Social learning in European river-basin management: barriers and fostering mechanisms from 10 river basins

Annotation for Social learning in European river-basin management: barriers and fostering mechanisms from 10 river basins

Mostert E., Pahl-Wostl C., Rees Y., Searle B., Tabara J.D., Tippett J.. 2007. Social learning in European river-basin management: barriers and fostering mechanisms from 10 river basins. Ecology and Society. 12


To evaluate opportunities and barriers to social learning within the context of ten case studies of participatory river-basin management.

Geographic Focus: 


Key Findings: 

Ten case studies are analysed from the European HarmoniCOP project, initiated for the purpose of participatory river-basin management in which social learning was a principle theme. The analysis identifies 71 factors that either foster or hinder social learning, and these factors are grouped into eight broad themes. The authors compare their work to other case study research in social learning, and find a strong correlation between their findings in regard to factors, or lessons learned, and broad themes. This is in spite of the fact that the case studies spanned a broad geographical range including the United States, Canada, Australia and Europe. Comparisons with other developing countries have been more problematic due to variations in research design. It is posited that social learning is not a unique or special phenomenon in itself, but becomes an issue of specific interest where complexity and other factors stifle its natural occurrence. It is at this point that intervention is warranted, but only where there is some modicum of potential success given the resources that are required to facilitate the process. Power imbalances are a significant issue for social learning, but it is important to note that social learning processes can themselves assume a given distribution of power which may need to be challenged through various direct means. The authors also warn against focusing further research around ‘buzzwords,’ but rather generating knowledge in relation to the key ideas that underpin the concept.


This article draws attention to the important question of when a learning intervention should be considered. Learning is, after all, a natural part of the human condition, and yet the ‘learning paradox’ continues to afflict sustainable resource management. The authors are suggesting that those considering the facilitation of an adaptive learning process should first weigh the prospects for success. While resource issues are a real world concern, it could also be argued that learning success may in fact be very difficult to predict given its emergent and multi-layered nature. Another lesson is in regard to the issue of power. For cycles of adaptive learning to achieve the significant levels of change required to address specific issues, it may be necessary to directly confront established systems of power. This may in fact be a critical contribution of adaptive learning in that it represents a learning framework that encourages both radical innovation and stabilising processes at the broader system level. This is encouraged through interconnectedness between system elements and appropriate feedback, where openness, trust and communication become critical factors. Adaptive learning is, therefore, essentially attempting to conceptualise a learning environment that dissolves the dichotomy between power and lack-of-power prevalent within institutional structures and processes.