|Towards Developing a Social Science Research Agenda for the South African Water Sector
|Expanded Title:||In response to a growing recognition among South African water researchers of the need to deal with social problems in the water sector through robust social science theories and methodologies, a short WRC consultancy project (K8.1204.1) was undertaken to explore:
1. The contribution that social research could make to solving urgent water problems and strengthening the water research sector.
2. The capacity and appetite for social research into water in South Africa.
3. The response from social researchers to developing a more coherent community of practice around social research into water.
4. Issues of concern to social researchers in water.
The project consisted of:
1. A discussion paper which was circulated to all participants.
2. A survey of the capacity in research institutions to undertake social research on water, based on self-reporting.
3. A survey of attitudes towards social research in the water sector.
4. A workshop bringing together mainly social scientists, but also natural scientists engaged in or interested in interdisciplinary work.
Ten reasons for integrating the social sciences into water research
Based on key learning moments and historical shifts that have led to a questioning of water resource management practice, ten arguments for integrating the social sciences into water research can be made. They are:
1. Water systems are open systems.
2. Ecosystems and human social structures can no longer be viewed as separate.
3. Changing the way we manage water is a social challenge.
4. Water challenges pose interdisciplinary questions.
5. Social research is needed because of the complexity of many water challenges.
6. Learning and water management can no longer be viewed as separate processes.
7. Understanding history is necessary to deal with current water challenges.
8. South Africa’s democracy project informs South African water research.
9. South Africa is a rich social laboratory that can contribute lessons internationally.
10. Current WRC research shows the need for and potential of social research.
What is social research, and what is interdisciplinarity?
The report explores what is meant by social research and introduces a synthetic, interdisciplinary framework for water research that side steps the ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ science debate by demonstrating how different disciplines help us understand different layers of reality when dealing with complex challenges.
It is important to make some distinctions between what we mean by social research, social science and social outcome.
Social research: Social research can draw on a variety of social science methodologies and/or science-based methodologies. Although the methods that may be used to answer social questions may draw from a variety of disciplines, the way social questions are framed, depends on an epistemological position. This is why in the social sciences it is important to be clear about the how your questions are theoretically framed if they are to be engaged with, with rigour (See below). Social research does not only ask ‘how to?’ questions such as “how can we provide people with information about their water?” but will question the process of how things are done (social processes) such as “Will providing people with information necessarily change behavior?”, “What inhibits people’s ability to participate in democratic processes?”
Social science research: Research within social science disciplines that draw on particular social science epistemologies (such as interpretivist or critical theory) and methodologies (such as phenomenology, ethnography, action research, discourse analysis) and methods (such as participant observation, interviews, focus groups, document analysis).
Social outcome: Research that aims to have a social outcome. Most science-based studies will have as an objective a social outcome. For example, clean water for rural communities. This kind of study may be looking at a particular technology for cleaning water in rural areas and therefore is research with a social outcome. Research that has a social outcome does not necessarily help us understand social processes and how these affect our ability to manage, protect and allocate water for the benefit of all.
Collaborations between different disciplines can produce a rich, multifaceted and informative view of social dynamics in the water sector. The social sciences have developed a range of methods and approaches to describe and research human society. These include dealing with the challenge that much of social research is a negotiation between the researcher and the researched, not a straightforward harvesting of information. Social scientists rely on the tools developed in each discipline to define the (social) objects they study, provide the language in which statements of these objects can be made, and explain the methods by which valid knowledge of these 'social objects' may be gained. Social objects can be entities like 'society', 'democracy'; 'development' and 'community' whose meaning is not always evident or easy to agree on but need to be stable enough for research to proceed.
The need for synthetic work can be embraced as an opportunity for developing research programmes that directly respond to the needs of the sector and as a way of progressing beyond the science/ social science debate. If a synthetic framework is adopted then different disciplines with their different approaches, methodologies, terminologies and methods give multiple viewpoints on complex questions and address different aspects of the problem. The result is both integrated knowledge and the emancipation of knowledge as all knowledge systems are understood to contribute to the development of theory to guide action. The emergence of inter/trans-disciplinary work is relatively new and the research literature is amok with different terms, from cross-disciplinary to trans-disciplinary. For this report we have adopted Bhaskar’s (2010) definitions as described in the table below (adapted from Price, 2013). According to these definitions we will use the term interdisciplinary to describe the synthetic framing needed in the water sector.
