Culture as Context in Social Network Analysis

When using SNA for comparative approaches (for instance in comparing different nations' carbon policy outcomes), it is important to remember that social networks around discourse and action emerge from and operate within a context. That is to say, neither actors, ideas or relationships are autonomous units. They differ in each situation, in this case in each nation-state policy network. In philosophical terms,

Fig. 10.1 Model of social response to climate change

those “units” take shape within and help constitute unique social/cultural ontologies (ways of being). The components are formed and operate under basic social conditions (variously referred by different schools of social science as institutions, structures or systems) that constrain, facilitate and channel the possibilities of both discourse and action within a given society. This can be more broadly defined as a nation's cultural framework. Existing cultural and social conditions constrain the emergence of new discourses and the possibilities of their application to create change. Depending on the nation in question, contextual factors can make the dynamics of either field more or less solid and enduring or fluid and volatile. The more fluid the system, the more that actions interact with discourses to produce new forms of power and in the current concern, change societal practices and political policies affecting climate change mitigation.

Figure 10.1 presents a hypothetical model of that process within the national arena and between national and international levels (Broadbent 2010). Climate change as a geophysical process driven by human-caused carbon emissions enters the society as conceptual information. These concepts are processed through societal discourse and action and eventually “constructed” or rejected as usable knowledge by different advocacy groups. This “construction” process is profoundly influenced by local factors of the society itself, such as culture, institutions, level of economic development and others. The mixed effect eventuates in decisions or non-decisions with effects upon the carbon emissions trajectories of the society. These emissions in turn feed back into the global geophysical situation and its propensity to produce climate change and disastrous effects on societies. As societies

repeat these processes, they also build up through global negotiations a global climate regime – a set of ideas, norms and rules that may exert increasing influence upon the decision-making processes of member societies.

Many studies have tried to attribute attitudes on the environment and on the science that explains the state of it to different demographic characteristics of populations. Research has shown that public perceptions of risk are widely divergent within different national populations (Siegrist et al. 2005). Different social groups in different nations have different issues of contention around different scientific claims (Walls et al. 2004). Thus, demographic characteristics such as age, race, or sex may be poor predictors of attitudes towards science, risk, or environmental values within cross-cultural comparison for an issue such as climate change. Rather, a person's cultural framework serves as a better explanatory framework for how or why scientific knowledge (such as climate science) is valued or accepted (Jaeger et al. 1993). How successfully concepts of risk are understood (Slovic 1986) or scientific claims are communicated is largely a function of how science itself is framed within a given political and/or cultural environment (Jasanoff 1998). In cultures that employ a 'science-centered' paradigm, it is the duty of scientists to inform the ignorant state and to educate the irrational public as to what “real” risks are, and to provide advice on how to handle them (Tversky and Kahneman 1974). The robust environmental policies created around the globe between the 1960s and 1980s were facilitated by cultures that embraced this 'science-centered' paradigm; in these democracies the public considered science as both credible and relevant (Gustafsson and Lidskog 2012). In a political culture that values public opinion, but where the 'science-paradigm' is not accepted, environmental concern – and therefore the science that underpins it – may be marginalized by a public whose primary concern is the economy. In this 'economy-paradigm,' perceptions of risk to the economy may outweigh the perception of risks of damage to the environment.

Brown Weiss and Jacobson (1998) observe that environmental concerns tend to be brushed aside if they pose a risk to the economy within societies that value participatory democracy and employ the 'economy-paradigm.' Indeed, it has been argued that democracies are ill-equipped to deal with ecological concerns, as the public tends to vote in their short-term self-interest (Giddens 2009). Shearman and Wayne Smith (2007) speculate that cultures that value both democracy and economic growth will continue to ignore the implications of climate science, even if actors within democracies accept that science as valid, because transient issues will outweigh such a permanent and entrenched issue within the electorate. This tendency to ignore, if not all out reject, scientific information that is deemed inconvenient for a society is termed 'the triumph of short-termism' (Clayton et al. 2006). Giddens (2009) characterizes this tendency as 'loss aversion,' with the voting public more concerned about perceived losses than with future gains.

Cultures that tend to legitimize governance through majority rule, even when the majority may not be informed about an issue they are voting on, may have trouble cobbling together enough actors to form effective communication networks around climate change discourse or advocacy coalitions around climate change policy. This has opened up a transnational debate as to whether environmental regulation should be based on the advice of experts or whether regulation should be legitimized through democratic consensus (Collins and Evans 2007; Renn 2008). By the time climate change became a prominent environmental issue during the 1990s, a coalition of actors had arisen within the United States that was both critical and hostile towards scientific reports on climate change (Hamilton 2007). Among the criticisms launched at the climate science community were that the models of climate change should aspire to scientific certainty for the prediction of hazards (Baker 2007), that scientists were attempting to usurp the role of the state's authority (Jasanoff 1998), and scientific uncertainty around climate change had to be reduced before the climate science community could make policy recommendations (Brown 1992). All of these criticisms were criticisms that previous environmental issues had not had to contend with, or at least, not contend with to such an extreme. But because regulation based on science began to be framed as only legitimate through democratic consensus within American culture, a culture where scientific evidence could be contested because of democratic values became normative within the United States.

The issue of uncertainty has since emerged from American culture to become a rallying call to question all discourse around climate change and delay any mandatory regulation of greenhouse gas emissions within the United States (IPCC 2007b). The same tactics to create a culture of doubt around climate science have spread across the Pacific to democratic societies such as Australia and New Zealand (Hamilton 2007). The scientific community in many different democratic societies have been divided over how to respond to increased public scrutiny, with calls to reestablish a culture of communication between scientists and the public as authoritative rather than debatable (Collins and Evans 2007; Renn 2008), as well as a push to dialogue with the public over scientific knowledge (Jasanoff 2005; Lidskog 2008).

Thus, even if science is accepted within democracies, it may not be effective in setting policy objectives if the citizenry does not agree with the implications of science on regulation. This is not to suggest that cultures that value authoritative governance are uniquely equipped to deal with climate change; far from it. Indeed, authoritarian cultures have their own unique problems in addressing environmental concerns, including a lack of willingness to engage stakeholders and problems with adaptive management. Instead, the preceding examples are meant to illustrate to the reader the importance of context (both political and cultural) when examining both the discourse and action networks around climate change within a given society.

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