Original Paper

Systemic Practice and Action Research

, Volume 27, Issue 6, pp 575-591

First online:

An Analytical Framework of Social Learning Facilitated by Participatory Methods

  • Geeske ScholzAffiliated withInstitute of Environmental Systems Research, University of Osnabrück Email author 
  • , Art DewulfAffiliated withPublic Administration and Policy Group, Wageningen University
  • , Claudia Pahl-WostlAffiliated withInstitute of Environmental Systems Research, University of Osnabrück

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Social learning among different stakeholders is often a goal in problem solving contexts such as environmental management. Participatory methods (e.g., group model-building and role playing games) are frequently assumed to stimulate social learning. Yet understanding if and why this assumption is justified is quite limited. Difficulties arise from the complexity and context-dependence of processes influencing social learning. Furthermore, continuing discussion of the exact meaning and theoretical basis of social learning result in a limited capacity to assess and evaluate whether social learning has occurred. In this paper we introduce an analytical framework to develop an in depth understanding of essential processes underlying social learning facilitated by participatory methods. Concepts from different fields of science are discussed and integrated, including resource management, small group research and learning research. The individual and group perspectives are brought together via mental models and emergent roles. We added the direction of learning, being either convergent or divergent, to be able to explore if and when personal views on a problem converge into a shared understanding of a problem. The analysis of convergence and divergence of learning is facilitated through the use of the mental model concept. Methods for measurement of proposed indicators for social learning are also discussed. The framework developed provides a conceptual basis for the analysis of social learning facilitated by participatory methods and an operationalization for application in empirical research.


Social learning Resources management Mental model Role Participatory method Shared understanding