Seven contributions of cultural research to the challenges of sustainability and climate change

Lesley Head and Marie Stenseke

(An abbreviated version of this paper was published in Swedish for World Science Day (14.11.14) as Head, L. and Stenseke, M. 2014 Humanvetenskapen står för djup och förståelse In E. Mineur and B. Myrman (eds) Hela vetenskapen! 15 forskare om integrerad forskning. Stockholm: Vetenskapsrådet. ISBN: 978-91-7307-245-8, pp. 26-33. Marie Stenseke is Professor of Human Geography at the University of Gothenburg)

Human and physical sciences alike have reached a convergent point on recommending urgent research on climate change’s social and cultural dimensions (Hulme 2008) since, if these are ignored, it is likely that both adaptation and mitigation responses will fail because they simply do not connect with what matters to individuals and communities (Adger et al. 2012). Increasingly, recognition of the cultural dimensions of sustainability issues goes hand in hand with calls for interdisciplinary approaches to these important problems (Seidl et al. 2013). However that cross-disciplinary collaboration is often on terms defined by the natural sciences. In this paper we seek to articulate the particular and distinctive contributions of qualitative cultural research methods in the environmental field.

We do so in order that they are understood in their own terms, and as a basis for more respectful collaborative research. For too long lone social scientists have been ‘tacked on’ to environmental management bureaucracies dominated by natural science models (Roughley 2005). Among these sole practitioners Roughley has documented a history of marginalization, despite some good intentions by management. Further, these individuals often face the misplaced expectation that their research will result in neat instrumental policy outcomes rather than a more diverse conceptual contribution (Amara et al. 2004). These issues have been encountered long before climate change dominated the agenda; for example in natural resource management, land-use planning and biodiversity conservation (Gill 2006).

The contribution of quantitative social science methods is more easily accepted within a framework dominated by the natural sciences. Qualitative methods – including ethnography, participant observation and in-depth interviews – usually need more explanation and defence (Head et al. 2005) and do not necessarily sit easily with policy connections (Adger et al. 2012). A number of different disciplines are involved in such research; for example human geography, anthropology, cultural studies, development studies and science studies (Head et al. 2005). This work has strong links to, and sometimes overlaps with, the Environmental Humanities, dominated by disciplines such as history, philosophy and literature.

We focus particularly on the contribution of research generating new empirical findings using the qualitative cultural research methods mentioned above. This is not the place for a comprehensive literature review, but we do argue that distinctive contributions and qualities are identifiable in this emerging body of work. Our aim is to provide a basis for more constructive conversations between the many disciplines – in social and natural sciences and the humanities – that are needed for engagement with the challenges of the Anthropocene. In what follows we sometimes compare and contrast qualitative contributions with quantitative ones in order to differentiate the respective contributions clearly. Our argument is not that one is inherently better than the other, rather that they work for different purposes and in different ways. Comparison and triangulation between different methodologies, including across the natural science/social science divide, can maximize the usefulness of each. Examples are drawn mainly from research contexts we are most familiar with, in Australia and Scandinavia. In using examples that come mostly from affluent nations, we also challenge any assumption that culture is mainly a property of the Other – societies in the Global South.

CULTURAL ENVIRONMENTAL RESEARCH

In focusing on the particular contributions of qualitative methods to environmental issues, we articulate a concept of cultural environmental research. We understand culture as ‘a process in which people are actively engaged… a dynamic mix of symbols, beliefs, languages and practices that people create, not a fixed thing or entity governing humans’ (Anderson 1999: 4). People make and remake culture as individuals, communities and in institutions and academic disciplines. They do it in everyday practices and over both long and short periods of time. It follows that to understand our environmental cultures we need fine-grained methodologies that enable understanding of motivations, behaviours, contradictions, tradition, change and flexibility in requisite depth. Cultural research pays a lot of attention to that which is taken for granted and understood to be common sense. In the environmental arena, these are the dimensions which may most need to change, but which are also potentially the most difficult to change. It also follows that cultural research methods can be applied to the examination of how large scale institutions, economies and structures of meaning are created and maintained, for example in the concept of the cultural economy (Gibson 2012). We advance seven distinctive albeit intersecting contributions of such research in the environmental field, using examples variously about sustainability and climate change.

