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Using participatory action research to operationalize critical systems thinking in social-ecological systems

Madelon Eelderink, Environmental Governance, Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development, Utrecht University, The Netherlands; 7Senses, The Netherlands (www.7sens.es)
Joost M Vervoort, Environmental Governance, Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development, Utrecht University, The Netherlands; Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford; Research Institute for Humanity and Nature, Kyoto, Japan
Frank van Laerhoven, Environmental Governance, Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development, Utrecht University, The Netherlands

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.5751/ES-11369-250116

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Abstract

We present a research approach that seeks to develop and strengthen participatory action research (PAR) when applied in social-ecological systems (SES) by combining it with critical systems thinking (CST). This research approach responds to the urgent societal need to move beyond predefined project framing in development projects. While PAR acts as a basis for operationalizing participatory research processes, CST supports PAR by including explicit questions about system and problem boundaries. We first present this approach in the context of existing approaches and then go on to illustrate it by investigating a SES case study of a marine system on the Caribbean Saba Island as part of a project to protect sharks from extinction. The case study illustrates that strengthening PAR with the explicit framing questions used by CST combines the strengths of these two approaches. This combination allows participants: (1) to (re)frame the problem definition and scope as perceived by the different stakeholders, and (2) to find, co-create, and implement viable solutions with local stakeholders to improve a SES based on local needs and diverse stakeholders’ perspectives on potential solutions.

Key words

Caribbean; critical systems thinking; fisheries; marine ecosystems; participatory action research; social-ecological systems

Copyright © 2020 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article  is under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.  You may share and adapt the work for noncommercial purposes provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

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Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087