Thoughts on two new papers from vulnerability and adaptation research

I read two very interesting papers from adaptation and vulnerability research last week.

In Operationalizing longitudinal approaches to climate change vulnerability assessment, Fawcett et al. (2017) make a case for longitudinal methodological approaches when studying vulnerability and adaptation. The lack of attention paid to temporality has been a long-held peeve of mine (it\’s gotten so bad that in team meetings, colleagues crack jokes about it). Fawcett et al. use three illustrative cases from Arctic communities to highlight how longitudinal approaches, two in particular — cohort studies (following a group of individuals over time) and trend studies (repeated data collected at a community level to reveal patterns of change) — can strengthen the methodological toolbox of vulnerability research.

I particularly liked how they tease out the benefits of using a longitudinal approach. It helps

  1. build a more nuanced understanding of adaptation processes and \’causal chains\’ of vulnerability (something Jesse Ribot has written a lot about, see his work from 1995, 2010, and 2014), 
  2. construct a more robust portrayal of what has worked and hasn\’t, and why, which is crucial for anyone interesting in strengthening, investing in, and implementing adaptation, and 
  3. diagnose maladaptive behaviour by looking into past pathways. This last approach is similar to what colleagues and I have taken in a recent project where we use cases from rural and urban India to argue that tracing historical trajectories of development and adaptation actions can help understand how development choices can narrow adaptation option spaces, often leading to potential maladaptation.

Coming back to Fawcett et al. (2017), I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and wholly support their key argument of expanding vulnerability research to involve more longitudinal approaches that begin to capture temporality. While the authors discuss the challenges in doing such research (notably, potential attrition of respondents from original cohorts, the need for sustained funding), I have two questions probing the practice of longitudinal vulnerability assessment approaches:

  1. The political economy of vulnerability assessments: Currently, many NGOs, donors, and governments conduct VAs. How do the authors imagine such actors to undertake longitudinal studies given the budgets, project cycle-time frames, and capacity constraints they work under? This is especially true in government departments in India (we did a review of 120 VAs in India found 35% use static, indicator-based approaches). Moreover, in many cases, governments undertake VAs under tight deadlines (for e.g. assessments after a disaster event to inform humanitarian action). The underlying question is how can we build processes and demand for longitudinal vulnerability assessment approaches that feed into shorter-term cycles but also contribute to the larger narratives of vulnerability? 
  2. The place of researchers: Researchers are a possible \’actor group\’ that don\’t face all the challenges noted above, or at least not to a similar extent. However, researchers are increasingly being squeezed into shorter project cycles, insecure employment arrangements, tighter funding structures, and greater calls for impact — all of which, may not necessarily be conducive to longitudinal research  design which needs 1) sustained financial backing, 2) strong, clear and continual leadership, 3) an underlying recognition of the importance of such work, 4) acceptance of delayed gratification.

In Adaptive capacity: exploring the research frontier, Mortreux and Barnett (2017) discuss the emphasis that adaptation research has on quantified assessments of adaptive capacity (predominantly through Sustainable Livelihoods Framework-based (SLF) approaches) without an equal emphasis on how and to what extent adaptive capacity translates in adaptation outcomes. They highlight valuable gaps in adaptation research, most notably, the lack of focus on the process of adaptive capacity (a potential to adapt) being translated into an adaptation outcome (with concrete implications for peoples\’ vulnerability). The paper reviews emerging literature on risk perception and adaptation decision-making, cognitive barriers to adaptive behaviour, and place attachment, to discuss how these gaps can be addressed.

To add to their review of literature from disaster risk management and behavioural sciences, I wanted to highlight a few empirical studies exploring the drivers of adaptation behaviour and adaptation outcomes:

  1. Burnham and Ma (2017) examine farmer adaptation decisions in Loess Plateau, China and find that self efficacy, i.e. one\’s perception of one\’s own efficacy to adapt, shapes adaptation behaviour and outcomes significantly. They crucially highlight that in addition to household assets and entitlements, state-society dependencies may reduce farmer perceived self-efficacy.  
  2. Drawing on data examining household and intra-household risk perceptions and decisions in rainfed farming families in north-west India, I have argued that different households perceive risk differently and this shapes the adaptation pathways they take. Moreover, I found that adaptation outcomes (measured through environmental, social and economic lenses) change over time based on changing household assets but also changing social structures, policy regimes, and cultural beliefs.
  3. In a completely different context, Evans et al. (2016) examine social limits to adaptation int he Great Barrier Reef region.They argue that social limits affect adaptation outcomes by dissuading people to take up adaptive action in the first place! Also interactions between psycho-social (or what I call socio-cognitive) and structural factors can adaptation ineffective. 

Conceptually, it\’s exciting times for adaptation research. Practically, I feel that while there is a growing body of work around understanding the need for longitudinal vulnerability assessments and factoring in socio-cognitive barriers to adaptation, it hasn\’t begun to filter into mainstream adaptation implementation and negligibly in policy circles (especially in India, the context I am most familiar with). 

Published by Chandni

Environmental social scientist @iihsin Research climate change adaptation, livelihoods, development. Book hoarder, plant lover, doggo devotee.

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