1 Showing how concepts and categories matter

In our work we often encounter an assumption that there will be a straightforward translation of results into policy. While that can be an outcome, it is important to first step back and consider how questions have been framed. Conceptual critique of problem framing can be the most important contribution. This is perhaps the most contentious theme, but we aim to show that sometimes arcane intellectual debates are intensely relevant to environmental management on the ground. According to how we think about nature, we might want to put a fence around it, create a bureaucracy to look after it, kill it, eat it, plant it or remove it. Categories of nature become embedded in societal structures, and these concepts have power once they are incorporated into legislation, institutions and public discourse. They can become fixed and difficult to alter. Gill (2006) has argued for the ‘unsettling’ role of critique, particularly when directed at science-based resource management authorities that are not reflective about their own cultures.

In his research on national park planning in Sweden, Mels (2002) shows how an understanding of the parks as pure nature is manifested in maps, texts and images, thus drawing a line between nature and culture and encoding what is to be protected. The same process has been documented across a number of comparable studies. Another example of how concepts have material outcomes is the vociferous debates over nativeness among plants and animals, and what this means for which species are privileged over others, in different spatial contexts (Warren 2007). Further good examples are found in Norgaard’s (2010) discussion of shortcomings in how the concept of ‘ecosystem services’ handles complexity, and Widgren’s (2012) argument that in order to understand landscape change, is it necessary to use concepts that are fit for understanding the social, political and economical aspects of such change.

The work of helping shape cultural narratives is long-term work that necessarily involves a contest of ideas, particularly given the complex contemporary challenges of sustainability and climate change. It is vital to rigorously analyze those concepts – sustainability and climate change – as part of broader conversations about solutions. Policy is only one dimension of cultural change, and for policy changes to be successful it is necessary to influence ideas. Like Jerneck et al. (2011), we see the combination of critical and more pragmatic problem-solving approaches as being important. These are complementary rather than oppositional approaches.

2 Reframing human-environment relations

The biggest conceptual challenge, in the natural sciences as well as the social, is how to reframe human-environment relations. In both fields there is an ongoing need to analyze how the ‘human’ and the ‘social’ are conceptualized, and in what circumstances humans should be understood as being apart from the rest of the natural world, and or/ part of nature. On one hand is work within the humanist tradition, built from the idea that the conscious thoughts and actions of humans imply a fundamental difference between studies of plants and animals and studies of human society (Myrdal 2009). Phenomena such as imagination, conscience, ideology, world view and planning, do not have their direct counterparts in other living organisms. On the other hand, a tradition sometimes referred to as posthumanist argues that the binary between humans and environment, or society and nature, is ontologically impossible to sustain. Posthumanist perspectives critique ’the human’ as an essentialised and unified category, and argue for relational approaches, whereby the characteristics of phenomena are constituted in the process of their relationships with other phenomena.

This is not the place for a fuller discussion of the different traditions; the point is rather that these are live issues and genuine dilemmas. As they are in the natural sciences also; ecosystems, earth systems and socio-ecological systems are all ways of framing the earth and our place in it. Understanding and reframing the way in which humans are conceptualized in relation to the rest of nature is an important part of working out how to craft a more sustainable future. The question of how human similarity to (and difference from) the nonhuman is to be understood is at the heart of the intellectual problem, not something that must be defined before we get on with it. There is no better example of this than the emerging and contested conceptualization of the Anthropocene itself. That such debates are under active consideration in both the social and natural sciences provides creative opportunities for both.

