Christina Prell, University of Maryland
Seeing the forest and the trees: Facilitating participatory network planning in environmental governance - “Who’s in the Network?” The challenges of defining and studying a participatory stakeholder network.
Author: Christina Prell, Michael Paolisso, Elizabeth van Dolan, Christy Heed, Daniel Teodore
Boundary specification is a common challenge for network analysts. Although a range of strategies and/or criteria exist for identifying network members, most analysts would agree that any approach that is adopted runs the risk of misspecification, which in turn leads to artificial results that fail to capture the processes of interest. Given these challenges, an increasing number of authors advise network researchers to specify boundaries according to a clear, conceptual framework, research question(s) or objectives, or theory. In other words, there is an increasing shift in the literature that advises one to adopt a nominalist approach to boundary specification.
For the past three years (Fall 2015 – Spring 2018), I have been part of an interdisciplinary, participatory project in a relatively poor, rural, coastal area of the USA called Deal Island Peninsula, which is located in the Maryland side of the Chesapeake Bay. A main purpose of this project, called the Deal Island Peninsula Project (DIPP), has been to include stakeholders with diverse and sometimes conflicting perspectives – including residents, researchers, decision-makers, and government and non-government employees – in an ongoing, participatory dialogue about the potential impacts of climate change facing the Peninsula. The open, participatory nature of our project has promoted the concept of a social network as being highly relevant, in that workshops are designed not just to share information, but to also foster social ties and mutual understanding among DIPP members, yet gathering longitudinal network data has proven challenging on a number of fronts. Among these challenges has been identifying a single, stable network boundary, as topics of interest that could define the DIPP network boundary (i.e. a nominalist approach) emerge overtime, based on stakeholder discussions. Thus, what exactly is the network under study has proven difficult at times, and consequently, identifying both the boundary and capturing longitudinal data via use of a roster has proven challenging.
In this paper, I first review the literature on boundary specification. I then discuss the nature of participatory projects within the environmental governance literature, and outline the specific challenges we have faced in our own participatory project pertaining to gathering network data. I will also present some preliminary findings, and reflect on how the use of newer techniques based on Bayesian networks, may help in addressing some of these difficulties and challenges presented in defining a network boundary in small research contexts.