By Harold Eyster, Terre Satterfield, and Kai Chan.
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Much research attributes general properties to independent entities—like morals to humans and feeding behavior to whales. But such broad attribution overlooks the possibility that morals may vary depending on the specific relationship at hand and that feeding behavior changes alongside changes in ecosystems and available prey. Scholars have proposed an emerging approach known as “relational thinking” to better account for such relationships. Under relational thinking, properties are attributed to relationships, not independent entities like people or whales. Relational thinking has been widely used in fields such as Indigenous studies, anthropology, and geography. Can it help produce knowledge about sustainability more broadly? We offer an empirical, widely accessible, practical review of examples indicating how and why sustainability scientists might productively employ relational thinking.
We show how relational thinking creates more robust and flexible understandings of diverse types of coupled human and natural systems, including human morals, whale foraging behavior, warbler habitat, wetland management, giant ground sloths, sea otters, rainbow trout conservation and the COVID-19 pandemic response. Specifically, we demonstrate that people can more fully understand each of our examples when we attribute properties to relationships between humans and nonhuman entities (i.e., relational thinking), rather than to properties purported to be unique or intrinsic to independent entities (i.e., conventional thinking). For instance, we show how early COVID-19 projections assumed that humans and the virus were independent entities, while later examinations demonstrated how diverse human behavior in response to the virus had driven the evolution of more transmissable variants. This example highlights the pitfalls of conventional thinking.
In these examples, we hope readers will find a combination of provocative new ideas (e.g., ‘moral foundations’ are not universal, but relationship-dependent) as well as an appreciation for the value of dynamic science (e.g., that historical and modern relationships are essential for understanding ecology, including avocados in relation to megafauna). We complement these examples with an overview of the theory and history behind relational thinking, drawing from the many literatures in which it is burgeoning.
While previous research has provided conceptual overviews of relational thinking, this paper shows what relational thinking means in the practice of doing scientific research, and how broadly relational thinking actually applies across real social-ecological problems.