Providing social context

What often distinguishes a social scientific approach from a natural scientific one in issues such as biodiversity is placing the issue in a broader societal context. For example, the delicate issue of the wolves’ existence in Scandinavia is then framed as not just an issue about genetics and ecosystem function, but is regarded in relation to reindeer breeding, livestock farming and other forms of grazing, hunting with dogs, recreational habits, and the perception of empowerment in rural areas (Sjölander-Lindqvist 2008; Figari and Skogen 2011). It also implies that there is no scientific answer to the question whether or not Sweden should have wolves; what science can do is develop the knowledge base concerning the conditions for the management of large carnivores. The matter of priorities among different qualities and objectives is an issue for cultural norms and the political system.

In relation to climate change, cultural research can contribute to understanding its impacts by ‘undertaking ethnographic analysis of specific localities and groups involved in the changes that are occurring or are anticipated to occur’ (Connor 2010: 248). The cultural variability and complexity of different world views creates potential collisions with climate change narratives. Examples from the Global South are given by Adger et al. (2012), but the necessary changes ahead in a climate-changed world also collide with persistent Global North narratives of progress, modernity and growth. Connor has urged anthropological engagement with many climate change issues in Australia, arguing that ‘climate change scepticism and denial are … significant cultural phenomena requiring anthropological analysis’ (Connor 2010: 250). In the coal-dependent Hunter Valley NSW, she documents a range of responses, in both world view and practice, to the prospect of shifting away from dependence on coal in a climate-changed world.

In the conventional discourse on sustainability, Hornborg (2009) identifies the problem of ‘machine fetishism’, i.e. ‘the inclination to view the technological capacity of a given population as independent of that population’s position in a global system of resource flows’ (p. 255). Hornborg calls for incorporating strong research traditions in social science in order to better understand the distributive, political and cultural dimensions of global environmental problems. An important aspect of this contribution is to identify and understand conflict, and the messy and unequal distribution of resources and power.

4 Using depth to understand contradiction and paradox

The most straightforward explanation for the value of qualitative methods is that their greater depth helps explain broad trends identified with quantitative methods; ‘no one lives in the world in general’ (Geertz 1996: 262). Providing such depth often involves trying to explain contradictions or paradoxes that emerge in survey research. For example in an evaluation of the effectiveness of domestic water tanks in saving water in drought-prone southeastern Australia, Moy (2012) analysed consumption data which showed that overall mains water consumption was not lower among households who had installed tanks. This was puzzling considering that urban tank installation was subsidised by governments on the expectation that it would save at least the amount of water (estimated at up to 28% of domestic consumption) used outside the house. Moy’s work provided an explanation when in-depth interviews and house tours revealed were undertaken. She identified two groups of householders. ‘Water savers’ were very frugal with water, in ways expected by the policy. Another group, referred to as ‘water users’, had installed tanks to maintain high levels of water usage. For the latter group, autonomy from government surveillance through water restrictions was important.

Paradox is also evident in the ways opposing sides of an issue can each mobilize ideas about conserving nature or protecting the environment. Kielland (2012) demonstrated this in relation to the bid for the 2018 Winter Olympics in Tromsø, northern Norway. Both opponents and proponents discussed the CO2 emissions that would result from the increased air traffic. Both took the detrimental effects of emissions for granted, but framed them in stories of different scales. For opponents, the local scale of impacts was reason to stop the games. For proponents, the emissions would happen somewhere in the world in any case, so why not generate other benefits for the city?

In-depth interviews with key institutional actors is a useful methodology to understand contradiction and conflict in bureaucratic and political spheres, as seen for example in the challenges of managing for climate change adaptation in the Swedish municipality of ‘Coastby’ (Storbjörk and Hedrén 2011). This study draws particular attention to the way in which institutional practices combine ‘both formal aspects like procedures, laws and regulations etc. that are visible and tangible and informal aspects such as values, norms, traditions, codes and conducts that are tacit’ (p. 267). Understanding how these practices take expression in particular cases is important for enhancing the transformative capacity of institutions in dealing with environmental change.

