Why it would be important to publish (qualitative) social science papers in problem-based journals

Understanding a natural resource manager’s logic and view point

The sustainable management of rangelands and other natural resources, remains a challenge despite decades of research. Increasingly it is accepted that interdisciplinary approaches are more promising than those focusing solely on natural sciences. While there is no doubt that integrating natural and social sciences holds much promise, the question is: should these result only in interdisciplinary publications or is there still a place for disciplinary papers? When looking at publications in problem-based journals (i.e. those that focus on a specific issue, such as ‘Agricultural Systems’ or ‘Rangeland Ecology & Management’), it is striking that there are many papers based on natural sciences only, while very few are based on social sciences only. This indicates a bias: disciplinary research, yes, but only if it is rooted in the ‘hard’ natural sciences.

This distribution of papers seems to convey that the traditional understanding is still dominant: to ensure a sustainable management of natural resources, we primarily require a better understanding biophysical relations, such as ecosystem dynamics, interaction between species, or the impact of climate change. Once these are understood, recommendations on the ‘right’ management practices can be provided by researchers to managers (and to policy makers). Et voilà, problem solved (if only the managers then also implement these recommendations)! Some might argue that this underestimates complexity and uncertainty in ecosystem dynamics. But our argument here is that this traditional understanding builds on two assumptions: that managers are rational decision makers, and that a linear knowledge transfer works. There is ample evidence that both assumptions are wrong.

Qualitative social sciences go a long way to overcome these assumptions, yet a quick look at the number of social science papers published in problem-based journals shows that the bias against qualitative social science is still alive and well. We argue that this indicates that social sciences is only welcome if it is subservient to research based in the natural sciences. However, this may erode the contribution of social sciences. Indeed, putting natural science in control means that natural and social sciences do not meet at eye-level in research projects, which influences the methods used and resources devoted to social sciences, and may suppress social research outcomes that diverge from biophysical results. Moreover, as social science research won’t be published in the same journals, it reduces the exposure of natural and social scientists to each other, and thus the appreciation for each other’s contribution to the field.

Yet, the contributions of qualitative social sciences are crucial to understand how the practices of land managers are influenced by much more than technical effectiveness and economic efficiency. Natural resource managers consider many trade-offs in their management choices, and their choices are guided by complex interactions between e.g. subjective beliefs, social norms, cultural values, and pragmatic constraints. Managers will certainly listen with much interest to the insights generated by natural scientists, and they might well adapt and integrate some of their recommendations. They will assess which of the recommendations ‘make sense’ in light of their own experiences and their own knowledge of the ecosystem they live in, and often depend on for their livelihood. To understand how practitioners make their management choices, to understand what ‘makes sense’ to them, it is not sufficient to tack a bit social sciences onto a research project dominated by natural scientists. Indeed, many ‘socio-ecological’ approaches include only a rudimentary ‘socio’ part, such as some cost-benefit calculations, a survey of land managers, or may be a workshop to present results to them. These methods do not allow to appreciate the complexity of decision-making processes in the real world.

Given that the management of natural resources depends on experiential knowledge, perceptions, and sense-making by managers, and given that this is exactly what social scientists study, it is highly unfortunate that social sciences play a subordinated role in many research projects, that social sciences are often perceived as merely an ‘add-on’. Social scientists can provide valuable insights on why managers do what they do. They can help understand why natural scientists and practitioners often have different perceptions of what ‘works’, and how the two perceptions may be integrated through a co-learning process. To enable such processes and improve management practices in the real-world, the contributions of qualitative social sciences needs to be valued on par with those of natural sciences, which would be expressed by welcoming their publications in problem-based journals.

Read more in our paper in Rangeland Ecology & Management