Paper recommendation: The undisciplinary journey

By Joern Fischer

The following paper just came out:

L. J. Haider, L.J., Hentati-Sundberg, J., Giusti, M., Goodness, J., Hamann, M., Masterson, V. A., Meacham, M., Merrie, A., Ospina, D., Schill, C., Sinare, H. (2017). The undisciplinary journey: early-career perspectives in sustainability science. Sustainability Science. PDF available here.

This paper should be particularly interesting to early-career researchers working in interdisciplinary environments, or themselves being “interdisciplinarians”. It should also be of interest to more established scientists who train more junior researchers in such areas, especially in sustainability science.

In a nutshell, the paper is built on the premise that a new generation of sustainability scholars is emerging. These scholars often are interdisciplinary in their orientation from the outset. This makes them different from many of the currently “senior” (i.e. older) sustainability scientists, the vast majority of whom were trained in a specific discipline, and then started to reach out to other disciplines.

But what if you start off without ever having had a strong affinity for a single traditional discipline? This is increasingly common for young sustainability scholars, and it leaves them with certain typical challenges — which are what this paper is about. For example, how do you balance depth and breadth? How can you make sure you are taken seriously by your peers, or by more senior scientists? How can you navigate institutional environments that are largely based on disciplines?

To navigate a journey of being “undisciplinary”, the paper provides a compass — a simple conceptual model that can be used to think about how to develop into a good sustainability scientist. A “good” scientist, in this sense, needs two key attributes: agility to move between different ways of thinking, and a good methodological foundation.

Agility to move between different ways of thinking is needed because sustainability is such a broad challenge — to solve problems related to forest degradation, for example, you might have to understand issues of governance, social justice, and ecology. Each of these, in turn, will have a different epistemological foundation; what counts as valid knowledge for an ecologist comes about in a different way from the knowledge deemed valid by a political scientist.

A good methodological foundation is needed because, although sustainability science is an extremely broad field, this can’t be an excuse to not base one’s insights on solid methods. This can be challenging, because the range of potentially relevant methods is vast — but to be a “good” sustainability scientist, it pays to have some clearly identifiable methodological strengths, or at least a solid methodological foundation.

The link to the paper is given above. As I said, I think it’s a nice reflection, as well as really good food for thought for scholars who either are, or are working with, the “next generation” of sustainability scientists. Well worth a read!

Three things that went wrong today (#FONA2017)

By Joern Fischer

The thing about blogging is that you can say things that otherwise may or may not be heard. And so I use my privilege as a blogger to make three observations of what I think went wrong at the FONA Forum that I attended today: (1) much emphasis on the concrete, but too little appreciation of the foundational; (2) six men, and zero women in a final panel discussion; and (3) no black Africans in the discussion on sustainability in Africa.

Why are these three issues problematic? Let’s start with something positive.

The best speaker today, to my mind, was Hartmut Rosa – a sociologist who challenged our contemporary growth-oriented thinking. He painted a picture of humanity addicted to constant “more”, in all spheres of life – more science, more wealth, more access to the world, to new experiences and new places. Constant striving for “more” instead of finding satisfaction in our interactions with others and our immediately available environment, according to Hartmut Rosa, leads to stress as well as to unsustainability. He argued for a change in our relationships, towards greater reciprocity with other beings and places.

His talk was very well received, it seemed. But his talk aside, the vast majority of speakers focused on things like concrete measures, indicators of success, a manual for how to fly Spaceship Earth, recommendations to policy, and steps that need to be taken.

Concrete steps are great – but who, in this era, is taking responsibility for getting humanity to halt and reflect? Scientists are no longer interested in this, it seems – they are much too busy coming up with tangible recommendations and concrete measures. Apparently just shifting discourses – arguably one of the most important things we must do, as a foundation for concrete measures to be effective – is not something many people are interested in. Or, in leverage points language, the vast majority of people speak of shallow leverage points, considering it a waste of time to reflect. – Funny in this context: Hartmut Rosa’s talk seemed really popular, suggesting that people want to be challenged to reflect more deeply. But at the same time, the same people applaud and reinforce structures that only reward tangible outcomes that can be measured.

