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What is Social Learning?

Mark S Reed, Aberdeen Centre for Environmental Sustainability, Centre for Sustainable International Development, and Centre for Planning and Environmental Management, School of Geosciences, University of Aberdeen
Anna C Evely, Aberdeen Centre for Environmental Sustainability, University of Aberdeen; School of Geography and Geosciences, University of St. Andrews
Georgina Cundill, Centro de Estudios Avanzados en Zonas, Aridas (CEAZA)
Ioan Fazey, School of Geography and Geosciences, University of St. Andrews
Jayne Glass, Centre for Mountain Studies, Perth College; UHI Millenium Institute
Adele Laing, Norah Fry Research Centre, University of Bristol
Jens Newig, Institute for Environmental & Sustainability Communication, Leuphana University
Brad Parrish, Sustainability Research Institute, School of Earth & Environment, University of Leeds
Christina Prell, Department of Sociology, University of Sheffield
Chris Raymond, Centre for Rural Health and Community Development, University of South Australia
Lindsay C Stringer, Sustainability Research Institute, School of Earth & Environment, University of Leeds


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Social learning is increasingly becoming a normative goal in natural resource management and policy. However, there remains little consensus over its meaning or theoretical basis. There are still considerable differences in understanding of the concept in the literature, including a number of articles published in Ecology & Society. Social learning is often conflated with other concepts such as participation and proenvironmental behavior, and there is often little distinction made
between individual and wider social learning. Many unsubstantiated claims for social learning exist, and there is frequently confusion between the concept itself and its potential outcomes. This lack of conceptual clarity has limited our capacity to assess whether social learning has occurred, and if so, what kind of learning has taken place, to what extent, between whom, when, and how. This response attempts to provide greater clarity on the conceptual basis for social learning. We argue that to be considered social learning, a process must: (1) demonstrate that a change in understanding has taken place in the individuals involved; (2) demonstrate that this change goes beyond the individual and becomes situated within wider social units or communities of practice; and (3) occur through social interactions and processes between actors within a social network. A clearer picture of what we mean by social learning could enhance our ability to critically evaluate outcomes and better understand the processes through which social learning occurs. In this way, it may be possible to better facilitate the desired outcomes of social learning processes.

Key words

definition; social-ecological systems; social learning

Copyright © 2010 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article is under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. You may share and adapt the work provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087