Part 2 Adaptation research has a small(er) methodology problem

For background on this 3-part series, see the introductory post “Many Cool Heads for a Hot and Unequal World: Reflections on adaptation research and the social sciences“ which reflects on a Global Environmental Change editorial by Arun Agrawal and others. Here is Part 1Part 2Part 3; and the conclusion.

“We need also to make better use of the broad arsenal of social theory and methodological approaches. Indeed, adequately addressing the social complexities of vulnerability and adaptation associated with differences in scales, regions, and sectors requires different kinds of knowledge from and across the social science disciplines, recourse to different analytical frameworks, and even borrowings from the biological and physical sciences.” (Agrawal et al. 2012, p. 330)

The methods used in climate change vulnerability and adaptation research draw on a range of disciplines from ecology and environmental science, geography and development studies, to history and anthropology, and more recently, media and digital humanities. This, I believe, is a recent change and we only have to look to Mike Hulme’s 2011 Nature Climate Change commentary, ‘Meet the Humanities’ to remember how the climate change literature (and hence the IPCC) was “heavily dominated by natural science disciplines, especially the Earth sciences, while the minority social science content was heavily dominated by economics. Literature from the humanities was virtually absent” (p. 177). Of course, while things have changed (dare I say improved?) since then, it is also an incomplete change, and the need for SHAPE (Social sciences, humanities and the arts for people and the economy) to tackle global problems is more relevant than ever before (see Hetan Shah’s eloquent argument in Global problems need social science).

Despite these gaps, I do believe that current adaptation research is seeing innovative combinations of methodological approaches and conceptual leanings, giving adaptation science a rich empirical base and pluralising analytical frameworks by forefronting issues of (in)equity, intersectionality, temporality, and translocality, to mention a few*. So to come back to the call Agrawal et al. make, while we have somewhat drawn on “different kinds of knowledge from and across the social science disciplines, recourse to different analytical frameworks”**, I believe we have met the goal of “borrowings from the biological and physical sciences” somewhat less enthusiastically.

If I take the example of the (rather meteoric) rise of the nature-based solutions scholarship, two distinct camps emerge (I name them here as caricatures, they are of course not as binary as I present) – the ‘natural science camp’ where ecosystem services and ecological benefits of NbS are examined through a range of tools (e.g., willingness to way for greenery in cities; hydrological modelling of how wetlands manage stormwater runoff and mitigate flood risks). This camp uses diverse methodologies, tracks past trends and charts possible futures, and sometimes engages with the ‘social science camp’ through ‘participatory’ scenario building and stakeholder engagements. The second discernible ‘camp’ is the ‘social science camp’, which has charted subjective wellbeing benefits of green cover, examined how NbS can provide multidimensional solutions but also concentrate intersectional vulnerability, and analysed the socio-economic and governance barriers and enablers of NbS. This camp examines conflict and cooperation, values and benefits of NbS but wrestles with cross-scalar feedbacks, and how natural resource flows and limits interact with social systems. These two camps in my opinion, exceptionally important in their own right, have failed to speak to one another, providing an incomplete picture of the values and pitfalls of NbS***.

As the adaptation endeavour grows, sub-fields and buzzwords will balloon and contract; that is the (somewhat aggravating, yet humbling?) nature of knowledge creation and progress. As a community keen to understand and implement ways to reduce vulnerability and enable adaptation, we must pay close attention to how we create adaptation knowledge, what concepts and methods we privilege, and be somewhat creative with interdisciplinary experiments****. 

* we’d assessed some of this disciplinary and methodological plurality in this paper.

** of course, this endeavour is not complete (and never can be, given how new conceptual and methodological approaches grow, merge, bifurcate, and spawn)

*** there are multiple interdisciplinary teams examining NbS, and I happen to be co-leading one of them on urban agriculture, but the point I’m making is even in these teams, the ‘natural science’ and ‘social science’ outputs tend to be siloed, the recommendations and impacts flowing from such research tend to be remain bound in disciplines and methodologies, and breaking away from these remains challenging.

**** For related thinking around whose voice gets heard, I turn to Prof Farhana Sultan’s work on epistemological marginalisation (Political Ecology: From the Margins to the Centre) and Prof Harini Nagendra’s work on how knowledge production on urban sustainability is terribly skewed (The urban south and the predicament of global sustainability).

Published by Chandni

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

3 thoughts on “Part 2 Adaptation research has a small(er) methodology problem

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