Ison R., Roling N., Watson D.. 2007. Challenges to science and society in the sustainable management and use of water: investigating the role of social learning. Environmental Science & Policy. 10

Challenges to science and society in the sustainable management and use of water: investigating the role of social learning

TitleChallenges to science and society in the sustainable management and use of water: investigating the role of social learning
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2007
AuthorsIson R., Roling N., Watson D.
JournalEnvironmental Science & Policy
Start Page499-511
Keywordsgovernance mechanisms, interactive social science, praxis, social learning, sustainable learning, water catchments
Full Text


To assess the role and function of social learning in the context of the sustainable use and management of water

Geographic Focus: 


Key Findings: 

Water catchments are viewed as ‘unknowable’ due to their complex, uncertain, dynamic nature. However, this does not reflect current paradigm’s and approaches to management. In these circumstances, the authors argue that knowledge used in decision-making should be more diverse than currently applies. Social learning, with its different paradigmatic and epistemological assumptions, is seen as a means to facilitate these alternative possibilities. This article presents the findings from a multi-disciplinary group of researchers evaluating social learning within the context of the SLIM project (social learning for the integrated management and sustainable use of water at catchment scale). The history of collaboration generated from this project has now contributed significant information in relation to addressing human impact in water catchments. A key principle of social learning is non-coercion, and while there is still the need for greater understanding of the assumptions and successful conduct of this learning model in practice, it has been shown to provide a more open-ended process that helps to generate novelty and alternative possibilities in natural resource decision-making. An important focus of a social learning approach is to find and support legitimate social structures and processes to achieve learning outcomes, rather than attempting to replace them with alternative expensive solutions. Social learning is also not portrayed as an isolated framework, but is to be considered in parallel with other coordination mechanisms.


As with its related model of social learning, adaptive learning is not considered in isolation but rather as a coordinating framework bringing together diverse models and mechanisms for managing change in complex, ‘unknowable’ systems. Adaptive learning is not prescriptive in terms of outcomes or the means by which outcomes are achieved. Instead, it presents an open framework of learning encouraging diversity and novelty. In fact, one of the strengths of adaptive learning as a conceptual model is the drawing together of not only a broad range of learning theories and practices, but also the incorporation of other theoretical models and concepts critical to sustainable resource management. This includes models and concepts such as adaptive management, resilience, adaptive cycles and others. Adaptive learning also critically emphasises the importance of moving from theory to praxis. Adaptive learning is a natural phenomenon and occurs continuously at different scales within societal structures. In this case, there are without doubt already existing legitimate social structures and mechanisms at individual and institutional levels that are fully capable of embracing change. A challenge for adaptive learning, is to identify these structures and mechanisms and, through the use of contextually specific tools and processes, to enhance these processes rather than finding expensive new solutions, as this article points out. One of the keys for adaptive learning is novelty, however novelty does not always mean something new in and of itself. It may simply refer to seeing something in a new way, with new eyes and a new and open approach.