Recognising the Anthropocene
Tracing the efforts of integrating social science into the global research programmes of earth systems science, provides an instructive example of how such processes work. It shows that scale and context matter. An interesting and persistent obstacle in the integration process – because it influences methodologies and the aggregation and integration of research questions and their findings – is that the social and natural sciences habitually “work at different scales”. Social science often works with the local, as human behaviour is often locally determined, because of local culture and institutions. This leads to the social sciences also facing the perennial question of how or indeed whether local studies can yield generalizable “laws” in the manner of the natural sciences. Scale effectively brings with it the question of differing and dynamic contexts – a problem arguably not faced by the physical sciences, but definitely confronting those studying the biosphere as well. These experiences also show that it is easier to integrate social science into a sector dominated by natural science if the integration is led by social scientists themselves, and it happens on a national, rather than international level. This suggested the community of practice approach which was followed in this project.
Again using a comparative approach, three instructive examples of the introduction of social research agendas in the water sector, and what the results were, are presented. The first is a South African example, the collection of hydropolitics work (Turton and Henwood, 2001); the second the creation of a research agenda around “water and culture” and “water and conflict” in the Mediterranean (El Moujabber et al., 2008), and the launch and publication over five years of the international online Journal Water Alternatives (2008 to 2012).
These three case studies suggest a number of directions in which South African social studies of water could develop. The Southern African hydropolitics collection illustrates the rich material available in the South African water sector, the diversity of viewpoints in the country, and the need for strong theoretical frameworks to understand its history and dynamics. That integration is still in its early stages, and still provides space for serious work in South Africa. The Mediterranean case studies show that alternative frameworks – in this case a framework emerging from people’s relationship with water from the grassroots up in an area where this has long been established in popular culture – are available for thinking through how to conceptualise social science projects in the water sector. The movement-like and successful initiative of the Water Alternatives shows how a strong intellectual political project (strong enough to be expressed in a manifesto) can attract creativity and productivity from social scientists in the water sector.
South Africa as a troubled but rich research area
South Africa’s history makes it a challenging but also very rich research area. As could be expected in a rapidly transforming society with a troubled and highly unequal past, the momentum of past arrangements in South Africa still intrude on the present, while the new democratic space also brings with it different understandings and approaches, sometimes leading to robust debate and contestation.
1. Archaeological research shows that human settlement in the stone and iron ages was determined by the availability of water and rainfall.
2. Political economies of pre-colonial societies and states in Southern Africa were determined by access to natural resources, such as water. Anthropologists argue that where water was abundant, settlement patterns showed dispersion into households, and where it was scarce, large urban centres developed, with consequences for cultural patterns (Hammond-Tooke, 1993).
3. Colonial settlement led to dispossession of indigenous people from well-watered land, culminating in the 1913 Land Act and carrying forward into the delimitation of the bantustans.
4. The riparian right to water linked access to water to land ownership, thus intensifying water inequality (Swatuk, 2010).
5. The focus of government in water provision was agriculture, as witnessed by the early name for the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry (DWAF), “Department of Irrigation” and the 1912 water law (the Irrigation Law). The construction of dams like the Gariep and Vanderkloof (and many others) was primarily for irrigation.
6. The 1956 Water Act made provision for municipal and industrial water use.
7. Under apartheid, access to water was used as a means of creating legitimacy of unpopular governments in the “homelands” or “Bantustans” since the 1950s.
8. Pollution legislation lagged behind developments in other industrial societies, where the 1970s saw a flurry of water pollution legislation (Weale, 1992).
9. Payment for local government services, including water, became a focal point for political mobilisation against the apartheid government in the 1980s.
10. The 1992 drought revealed the devastating effects of inadequate water access in South Africa’s rural areas, particularly the “homelands”.
11. Policy and legislation since 1994 set out to systematically correct the above problems, in an ongoing process to which this research strategy intends to contribute. Important recent documents include the Water Resource Management Strategy and the Strategic Framework for Water Services (DWAF, 2003). The framework consolidates strategies to decentralise water services to local government, and ensure that a participatory, regulatory framework can develop. It points out that the water sector in South Africa has set itself targets in excess of the Millennium Development Goals. A current process of water allocation reform as well as a longer-term transfer of water allocation function to catchment management agencies are systematic ways of tackling the issue of unequal access to raw water.
12. South Africa has inherited an extensive, well-developed and well-organised water sector with cutting edge engineering and other technological skills. The sector wide approach has strengthened this through institutions like the Water Sector Leadership Group, and the Masimbambane Programme. The WRC, with its mandate of dealing with the challenges of water scarcity through developing knowledge, has played a big part in this, but other initiatives like the Water Institute of South Africa, various university departments, consulting firms, people in government and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have also provided a strong base for the water sector.