My last two concerns about today are simple and painful: no women in the final panel discussion, and no black Africans in the Africa session. The latter had about 50 people in it. Admittedly, the session was in German, but come on. Surely, with a bit of effort one could have come up with mechanisms and ways to include people who can contribute their authentically African perspective. How can we meaningfully listen to people speaking of cooperation “at eye level”, or of “partnerships” in this context? The comment regarding no women in the panel discussion evidently points in a similar direction.

This post will be published and tweeted – perhaps someone else who attended the conference will respond, and correct my perspective if it needs correcting. I would appreciate feedback, especially by people who were also here. Thanks!

It’s not like there were no good moments today, or good people, or great insights. There were many. But the three issues singled out here are such that, in 2017 Germany, they make me concerned.

Recognizing and learning the rhythms of local life

A reflection from the field by Aisa Manlosa

I’m nearing the end of my stay here in the southwestern part of Ethiopia for the second field work of my PhD. Lovely highlands. Rich culture. Great coffee. During this field work, one of the important lessons I have been learning is the value of recognizing and learning the rhythm of local life. By rhythm of local life, I simply mean the way things are done by local residents, in the pace they are done. Here I reflect about how this idea had influenced the way I thought and moved in the field and the way I engaged with local residents. This may speak more to researchers in the social sciences but perhaps, the increase of multidisciplinary projects and collaborations, makes this more broadly relevant.

As a background, I’m doing my PhD focusing on livelihood strategies of farming households under Joern’s SESyP project. Methodologically, I consider the mix of quantitative and qualitative approaches particularly suited for building understanding of the dynamics and nuances of local livelihoods and its relationship to the broader social-ecological system. Last year, I conducted the first field work for three months to characterize livelihood strategies and explore how these link with capital assets and food security at the household level. The method for data collection was mainly quantitative survey, supplemented by a small number of semi-structured interviews. Building on that, my second field work now investigates gender norms and power relations which mediate individuals’ access to capital assets and how differentiated access influences well-being outcomes. I am presently applying an open-ended, qualitative approach using focus group discussions and semi-structured interviews. My reason for choosing the qualitative approach is its capability to capture local voices, build rich narratives and engage with complexities from the perspective of the local residents. This shift I’ve described from a mainly quantitative approach in the first half of my PhD to a qualitative approach at this stage involved a change in the level of structure and boundedness in the design of the study. It has also required a different set of skills. Inevitably, the change in approach made me ask myself about the ways that I can effectively implement a qualitative study. This precipitated the thought about rhythm.

The rhythm of local life – the beat or cadence if you like, is part of the character of the place and its people. It expresses itself in many ways and we could name a few. In the hour of the morning when people get up and start their day. When the first cup of coffee is served (unthinkable to miss). The interval between ordering breakfast at the mana nyata (eating place) and when that order is served. What most women do at noon time – prepare lunch for children returning from school. What men do in the fields at this time of the year – plow the soil as the first rains of the arfasa season fall. The small markets that happen every afternoon called golit. The larger markets that happen weekly called gaba. The pingpong of greetings people serve to and fro upon meeting, before they begin their substantive conversations. And perhaps more relevant to me, is the time of day the focus group participants can be depended on to arrive. The rhythm is everywhere, because ways of doing and paces of doing permeate daily living. Even in the slow walking of the cows across the street, stopping our car and making us wait.

The rhythm is perceivable because it has a regularity over certain times of a day, over the days of a week, and over the seasons of a year. But it wasn’t so much the regularity that made me notice and think about rhythm, but the existence of my own rhythm.

