Why emphasize collaboration in environmental research?

Since the 1990s collaboration has become a dominant concern in environmental planning and management (Margerum 2008), but the need to organize collaborative environmental research can be traced back at least as far as the tropical rainforest ecosystem projects led by H.T. Odum in the 1950s and 60s (Odum and Pigeon 1970).  This emphasis ran through the International Biological Program (1964-74) and the Long-Term Ecological Research projects that began in 1980.  Yet what exactly is it about developing environmental knowledge that calls for collaboration?  A number of different ways to think about collaboration in environmental research can be readily identified (Taylor 2001).  We divide this list into two categories: the first reflecting the simple idea that collaboration aims for a sum of multiple parts; the second, the hope that something greater than the sum of those parts will emerge through their interaction (Box 1).

Box 1. Why emphasize collaboration in environmental research?

A. Sum of the Parts

Combining multiple perspectives

• When research is tied together with planning and management that involves meetings and networks of representatives of established and emerging stakeholder groups, the knowledge and questions from the different groups and kinds of research needs to inform the research projects (Margerum 2008, Wondolleck and Yaffee 2000).

• When researchers are concerned about social justice, they can shape their inquiries through ongoing work with and empowerment of people whose lives stand to be most affected by some change in social policy or technological development, such as digging of deep wells for irrigation (Greenwood and Levin 1998).

• When the knowledge and research skills of more than one person/specialty are needed, multi-disciplinary research teams are established.

• When the labor of research, especially in data collection, is beyond any research group, amateurs—”citizen scientists”—can be sought as collaborators (Wikipedia n.d., Barrow 2000).

• Workshops and other organized multi-person collaborative processes in environmental research constitute a self-conscious example of what sociologists of science and technology have called “heterogeneous engineering” (i.e., the mobilization of a variety of resources by diverse agents spanning different realms of social action) (Taylor 2005, 93ff).

Extending over time

• The nature of environmental complexity means that ongoing assessment (as against a one-time analysis) is needed, so an ongoing organization or group is formed to conduct the assessment.  (The need for ongoing assessment is recognized in the field of Adaptive Environmental Assessment and Management; Resilience Alliance n.d., Gunderson et al. 1995.)

Spanning distance

• Researchers in separate projects and disparate locations use the tools of eco-informatics to combine their data and thereby generate a larger picture (Halpern et al. 2008).

B. Greater than the Sum of the Parts (i.e., outcomes over and above A.)

Generating new perspectives

• Knowledge and further research questions can be generated that the collaborators (individually or in sum) did not have when they came in (Olsen and Eoyang, 2001).


• Guided by skillful facilitators, collaborators can become invested in the plans, policy, and ongoing collaborations that emerge from the research (Stanfield 2002, 17ff).

Developing capacities

• Collaborators develop skills and dispositions for collaboration in various settings, as warranted by the rise of citizen participation and of new institutions of “civil society” (Burbidge 1997, Taylor 2005, 204ff).

We have expressed the items in the second, “greater than the sum of the parts” category in more generic terms, but we see them as grounded in many of the more concrete objectives of the first category.  At the same time, we recognized that the objectives in the second category raised questions about the theory and practice of collaboration that need not be specific to environmental research:  Why do well-facilitated group processes result in collaborators’ investment in the product of the processes?  How can collaborators (or facilitators of collaboration) ensure that knowledge generated is greater than any single collaborator or sum of collaborators came in with?  How does a person become skilled and effective in contributing to such outcomes?

There is an obvious flip side to these questions.  What can we learn from interdisciplinary workshops and collaborations that fail, for the most part, to generate new knowledge and investment in the product; that do not enhance participants’ ability to contribute to effective collaborations in the future?  Each of us had seen time, energy, funds (and associated carbon footprint) poured into workshops in which the parts competed more than added up to any sum.  Where the pressure for products was allowed to squelch generative processes so that participants perpetuated familiar patterns of defending territory and speaking at cross-purposes.  Where we headed home without being enriched by perspectives and frameworks from other disciplines—and, in many cases, without any products emerging.  Yet, grouching about such frustrating experiences (which seem far from rare) is not productive; the question is how can we do better?

Current Direction of Inquiry: Becoming skilled and effective in contributing to collaborations

Let us pick up the last question that flowed from the “greater than the sum of the parts” objectives: How does a person become skilled and effective in contributing to collaborations?

Excerpt from “Cultivating Collaborators: Concepts and Questions Emerging Interactively From An Evolving, Interdisciplinary Workshop” (with S. Fifield and C. Young) Science as Culture, forthcoming.  (In the meantime, contact me if you want the references.)


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