For social researchers, this history should serve as an inspiration to contribute to the further development of the sector through research – and a rich source of empirical material.
Scan of the capacity for social research in the South African water sector
The project undertook a survey of individuals working as social researchers in the water sector, and a scan of water research institutions was undertaken in order to understand the approaches of water research institutions to social research, and their capacity for social science research into water.
The survey of individual researchers confirmed the need for more support to social and interdisciplinary research. It confirmed that many social scientists enjoy and benefit from interdisciplinary research. It also expressed confidence in the importance of social theory and social methodologies in the formulation of research questions. It is clear from the survey that there is some frustration with the role the social sciences play in the sector currently.
The respondents overwhelmingly pointed out the importance of the WRC and specialized funding for water research. They were generally impressed with the quality of the natural science and engineering based research in the WRC. A striking feature was the emphasis on practical usefulness of research, allied with a parallel emphasis on empowering communities to understand and monitor service delivery and water resources. However, there was much criticism of how much the research is used in practical ways. The examples of work by the respondents in this small sample indicated that there is already a sizeable production of social research.
The institutional scan included universities, and private and parastatal research institutions. It was accompanied by a survey of individual researchers working in some of these institutions, to elicit their views on the current state of social and interdisciplinary research, and research priorities. The process also served to identify participants for the national workshop in August 2013.
The scan showed that there are many water institutes, one or more than one at every university. Where they do not exist, universities are considering creating them. They all do interdisciplinary work (some are transdisciplinary, while some are multidisciplinary), and most express an interest in intensifying that. Natural science and engineering still seem to dominate these institutes. The institutes emphasise the need to and their intentions to work with concrete problems and find solutions to them. They also emphasise working with stakeholders and communities. These declarations point to an increasing need for social science.
It is also clear that the applied social sciences – law and economics foremost among them – are important. The scan as well as individual interviews however also revealed that the basic social sciences like sociology, history, philosophy, anthropology and geography contain individuals with an intense and growing interest in water. Often this interest is closely aligned to a general interest in “sustainability”.
It is noticeable that parastatals, consultancies and NGOs also contribute to social research.
Workshop of social and interdisciplinary water researchers
The workshop “Towards a social and interdisciplinary research agenda for the water sector in South Africa” in Kempton Park on 1 and 2 August 2013 was the final step in the project to encourage the participation of social science researchers in the work of the WRC and the water sector. The workshop aim was to move towards developing a social science research agenda for the water sector, while providing an opportunity for participants to explore issues around social research in the water sector that are important to them.
The workshop was a first meeting of its kind and very well received amongst social researchers. Many expressed their excitement at finding a common space in which to discuss social water research issues. There was an enthusiasm for bringing disparate social researchers together in forums like the workshop. This was captured in the idea of a community of practice – researchers that come together in workshops, local meetings, and virtually via the internet – to pursue topics of mutual interest, including research strategy, funding, publications and collaboration. It was a clear that this research community, however it is organized, will be a vital component for developing and implementing a social and interdisciplinary research agenda for the WRC, and more broadly in the water sector.
Conclusions and recommendations
The workshop developed an extensive agenda which should be addressed in a follow up process. The following needs were expressed by the group:
• Supporting and promoting social science in a natural science dominated sector.
• Achieving better interdisciplinary co-operation between social and natural scientists.
• Developing an understanding of the role of social scientists by documenting the practices of social science in the water sector.
• Supporting up and coming social scientists.
• Motivating for and developing assessment and funding frameworks that are in line with social science approaches.
• Dialogue with funding bodies to encourage a better understanding of social science research in terms of motivation, focus, aim and methodology.
• Supporting and developing strong social theory and practice in the sector.
Specific recommendations from participants were:
• To build a community of practice of social scientists.
• To use this community as platform to nurture the development of high quality and socially relevant social science practice in the water sector.
• To discuss and share methodologies and approaches.
• To plan and undertake collaborative projects.
• To encourage the WRC to rework its funding framework and research support and assessment process to be more in line with the needs of social science research and social science methodologies, including action research.
The project has been but a first phase in exploring the need for and potential of social research in the water sector. It showed that social scientists are prepared to work together to enhance the contribution that social science can make to the water sector in South Africa – in solving water problems through social research, and in growing the capacity of South African researchers and research institutions to undertake influential social research in the water sector.
|Document Type:||Research Report
|Document Subjects:||R & D - Information technology
|Document Keywords:||Guidelines, Technology
|Document File Type:||pdf
|Research Report Type:||Consultant
|WRC Report No:||KV 325/13
|Authors:||Munnik V ; Burt J
|Document Size:||2 764 KB