There are some things one can wish to proceed faster in the course of a field work – the drives on potholed roads, the waiting for public officials, the waiting for focus group participants and others. I began to be aware of the stark difference between my rhythm and the rhythm of the local life when I caught myself wishing for some things to proceed faster. I am an outsider and the “field” where I study is their home. I am trying to understand people’s livelihoods and ways of living; and they are, simply living their lives. My agenda for the day is to research, but it is not theirs. My rhythm and theirs are dissimilar. But what if I could suspend mine and take on theirs? Will that enable me to enter with a bit more depth into the fabric of local life and learn more about the lived realities of the communities where I am undertaking the study? The questions I am asking immediately bring to mind the idea of positionalities (Chacko 2004) between researcher and researched. I find it an important idea to engage with because awareness of positionalities – of myself as outsider and them as insider, of the distinctiveness of my agenda and theirs, of my rhythm and theirs, can be the starting point for moving forward responsibly.

Being aware of the rhythm of the local life has a number of advantages. Certainly not the least, is how it eases the stress that may arise from logistic glitches. No, it may not change the fact that some participants of focus group discussions would not arrive on time, or that it would be very hard to conduct interviews when there is a wedding in the vicinity and people are celebrating. But yes, it helps one develop patience with things not working as planned. And patience finds its root in the understanding that one has entered a different reality. And this reality is that, my agenda for the day is mine, and they have theirs and mine must be subsumed under the truly more important matter of their lives simply unfolding as I try to follow and seek to understand. Recognizing the rhythm of local life, and respecting this as an outsider, also helps one plan activities around people’s availability – considering market days, prayer hours, work times and others.

The awareness of my position as outsider-researcher led to the early realization that some of the questions I prepared for the group discussions and interviews may be insufficient. Rather, these could function as starters for meandering conversations, made more substantive by follow up questions that are actually my responses to their response. And then, a more coherent picture of gender norms and power relations may begin to appear. The whole process had involved a great deal of willingness on my part to cull out from the list of FGD questions, retain a few key ones, and provide space for conversations to take a shape of their own. This is of course, not new, and is a well-known way of working in qualitative research. But I found that process to be more easily facilitated by my awareness of my limitations as outsider. As outsider, I may be unaware of a different logic running through the rhythm of local life – a logic that underpins why local residents do the things they do at the pace the things are done. I may be unaware of underlying meanings and reasons behind some of their ways of responding to questions. As an outsider who is aware of a different rhythm and a different logic, I may exert effort to discover the other logic and respond with sensitivity.

Recognizing and easing into the rhythm of local life also helped me see and understand people a little better. I see this learning of local rhythm as primarily about recognizing that some of the things I face while doing field work are the daily realities that people live day in and day out. And what to me could be a slowing down of the plan, things that we easily describe as “not working” are the constraints that people face and cope with everyday. It has meant to pause, and notice opportunities when one can come remotely come close to wearing the shoes of the local residents if only in walking up and down slopes with a heavy burden on one’s back, or walking under the glaring sun with very little water to drink. If only that. But there must be more. Perhaps this way of thinking and of experiencing makes the importance of a milling station nearby more real than just a good idea. The whole manner of practicing empathy may or may not change the solutions eventually arrived at, nor is it strictly necessary for good science. But for researchers genuinely wishing to arrive at a depth of understanding about the lives of other people, households and communities, it is known that the process is often as important as the outputs.

The whole experience of staying in the field can contribute to a better understanding of places and its people. And it is in the manner of perception and insight that social science stands with a lot to contribute to efforts for charting the future we want and tackling such wicked problems as poverty, food security, equality, climate change, biodiversity loss, among many others.

Diversity in research teams: more = better ?

By Joern Fischer

Anyone working in teams knows that different people contribute in different ways. We’re all different, and working in a team means appreciating these differences and making the most of them. But there’s something implicit in this that I have often struggled with – the assumption that diversity is necessarily good, while homogeneity is necessarily bad.

Some of you may have had “experts” work with their teams to look at different working styles. When you do this, a commonly used tool is the Myers-Briggs personality test (a shortened version is available here). This recognizes that people can be more introverted or extroverted; more intuitive or sensing; more thinking or feeling; and more perceiving or judging. In combination, you find 16 different stereotypes of people, constructed by four axes of two poles each. These people, so the logic goes, function in different ways, and therefore can contribute different things. (Of course individual people are often very much a mix of stereotypes.)

