Integrating Social Power and Political Influence into Models of Social–Ecological Systems

Damon M. Hall, Todd M. Swannack, Eli D. Lazarus, Markus J. Peterson, Susan J. Gilbertz, Cristi C. Horton, Tarla Rai Peterson


Shaping policy for environmental sustainability depends upon decision-makers conceptualizing problems in ways that are either shared or similar enough to communicate about, diagnose, and act. The quality of this shared mental model of a social–ecological system (SES) is paramount to its effectiveness. Fundamentally, the mental model must integrate multiple kinds of knowledge about the system. If the decision-making body's assumptions about, description of, and solution for a problem do not to reflect the many ways stakeholders know a system, then the products of that decision-making process are viewed as illegitimate. Sustainability policy must fit the often subtle social order of the communities expected to implement it. In this essay, we discuss how a systems-based perspective can be a versatile tool for tackling these challenges of knowledge integration and decision-making in the context of a complex SES. Using social theory of Pierre Bourdieu, we construct a conceptual model that illustrates a route for integrating locally known social complexities (power, influence) gleaned from stakeholder interviews (N = 57). Stakeholders and end-user groups may dismiss any model that they perceive fails to satisfactorily account for specific, locally salient social nuances. Our approach leverages the overlapping notion of “capital” in social and ecological theory to demonstrate how reciprocal interactions between human and ecological systems can be adopted into tools for reaching viable solutions to SES problems.


Keywords: Sustainability science, Social capital, Power, Boundary object, Water resources management, Floodplain development, Riparian ecology

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