Environmental Management

, Volume 58, Issue 3, pp 399–416 | Cite as

Rethinking Social Barriers to Effective Adaptive Management

  • Simon WestEmail author
  • Lisen Schultz
  • Sarah Bekessy


Adaptive management is an approach to environmental management based on learning-by-doing, where complexity, uncertainty, and incomplete knowledge are acknowledged and management actions are treated as experiments. However, while adaptive management has received significant uptake in theory, it remains elusively difficult to enact in practice. Proponents have blamed social barriers and have called for social science contributions. We address this gap by adopting a qualitative approach to explore the development of an ecological monitoring program within an adaptive management framework in a public land management organization in Australia. We ask what practices are used to enact the monitoring program and how do they shape learning? We elicit a rich narrative through extensive interviews with a key individual, and analyze the narrative using thematic analysis. We discuss our results in relation to the concept of ‘knowledge work’ and Westley’s (2002) framework for interpreting the strategies of adaptive managers—‘managing through, in, out and up.’ We find that enacting the program is conditioned by distinct and sometimes competing logics—scientific logics prioritizing experimentation and learning, public logics emphasizing accountability and legitimacy, and corporate logics demanding efficiency and effectiveness. In this context, implementing adaptive management entails practices of translation to negotiate tensions between objective and situated knowledge, external experts and organizational staff, and collegiate and hierarchical norms. Our contribution embraces the ‘doing’ of learning-by-doing and marks a shift from conceptualizing the social as an external barrier to adaptive management to be removed to an approach that situates adaptive management as social knowledge practice.


Adaptive management Narrative Qualitative Practice Knowledge work Learning 



Many thanks to ‘June’ for sharing her story—this article is really hers. Thanks also to Ruth Beilin, Wiebren Boonstra, Emily Boyd, and Stephan Barthel for improving the paper greatly with comments, suggestions, and discussions. The research time of Simon West and Lisen Schultz was funded by Vetenskapsrådet (VR), the Swedish Foundation for Strategic Environmental Research (Mistra), and Ebba och Sven Schwartz Stiftelse.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Stockholm Resilience CentreStockholm UniversityStockholmSweden
  2. 2.School of Global, Urban and Social StudiesRMIT UniversityMelbourneAustralia

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