From this, the logic often goes on to say that good teams need diversity; that we ought to appreciate our differences, and that by appreciating them, we get better at working together. So far so good – but there is an underlying assumption in this that more diversity is necessarily better.

My personal experience and opinion is that, in research teams, this is not necessarily true, or only to a point. Rather, I would argue for the “right” kind of diversity, balanced with the “right” kind of homogeneity. What do I mean by this?

To me, diversity is valuable in that it brings different skills and perspectives to the table. Someone may be more inclined to have an intuitive sense about a hot research topic, and someone else may be good at organizing fieldwork, or crunching statistics after data collection. Indeed, to this point, I agree that a certain level of diversity is useful, because different people in a team can complement one another.

But I think the reverse – that diversity is good, and therefore homogeneity is bad – is not necessarily true. Instead, I would argue that a certain level of homogeneity is actually extremely valuable! When personal differences within a team become very large, it may become increasingly difficult to bridge working styles. In a research context, in particular, output-oriented (J-type) people often clash with process-oriented (P-type) people. Getting these types to be truly happy in a collaboration is very difficult, and sometimes, I would argue simply a waste of time (showing I’m a J-type, I guess…). Similarly, most academics are N-type people, because this is the kind of natural inclination that is associated with wanting to generalize and see the big picture. And last but not least, many scientists are introverted. It’s no surprise that one nickname for an INTJ type is “the scientist” – this particular combination of natural inclinations is very common in academia.

Is it true then that such people “need” others to make up for their weaknesses? Frankly, in an academic context, I don’t necessarily think so. Multiple people who have similar personalities and working styles can still complement one another by knowing about different topics, or for example having a background in different disciplines. Differences in training, backgrounds and expertise, in turn, can be quite readily overcome if the personalities fit together. In contrast, highly diverse, interdisciplinary teams with a lot of differences in both personality types and disciplinary backgrounds, in my experience, suffer from too much diversity. Not only are their disciplinary divides to be bridged but also working styles, including very basic questions as to whether we’re here to have a nice discussion or to get a paper published.

Finally, there’s one more dimension to all this that I have not yet mentioned, and that is the dimension of a shared goal or general normative direction. If things become so diverse that the goal is no longer the same among team members, things can really fall apart in research teams.

So, yes, we can learn from diversity. But too much diversity in a research team, to my mind, does not lead to better insights, but instead can get in the way of achieving any insights at all, and indeed, foster frustration instead. Hence, I’d argue for balance in research teams, not for diversity per se.

When and how to (not) make a difference

By Joern Fischer

Studying the intersection of food security and biodiversity conservation in a place like Ethiopia brings up a whole lot of challenging moral and emotional dimensions (some of which were previously discussed here). When we speak to local people, they ask us almost every day about the solutions we will bring. How can we deal with this?

First, I think it’s worthwhile to understand this sentiment a bit more, of wanting us to bring solutions. By definition, it is only people who themselves feel powerless who wait for outsiders to improve things. Both knowledge systems, and systems of taking action, have for a long time been very top down in Ethiopia. The sense of awe for “those who know better” permeates throughout the country – government experts are eager to absorb western knowledge on modern farming technologies; model farmers are eager to absorb knowledge presented by government development agents; and poor people look at all these knowledgeable people and seem to feel that they don’t know enough – nor have enough – to get out of their misery. Action, similarly, is expected to come from “the government” if you’re a community member, or perhaps through international investors if you’re the government.

So that’s the first point – in a culture where everyone looks to someone “more knowledgeable” to find solutions for their respective dilemma, it is natural that we would be asked for solutions. Knowledge in this context seems to be seen as a thing you have: when you have it, all is good, and indeed, obtaining it sometimes seem to be seen as all that is needed to bring about change. (None of this is to discount the possible importance of outside knowledge or action; I’m simply stating that it is valued extremely highly here, sometimes perhaps at the expense of local knowledge or action.)

