On many occasions researchers in the project were confronted with the different ways concepts are framed. In trying to understand new concepts, or concepts they are not familiar with, people interpret them differently. These differences are often based on their disciplinary background and the research tradition they are connected with. The result is considerable confusion in project meetings, which makes mutual understanding and collaboration difficult.
This challenge has been expressed by many researchers in the project with comments as:
An important number of concepts that were used in the project proposal and at the initial project meetings were unfamiliar for a part of the project members. A participant in the project kick-off meeting, for example, reported that she was unfamiliar with the “mental model” concept, which was used by participants with a psychological background, while others didn’t get the meaning of “code” used in the sense of a piece of software programming by participants with a background in computer modeling.
Often the same concept was used by several people but with very different meanings or connotations, as we illustrated in our analysis of adaptive management. Another good example is the ‘regime’ concept, mainly used in the sense of a water management regime. However, for the political scientists in the project, ‘regime’ and certainly ‘regime change’ means something very different, and for people with a water management background ‘regime’ can also refer to the flow regime of a river.
On the other hand different concepts are used to refer to very similar practices or phenomena. An example of this are the various concepts used to refer to interactively constructing a conceptual model – a method that has been used and adapted in different disciplines and is variously referred to as ‘causal loop diagramming’, ‘group model building’, ‘causal mapping’ or ‘Bayesian network analysis’.
Hereafter, we illustrate in more detail how different ways of framing a concept played out in two episodes from two different project meetings.
Episode 1. Protocols for vulnerability assessment
In one of the workshops different protocols were offered to assess vulnerability in the cases. The protocol that was presented on the first day was based on work in the social sciences. It was an exercise in collecting qualitative data, defining boundaries of exposure units and rating vulnerability based on different kinds of criteria. At the end of that day some participants looked very worried. One of the case study leaders said not to feel capable of bringing this approach to the stakeholders. Most participants were from a quantitative modeling background and had difficulties in working with qualitative data and in assessing their validity. This piece of conversation, reconstructed from meeting notes, can illustrate this kind of challenge. At the end of this sequence one participant frames filling in a table with qualitative data as a ‘game’, while the presenter stresses that not the narrative in itself is important, but the analysis is.
Those unfamiliar with qualitative research methods struggled also with the following aspects. Defining the boundaries of the river basin and of exposure units was considered very arbitrary and thus biased. They became aware that the vulnerability table is filled in from one particular perspective. And the way vulnerability was rated, was called subjective. The presenter’s comment that “making categories is always a kind of judgment” didn’t really comfort them. They truly wondered how one can deal with the ‘bias’ caused by one’s own perspective.
Episode 2. Bayesian network tool
In the course of a meeting the ‘Bayesian network tool’ was presented as a participatory tool. Social scientists involved in participatory processes questioned the presenter: “What is your network consisting of? Is it a social network?” It was clarified that the ‘network’ concept did not refer to a network of people (as is often assumed in social science) but was referring to the elements of the model and the cause-effect relationships among them. The role of the stakeholders also became clearer. They were involved in the modeling process to bring in local knowledge about the system to be modeled and individual or group perspectives.
Presenter: “Stakeholders bring their values and views to the network.”
Participant: “What happens when their views differ? Do you start a process to create something in common or do they continue to exist as different views?”
Presenter: “Yes, that’s life. The Bayesian network shows what the consequences are if you take one perspective and then when you take the other one.”
The qualification ‘participatory’ didn’t refer to stakeholders acting in a negotiation process to connect different perspectives (as some of the participants were assuming), but rather to involving stakeholders as a source of information.