5 Documenting variability

It is traditional for the social sciences to examine the historical, class, gender, ethnic and spatial dimensions of different issues. Extending such analysis to environmental issues, using qualitative methods, can help in a number of ways. These include understanding the environmental cultures of different sectors of the community, including environmentalists (Davison 2008), miners (Trigger 1997), forestry interests (Trigger and Mulcock 2005, Beland Lindahl and Westholm 2012) and hunters (Adams 2013). Such work provides a resource to both identify commonalities and better understand conflicts. Contemporary cultural approaches are attuned to the intersections between different aspects of variability, and the fact that most people have multiple and intersecting identities (Graham and Ernstson 2012). Hence there can be limitations if people are defined as stakeholders in singular ways.

Eriksen (2013) has analysed the heavily gendered patterns of bushfire preparedness in Australia and California, arguing that they have major implications for the risk profiles of both men and women. Local participation has been widely promoted as promoting both ecological and social sustainability, but has been shown in a Norwegian example to act against the representation of women. When local participation in the management of large conservation areas was increased, women turned out to be almost absent in delegated management (Svarstad et al. 2006). Further, in the same case, too narrow a definition of local interests meant that stakeholders from outside the immediate area – national recreation and wildlife organisations – did not have representation (Daugstad et al. 2006).

Of particular note is the longstanding contribution of cultural research with and by indigenous peoples, an important issue in both Sweden and Australia (Adams 2011). We refer here not just to presenting indigenous environmental knowledge and researching modes of environmental interaction for its own sake, as an important dimension of cultural variability, which it is. Rather we also want to draw attention to the conceptual challenges attendant on taking seriously indigenous understandings, for example how they help identify capacity deficits in existing natural resource management institutions and practices (Howitt et al. 2013). Indigenous and other non-western ontologies offer a range of cultural resources in the necessary reframing of relationships between humans and their environment (Suchet-Pearson et al. 2013).

Increased attention is being paid to ethnicity as an influence – how different ethnic groups value resources differently and undertake different environmental practices. This is of relevance in countries such as Sweden and Australia, which have increasingly diverse immigrant intakes, yet where particular mainstream combinations of national identity and environmental values have been assumed (Bradley 2009; Maller 2011). In these cases and others it is necessary to go beyond a predominantly ‘white’ framing of environmental issues to understand more diverse contributions (Klocker and Head 2013).

6 Understanding environmental norms and practices

An important dimension of our environmental relations is understanding norms; providing critical and historical analysis of what stands for common sense and normal behaviour and how it came to be. It is relevant to keep doing what Foucault called critique;  ‘pointing out on what kinds of assumptions, what kinds of familiar, unchallenged, unconsidered modes of thought the practices that we accept rest’ (Foucault 1988: 155). Environmental understandings and engagements are developed partly through those practices and everyday routines themselves (Shove 2003).

Recent research has paid much attention to the role of everyday routines, habits, emotions and practices in shaping environmental impacts and (to a lesser extent) adaptive capacities, for example in the household context (Gibson et al. 2013). Cultural research is providing important insights into how norms of cleanliness affect laundry and bathing practices (Shove 2003; Allon and Sofoulis 2006), norms of waste affect what we keep and throw away (Hawkins 2006) and norms of comfort affect heating and cooling practices (Hitchings and Lee 2008).

Another problematic norm in modern societies is that of travel and mobility.  Sustainable mobility can only be achieved through understanding and acceptance among the general public (Banister 2008), and cultural research provides insights into why people travel and how they use time, and variations between different groups in this respect (Frändberg 2009). Waitt and Harada (2012) have examined driving behaviours and why people love their cars, an important issue in attempts to encourage people to drive less. An important contribution of such work is to move attention from simplistic expectations of behavioural change, and to understand instead the ways particular practices are deeply embedded in everyday life. For example, the intersections between everyday practices of mobility and shopping are explored by Hansson and Brembeck (2012). While sustainable transport initiatives might focus on cycles as opposed to cars, Hansson and Brembeck argue that it is not a human or a car that moves, but an assemblage they call a ‘consumover’; an entity comprising human/s ‘plus tool or artefact (wheels, bike, bag, car, products etc)’ (p. 257). Following consumovers such as ‘Mother Carrying her Daughter while Arranging Purchases in the Boot of the Car before Bringing Them Back Home to the Family’s House’ and ‘Elderly Person Loading the Bike with Purchases’, they illustrate how visions for sustainable mobility can be both totalizing – in terms of who is included or excluded – and can imply that change is easier than it in fact is on the ground.