Second then, having understood a bit more what the role of knowledge is, we can perhaps understand our role a little bit better. As sustainability researchers, we can engage with real-world problems in two main ways.

On the one hand, we can build an understanding of the complexity of the challenges in the system. That is what we came to do in this study. To maximize its real-world usefulness, we can generate information, and we can try to widely share this information. We can also invite stakeholders to re-conceptualise some of the problems, or we can bring problems to the fore that they had perhaps not considered very much. This approach – providing knowledge, and sharing it widely – is essentially what we did in our previous work in Romania. The aim here is not to provide ready made solutions, but to provide new ways of thinking about problems at hand, perhaps in a more holistic fashion, or from a different perspective.

On the other hand, we could try to solve an actual problem at hand. This kind of problem solving is often what people have in mind when they think of sustainability science; they think that being of use implies there being tangible, immediate benefits. Perhaps a community might install solar panels, or be introduced to a new farming technique. This type of sustainability science is certainly valuable, but it’s not always as powerful as it might first seem: ultimately, many of the changes that are required for sustainable development are deeper than anything that could be addressed quickly; plus, of course, you need certain formal governance structures in place to effectively work with communities, which simply aren’t there in many parts of the world.

From all this, I usually take with me two thoughts of how I hope our work can make a difference. On the ground, we do our best to share our findings with authorities at different levels, and in different formats, much like we had done in Romania. But the bigger contribution, I think, happens at a more abstract level – through publishing work with a certain “flavour” on the topic of biodiversity conservation and food security, we help to shape a global discourse, hopefully nudging it away from highly technocratic towards more holistic. This will take a lot of nudging… but ultimately, shedding light on spots not adequately lit is probably all that science ever does. The question is largely one of which spots we choose to shine a light on.

Psycho-social stress? Not among our professors, apparently

By Joern Fischer

A few months back, Leuphana University instigated an assessment of “psycho-social stress” affecting its staff. Online questionnaires were sent to professors, other scientific staff and (presumably) administrators. Results were shared, and now group interviews were announced to dig more deeply into existing problems and devise solutions for these problems.

I thought it was quite laudable of our institution to investigate such factors, and so when an open invitation came to participate in a group interview with other professors, I checked whether I would be available at the time. My diary was still open, and so I registered, with the disclaimer “if there are still places available”. A message came back that I was in fact the first to register — so, all seemed good.

Funnily enough, a few days ago, a second message reached me saying the exercise was cancelled because I was in fact the only professor at the entire university who showed an interest in participating. And that’s what’s prompted this blog post …. what’s going on here?

Three alternative explanations come to mind. The first is that professors are so happy and balanced here that there is simply no need for such exercises. Everybody’s mental health is great, social processes are functioning, and so there is no need to talk about it, let alone further improve things.

The second explanation might be that professors were, generally, too busy for such an exercise. They might agree on the importance of investigating mental and emotional well-being in the workplace, but the invitation to them sounded like yet another annoying workshop, with lots of talking and no change anyway. Better then to focus on one’s direct environment and ignore this kind of lip service exercise run by the central administration.

And finally, the third explanation is that professors are so fragmented in their inner and outer selves that many are not even in a position to actively consider the possible value of reflecting on psycho-social processes.

Most likely, it’s different answers for different people; and I should not judge which of the three explanations (or perhaps others that I have not considered) dominates. But the outcome, to me, is a missed opportunity to improve the workplace.

Mainstreamism and self-fulfilling prophecies

By Joern Fischer

It’s good to be policy-relevant, and it’s good to get published in prestigious journals. But I’m concerned that the collective desire to attain these goals is taming science to a distinctly unhelpful middle ground that everyone can agree on. It’s like in politics, where major parties end up so similar you can’t really tell the difference anymore – in an effort to appeal to the largest number of people, almost by definition, distinctive elements and innovative ideas are filtered out.

