A new study provides a more nuanced picture of the significance of social learning in natural resource management. In Swedish agriculture, farmers often downplays the importance of knowledge gained through wider social interaction Photo: A. Tedeholm/Azote

Social learning

No panacea

Social learning important, but no guarantee for improved natural resource management

Story highlights

  • Social learning among large-scale farmers in central Sweden does not guarantee better management in the agricultural landscape
  • Policy, individual leadership and economic constraints are just as important – if not more important – than social learning
  • Farmers in the study value their independence and often downplay the importance of knowledge gained through wider social interaction

Just because everyone recommends something does not mean it is the right thing for you. That piece of advice applies to much in life and natural resource management is interestingly no exception.

Social learning, a process in which actors meet, discuss and develop a shared meaning, is often hailed as a prerequisite for improved management of natural resources but the academic literature is starting to present a more nuanced perspective on the process.

This includes an article recently published in the journal Social and Natural Resources by centre researcher Björn Nykvist. His study asked the question: does social learning among large-scale farmers in central Sweden leads to better management in the agricultural landscape?

The answer to his question is, in short, no, not entirely.

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Trust in their own ideas
Based on interviews with large-scale farmers within Uppsala County, Nykvist finds that policy, individual leadership and economic constraints play just as important role, if not more important.

"Although collaboration and networking is important, farmers in this case study value their independence, and often downplays the importance of knowledge gained through wider social interaction. Often they put more trust in their own idea of management,” he says.

Nykvist found that many of the interviewees are active in their local community in order to learn about the latest management practices, but they only engage if such learning aligns with established interests and priorities.

They also express the joy of being independent in their work, with no manager above them, deciding their own time and what to engage in. This further impedes any social learning.

The environment is important, but…
When asked whether any collaboration has been initiated due to environmental concerns, or whether specific methods or measures have been adopted due to better environmental performance, most farmers answered that concerns for the environment is already integrated into their current thinking.

Any additional efforts come second, despite the fact that they are in fact using management practices that are responsible for several environmental problems in Sweden.

"Even though it might happen that it’s good for the environment, I don’t aim for it. I’m trying not to have a negative impact regardless," says one farmer in the study.

Nykvist concludes that although the concept of social learning comes with a significant potential, there are several caveats and conditions for it to be successful within natural resource management. More empirical studies are needed.

"The conclusions I make here do not disqualify social learning from being an important concept within natural resource management, but too often social learning is considered a panacea for improved, more sustainable management. The problem is that many of the success stories are not necessarily applicable when they are scaled up and tested in other contexts," says Nykvist.

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Citation

Nykvist, B. 2014. Does Social Learning Lead to Better Natural Resource Management? A Case Study of the Modern Farming Community of Practice in Sweden, Society & Natural Resources: An International Journal, 27:4, 436-450, DOI:
10.1080/08941920.2013.861562

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Björn Nykvist’s main research interest is that of understanding how social processes influence natural resource management, environmental governance and technological development. This research builds on an interdisciplinary background with degrees in psychology, physics and mathematical finance, and a PhD degree in natural resource management.

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