain contexts, they remain captive to substantialist assumptions that potentially limit their transformative abil­ities.