This is annoying when it happens in politics, but it’s unacceptable when it happens in science. Science ought to be about expanding our understanding of the universe, not channeling it into the centre of status quo worldviews. And yet, I find there is more and more evidence that this is precisely what is happening.

Two things today inspired me to write this slightly impassioned rant. First, one of our papers got rejected due to its less-than-mainstream methods. The argument was in fact not that our methods were bad, but rather that they were unusual and may be difficult to accept by the readership of the journal. Second, a colleague pointed me to a paper that says we can’t really change values because they change slowly, and so there’s no point in trying. In combination, I feel these events are symptomatic of a new kind of “anti-sustainability” sustainability science – implying that we need innovation, but preferably without actually changing the world or the way we look at it.

In modern science then, it seems you must not rock the boat. You must not work towards paradigm shifts, or try to look at problems too broadly. Instead, you should look for clever, incremental improvements within existing ways of thinking. In sustainability science, you must look at societal problems, but only advocate for minor changes – no matter how deep the root causes are of the problems you are looking at.

Sustainable intensification, REDD+ payments, and the right kind of messaging to an audience with unalterable values – this is now the dominant way advocated to achieve sustainability improvements.

Those who point out that radical changes are not possible successfully get their stuff published – but to me, they lack creativity (and frankly, guts) to do what needs to be done. With everybody heading for the front of the mainstream, there will be no real innovation, and no major change. Or put more bluntly: we’d have the same values as decades ago, including slavery, racial discrimination and women not taking part in politics.

Think again: Of course things can change, if we want them to, including big things, and including human values. And from a sustainability perspective all of this can happen in relevant, short periods of time, too.

Trying to work for deep changes may not always work in the short term. But the growing zeal to not even try to think boldly strikes me as much more certain to lock us into a self-fulfilling prophecy of ever greater un-sustainability.

Emotional competence in science

By Joern Fischer

In a recent discussion, I had a minor epiphany that I’d like to share, regarding the balance of rational thought and emotion in the day-to-day operation of science. It struck me that naturally emotionally attuned individuals who want to survive in science, have to work hard to train their capacity for rational thought and analysis. But the reverse is not true: individuals with a natural tendency for rational thinking are not required, and only rarely encouraged, to develop their emotional competencies. My argument here is that science, on a daily basis, suffers from this imbalance between the rational and emotional.

First things first: science is about rational arguments to understand the world. The use of logic is extremely valuable because it can be scrutinized, and fact and opinion can be carefully divided. This is extremely valuable, and to me, the key strength of science. (I use “science” in a general sense here, not only for the natural sciences, but also for the social sciences and other academic disciplines founded on logical reasoning.)

But science on a day-to-day basis, is a social process. There are supervisor-student relationships, junior and senior researcher relationships, lots of peer relationships, administrative relationships, communication tasks among all of these plus with the general public and potential readers of one’s work. Science is full of this stuff. In the context of running complex field projects, I have said they before that it’s 90% about people and 10% about science. This is perhaps an over-statement (… though I don’t think so …), but the general notion that there are lots of social processes, I think, cannot be denied.

I argue that a lot of improvements would be possible if scientists spent at least equal amounts of energy on developing their emotional competencies as on refining their analytical skills. The reason why I say “at least” equal amounts of energy is that I think science, on average, is dominated by “thinkers” with relatively little natural knack for the emotional realm. Most scientists are naturally talented at rational thought (that’s why they got into science), but fewer it seems to me are naturally talented at dealing with people.

Let us think of common problems that make for unproductive and unhappy situations: students feeling lost, insecurity regarding one’s achievements, uncertainty about future employment, power games, misunderstandings between administrative and academic staff, or poor recognition of the individual needs and strengths of different kinds of people. These situations stem from poor emotional competence – but they have ramifications for achievements in science, that is, in the purely rational realm.

My hypothesis is that the most productive science can be produced where people routinely pay attention to both the emotional and rational realm. All of us can develop skills in both areas – but traditionally, the importance of emotional skills has not been recognized sufficiently in science.

