Critical scholars, transformationists, and cumulators – How the environmental governance research community engages the issue of policy relevance, and why we argue for a stronger role of knowledge cumulation

By Jens Newig & Michael Rose

Environmental governance research seems to struggle with its own position towards the science-society interface. For example, the issue of policy-relevance was intensively discussed during a panel at the Earth System Governance Conference in November 2018 on “How can the Earth System Governance community effectively contribute to the implementation of Sustainable Development Goals?” At the panel, one group of participants – let’s call them the ‘critical scholars’ – suggested that in our diverse community, scholars may reject an instrumental view of science helping to “implement” the SDGs. In contrast, a second group – let’s call them the ‘transformationists’ – supported an activist view in which researchers should become agents of change towards sustainability (which is what has occasionally been termed transformative sustainability science).

A third group – let’s call them the ‘cumulators’ – argued that it is mainly through providing robust evidence on “what works where and how” that social-science research can support change towards sustainability. According to this view, environmental governance scholars should hold up their high (inner-)scientific standards but at the same time build knowledge that can inform policymaking and thereby facilitate sustainability. Some in the room voiced their frustration that policymakers hardly listen to environmental governance research, but rather to natural science research – even though the latter might be less policy-relevant. It was found that while policymakers are looking for evidence, social scientists are often either reluctant to even speak of evidence, or unable to produce it.

The panel in Utrecht seemed like a microcosm of environmental social-science research, with critical researchers, transformationists and cumulators voicing reasonable and legitimate positions and arguments. While we acknowledge and appreciate the community’s diversity of approaches and methods, we also see the fragmentation and incoherence of the field being a barrier when it comes to producing cumulative knowledge. Any scientific field that shows ‘progress’ in the sense of becoming better and better at understanding and explaining natural or social dynamics needs to be cumulative: new theories and empirical findings need to build on existing ones – either by challenging (‘falsifying’) existing research, by confirming it, or by adding nuances. By and large, environmental governance research appears to be hardly cumulating. And therefore, it seems to produce little reliable and knowledge on how and why what forms of governance help to achieve environmental sustainability.

And indeed, quite recently in the broader community of sustainability research, there appears a renewed, growing interest into how science and scholarship can produce cumulative knowledge (Pauliuk 2020); how research results – including qualitative data – can be synthesized to contribute to sustainability policy (Alexander et al. 2020); and how cumulative knowledge production in the field of environmental governance can be fostered through common research protocols (Cox et al. 2020).

In a new paper, we join these voices and venture to suggest a research reform agenda for environmental governance research (Newig and Rose 2020, open access). We discuss what knowledge cumulation means for environmental governance research, and what challenges it faces. We propose three concrete areas for reform:

  • First, we make a case for an agreed canon of concepts and definitions shared within the community, while being open to reinterpretations and novel concepts. This could ideally be realized, among others, through wiki-supported common dictionaries.
  • Second, we advocate the stronger use of comparative research approaches and meta-analytical methods such as the case survey methodology, or systematic reviews, to cumulate (published) case-based evidence – drawing on both ‘successful’ and ‘unsuccessful’ cases.
  • Third, we argue for a systematic recognition of the institutional, political, and social context of governance interventions. This becomes increasingly important to the extent that meta-analyses reveal general patterns and trends that nonetheless vary with context. Here, we elaborate on what constitutes a ‘case’ of a governance intervention as opposed to its ‘context’, and discuss challenges and opportunities of integrating published case-based insights with knowledge on the respective context (which is currently seldom done).

However, this seems only the beginning of what could be a decade-long journey which may take many different paths. We would therefore love to see a broad discussion on the ideas put forward here. Whether from critical scholars, transformationists, cumulators or any other colleagues in the field – any comments, critique and ideas on how to move forward are more than appreciated!

Cited literature

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s