7 Identifying cultural resources and thresholds for change

We do not mean to argue that cultural approaches are only good for understanding the difficulties of changing deeply embedded practices and behaviours. The quest to redefine prosperity (Jackson 2009), and develop alternative and more sustainable visions of good lives for humans and others (Gibson-Graham et al. 2013), also requires increased cultural knowledge. Attention to value systems, ethics and different behavioural patterns is needed.

Much of the cultural variability we have referred to above can be re-imagined to provide positive resources for alternative ways of doing things. Resources for change can emerge from unlikely places – for example among older people who explicitly do not identify as ‘green’ but who nevertheless have a number of sustainable practices based on frugality and not wasting (Gibson et al. 2013). They can also emerge from more diverse scales of governance than the national and international, i.e. from the more local scales at which decision-makers and communities connect (DeFries et al. 2012; Stenseke et al. 2012).

It follows that a broader imagination of how and where social change occurs is both necessary and possible. Most qualitative research approaches point to a much messier and less linear understanding of social change than is often implied by scientists looking for policy relevance. It is not just a matter of finding legal and policy expressions of scientific truths, but rather understanding wider and more complex processes and structures of change. Shove (2010) for example argues that policy, as currently constructed, is insufficiently transformative. Using cultural geography approaches with stakeholders, Graham and Ernstson (2012) have argued for apparently marginal places such as the urban fringes of Global South cities as ‘possibility spaces for constructive interaction’. This argument can be extended to many of the vernacular contexts we have cited throughout the paper, providing a plurality of possible futures.

Engagement with complexity is fundamental to addressing the ‘wicked’ problems of climate change and sustainability, and that includes the complexity of causation. Cultural environmental research rarely presents straightforward solutions; we hope we have illustrated however that such complexity need not be paralysing. It is not only about identifying knotted problems and resistances or barriers to change, although that is important. In addition this research offers potential pathways along which the places of change and points of intervention are more variable than might have been thought (Setten et al. 2012). By opening up a broader range of possibilities, the competence of different communities to handle complexity can be enhanced.

CONCLUSION

In arguing that the qualitative social sciences have much to offer climate change and sustainability debates, it is not our intention to repeat glib calls for multi- or inter-disciplinarity. Indeed an important aspect of our argument is that cultural environmental research operates best within the traditions and demands for rigour of its constituent disciplines, rather than trying to conform to externally imposed norms of what constitutes proper research. However, to the extent that conversations across disciplinary boundaries are now widely valued, some preconditions for productive and mutually respectful conversations can be identified. Most importantly, it should not be assumed that everyone will agree on the problem. Both social and natural scientists must be included at the stage of framing research questions.

The existence of tribal languages can be a hindrance for cross-disciplinary communication. Since the development of concepts and approaches can be regarded as one of the characteristics of science and scholarship, the various languages should not be regarded as a problem per se. The ambition would rather be to enhance critical tolerance and open dialogue between various approaches. Recognizing the distinctive contributions of the qualitative social sciences is a prerequisite for putting such research to best use in the pressing challenges of sustainability and climate change.

Acknowledgements

This paper benefited from discussions at the workshop on Enhancing the contribution of the social sciences to sustainability debates: how can we be proactive and practical without compromising on complexity? which we co-organized at the University of Gothenburg in November 2012. LH acknowledges funding from the Australian Research Council (FL0992397) and the Visiting Professors Program at the School of Business, Economics and Law, University of Gothenburg, Sweden. We thank many colleagues for ongoing discussions, particularly Michael Adams, Chris Gibson, Nick Gill, Katarina Saltzman, Gunhild Setten and Gordon Waitt. We also thank seminar participants at the University of Wollongong, University of Western Sydney and the University of Queensland who engaged with the ideas in discussion.

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