(Final point: Yes, this is related to the idea of emotional intelligence, as communicated by Daniel Goleman and increasingly recognized as important in various leadership contexts. I’m not using the term in the above because I’m not well read in this area, and so I’m not sure if what I mean maps precisely onto the idea of emotional intelligence or not. Either way: I think academic environments are not doing a good job of recognizing this “thing” that I argue is missing.)

Values, conservation and sustainability

By Joern Fischer

In 1992, Shalom Schwartz published a seminal paper entitled “Universals in the content and structure of values: Theoretical advances and empirical tests in 20 countries”. The paper has been cited something like 12,000 times, and the findings have been refined since then. In short, it summarises different value orientations held by individuals. On reading this paper, I began to wonder what the implications of this are for conservation and sustainability.



I’ll start with a disclaimer and a summary of what Schwartz found. First the disclaimer: perhaps everything I write below has long been known by people working on conservation and sustainability, and I’m very late in catching up. If so, I’m happy to be further educated, e.g. by people explaining to me and other readers how this has been applied to conservation and sustainability in the comments below. But if I’m somewhat “typical”, then this is not at all widely known, understood, or reflected upon within the conservation and sustainability fields. And if that is the case, there might be some pretty important implications that require our attention.

Second – a summary of what Schwartz found. In the original paper from 1992, Schwartz developed theory, and then tested it on a large sample of individuals from a number of different countries. His theory was largely confirmed, and went something like this. Different people hold different values. Some values are compatible, whereas others are oppositional. Compatible values are, for example, if I value the attainment of wealth, and if I value the achievement of social recognition. Oppositional values might be valuing tradition versus seeking excitement in life.

These kinds of constructs – compatible and oppositional values – can be depicted in a kind of circular wheel, as shown in the Figure above. This wheel was generated by a multivariate analysis of many people responding to the same questions about their values, so this is an empirically grounded theory . Adjacent sectors in this wheel are compatible values, whereas opposite sectors in the wheel are oppositional.

So far so good – how is this relevant to conservation and sustainability? I think it is in a number of ways.

A lot of the values associated with conservation and sustainability cluster in the sector on “universalism” (top right). For example, here, we find “protecting the environment”, “social justice”, and even “unity with nature”. Opposite of that, we find the sector “power”, with values such as “wealth” and “social recognition”.

We can now ask ourselves where in this wheel individuals belonging to different cultures might sit. This is relevant for conservation and sustainability, because we might pitch our messages differently, according to people’s values (e.g. see this comprehensive report, or here for a simpler summary; and here for additional materials).

But I think perhaps there is something even more interesting going on. Here, I present three testable hypotheses, which would have implications for conservation and sustainability action.

Hypothesis 1: A substantial proportion of the population (probably differing between jurisdictions) actually holds values that are compatible with universalist values (i.e. sustainability and biodiversity conservation).

Hypothesis 2: Despite this, we are seeing patterns of behaviour at an aggregate (societal) level that emphasise values that are largely oppositional to sustainability, such as achievement and power. That is, we have created institutions that foster values that are not inherently shared by people. We thus have a mismatch between the value sets fostered by institutions and the value sets held by people.

Hypothesis 3: If this is correct, the “solution” to sustainability problems becomes one of “simply” re-aligining institutions to what people actually want. This may be a major task, but is a relatively smaller problem than if people themselves actually did not hold values compatible with sustainability. In other words, we may not need to “re-educate people”, but rather draw out what people actually want, and ensure that institutions are reformed in ways that reflect the want of “the people”.

Hopelessly optimistic? Actually, people are selfish and individualistic, and care about power and wealth and nothing else? Perhaps – convince me if you can. But at this stage I think it’s more likely that we are dealing with a mis-match between values fostered through institutions and values held by individuals. I speculate, in turn, that such a mis-match has probably arisen from power dynamics that go hand in hand with how we have organized societies (including economic principles); i.e. the whole thing is an institutional and power problem, not fundamentally one of values.

