Article / Livestock Systems / Research / Science paper / SLS

New paper reveals nexus between scientific assessment methods and social accountability

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Image credit: ILRI/Dorine Odongo

Socioecological assessments are socially produced technologies, a new study has now established.

In the wake of the immense emphasis placed on ‘evidence-based policymaking’ and interdisciplinary research as key to achieving research for development (R4D) objectives; many actors in R4D are increasingly carrying out sociological assessments aimed at influencing science-policy-practice networks. While a lot is being to done to analyse how research results are used in politics and policymaking, little has been done to evaluate how choices are made in the production of the science or research. In this regard, it is fundamental to consider the social aspects of how research is conducted and of the assessment process itself.

How to fit sociological assessments to need?  

Acknowledging that scientific assessments do not take place in a vacuum, the key question then is how can researchers ensure that their methods of assessments take into account the social dynamics? What are the precise methodological practices and social mechanisms through which science-policy-practice networks operate?

A newly published study looks at how socioecological assessment technologies promote science-policy-practice, how scientific choices simplify complex sociological relationships and the implications of these relationships for science-policy-practice. The study examined sociological assessment technologies in three domains: vulnerability assessment, ecosystem services assessment and life cycle assessment.

The study investigated how research conceptualized the social dynamics using the conceptualization, operationalization and institutionalization (COIN) framework for socioecological assessments, and how these were measured and how this assessment method influenced social practices at different levels.

Its authors include researchers from the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment, the Federal Office for Agriculture and Food in Germany,  Wageningen University, the School of International Development at the University of East Anglia and Cordaid in the United Kingdom.

Key findings

Methods of scientific accountancy have everything to do with pathways of social accountability.

In their analysis of the vulnerability assessment methodology, the authors highlight that social dynamics within research projects significantly influence conceptual and methodological choices.

When scientists consider the social dimensions that underpin the research process, they are able to create assessments that empower multistakeholder democratic processes, rather than centralized governance.

Todd Crane, a researcher in the Sustainable Livestock Systems Program at ILRI and one of the report’s authors, emphasizes that quite often, choices that researchers make in the process of carrying out research tend to simplify and downplay social complexity, which in turn downplays the role of people as decision-makers. Crane says it is important to acknowledge that while the scope may differ, everyone in the society makes decisions on the issues that matter to them.

The removal of social dimensions of vulnerability in the assessment tool subsequently creates a situation that favours short-term infrastructural approaches to vulnerability reduction.

Can it help avoid the dangers of a single story?

The authors add that ‘when assessments measure what is methodologically convenient and politically instrumental rather than what is scientifically appropriate, they inevitably generate incomplete or skewed findings’.

To avoid the danger of a single story and achieve sustainable and equitable socioecological systems—for example in the face of a changing climate—numerous modes of analysing interactions between biophysical processes, social practices and diverse values should be applied.

For example, Crane notes that an alternative assessment methodology (in the Life Cycle Assessment case study analysed in this study) that tries to integrate people’s perspectives in the system and valorize these perspectives could result in tools of greater equitability and participatory democracy.

The authors conclude that scientific choices ‘have substantial implications regarding who is empowered by the representations that emerge through research processes, and what sorts of responses they promote or disregard.’

Read the article in Human Ecology: ‘Research design and the politics of abstraction: Unpacking the environmentality of scientific practice in socioecological assessments’ by Todd Crane, Maartje Pronk, Roan Lakerveld, ViolaWeiler, Harro Maat, Oliver Springate-Baginski and Henk Udo.

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