Governance, memory and transformation

by Stephan Barthel

Thinkers that study social relations agree that socially constructed images of the world – negotiated versions and meanings of the past – to a large degree determine social practice . For instance, Bo Rothstein (2005) on his work on social capital shows with game theory that ‘the history of play’ determines trust and future strategies. This is what social memory is about. Can these thinkers teach us anything about governance of desirable trajectories of social-ecological systems, or even about transitions from undesirable ones?
Social-ecological memory is the means by which social practice about how to manage a local ecosystem is retained and stored among a group people, and modified and transmitted through time (Barthel et al 2010). Reification processes co-produces things that persist, which stores memory. Participation in ecosystem management is a mean for capturing and transmitting memory and identity. The one cannot continue without the other. Over time their combination in “community of practice” (Wenger 1998) becomes invested in social-ecological memory that tends to guide behavior (Barthel et al 2010).
In allotment gardens memory is captured and transmitted for instance via mentor programs, collaboration in management of commons and exchange of seeds, and it is stored in property rights, norms, proverbs and physical things such as artifacts, fruit trees, seeds, chalets and vegetable plots which all tend to outlive the repertoires of participation that first shaped them. Complicated? Well in short, social-ecological memory lives within relations, and it may be a conservative force of trajectories since it temporally carries social practice that co-evolves with local ecosystems.
How about transitions from undesirable trajectories? Rothstein argues (2005) that traps of low social capital are essentially impossible to get out since the history of play ‘sticks’ in the social memory of the players. It seems then that when working for transformation of a trap of mistrust, or an undesirable social-ecological trajectory, memory must be addressed. The logic goes; transformation of memory creates transformation of social practice. So if allotment gardens were on an unsustainable trajectory the work for transformation could address mentor programs, the way collaboration is performed and proverbs, as well as property rights regimes, artifacts, and physical objects. Maybe this kind of memory-practice thinking could be of interest when designing theories about adaptive governance for transformation.
Starting to sound scary? You all are aware of the creation and modification of social memory that has been done before in history (Nazi Germany, Soviet, Apartheid South Africa etc), so even if our goal is restricted to support resilient local social-ecological systems that generate ecosystem services, such thinking will require deep ethical reflections and analysis.
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