If I’m right, all of this points to us needing more conversations at a societal level about what it is that we truly value — and then working towards how to (re-)organise society accordingly. And then who knows, perhaps sustainability is within closer reach than we may have thought …

Gender discrimination and the fifth Sustainable Development Goal

By Joern Fischer

Today I’d like to summarise the opening keynote presentation from the Development Research Conference 2016, which is currently taking place in Stockholm. The talk was presented by Andrea Cornwall, and was entitled “Addressing Discrimination on the Basis of Gender: Towards a More Just and Equal World for All.”


Source: wikimedia

Andrea addressed the fifth Sustainable Development Goal, which relates to “gender equality”. In her talk, she highlighted key strengths and recent improvements in this area, but also identified challenges where further changes are necessary. I’m certainly not an expert in this area, but in the following I do my best to convey some of her most pertinent messages.

Andrea first contrasted biological and social understandings of gender. Right now, Andrea argued that in feminism there were a number of contrasting streams, many of which recognize a softening of boundaries between men and women and between the biological and the social.

In a development context, by contrast, changes in gender discourses took a different turn. Contemporary development discourses speak of empowering women and girls, and engaging men and boys; all in the name of development. In this context, women often (inadvertently) become instrumentalised, being important tools or “targets” to achieve development. Unlike in recent feminist discourses, the strong binary views of men vs women are very much present in development discourses. Along with this understanding have come ideas that women are poorer, and care more about the environment – while men are the problem who suppress women, and destroy the environment.

Andrea argued that it thus appeared there were diverging paths. Contemporary feminism acknowledges the complexity of gender, whereas development discourses remain set back in time, often dividing the world into poor suppressed women vs bad suppressing men. Arguably, this kind of distinction fails to recognize that everyone would gain from greater equity.

Andrea continued by contrasting differences between a rise in laws against gender-based discrimination, while there was little or no change in the actual incidences of such discrimination (e.g. in domestic violence against women). Thus, it appears there is ongoing suffering on an everyday basis, despite changing laws.

Sustainable Development Goal 5, Andrea argued, was somewhat troublesome in that it failed to acknowledge the complexity underpinning the intersectionality of gender. The dynamics of gender identity, and the complexity of gendered power relationships, feature very little in SDG5. Instead, the SDG seems to primarily look at increasing the numbers of women in various contexts – more educated women, more in public office, and so on. Gender relations and gender identity, by contrast, remain outside the scope. In sum, this means that current conceptualisations of women in a development discourse, still are rooted in traditional images of men vs women; traditional views that, arguably, cannot be separated from colonialist views.

What then is needed to go forward? First of all, according to Andrea, development would need to be de-colonised. This would require a different kind of education, which recognizes the inherently colonial assumptions underpinning much of modern education. For example, the idea of a “male breadwinner” being the more natural state is a colonial idea. Similarly, the normativity implicit in ideas of who would make a good farmer, or what constitutes a virtuous woman be (or man, for that matter), would need to be questioned.

As a possible way forward, and drawing on existentialism, Andrea offered understanding gender as a “situation”. That is, situations give rise to gender roles and outcomes, and in a development context, the dynamics of such situations need to be better understood. These dynamics, in turn, are likely to be highly place-specific.

Looking at discrimination from a gender perspective – rather than gender equality perspective – thus means looking at problems more broadly. In a gender perspective, men are no more inherently the problem than women; rather, both can suffer from colonial ideas of gender stereotypes. Gender as a concept thus can even be unhelpful, and can further entrench the very stereotypes that give rise to unequal outcomes. Human rights, by contrast, are more broadly defined, and have greater potential to bring together all kinds of people (and genders).

Assuming I understood her correctly, Andrea thus argued for moving beyond focusing on discrimination in a gender context towards discrimination more broadly. Especially in a development context, there is a need to better understand the colonial roots of many of the existing dynamics that give rise to (or reinforce) discrimination. We shouldn’t ask what we can do for women, nor what women can do for development. Instead we should stop putting people into boxes (as men vs women), and focus on ending discrimination – for the benefit of everyone, regardless of their gender.