Understanding conflict in stakeholder networks

Posted on June 4, 2011

While it’ s accepted that information sharing is an essential feature of successful partnerships, including those  involved in natural resource management, few attempts have been made to examine how the flow of information through the partnership network affects the ability to achieve desired outcomes and reduce conflict between stakeholders.   In the central highlands ofArizona, groundwater management conflicts have emerged because of differing geographic perspectives and competing scientific claims among stakeholders.  In response, in 2005 the Verde River Basin Partnership (VRBP) was set up to identify long-term water supply management options for local communities.  Using the VRBP as a case study, a recent paper identifies the factors that allow conflict to persist in watershed networks.  The authors explored the hypothesis that harmony is  promoted by connections that span power differences and internal network boundaries.  Such boundaries might be vertical (e.g., levels of government), horizontal (upstream versus downstream interests), expertise (scientists and non-scientists) or ideological.  Although VRBP  stakeholders had previously assumed that partner conflict was mainly due to differences in environmental values and/or a lack of scientific information, it turned out that information exchange was limited by patterns of connection  within the network.  Perhaps surprisingly, in view of VRBP’s mandate to develop science-based approaches to management, scientists shared information with non-scientists significantly less often than would be expected by chance.  And while central members of the network, who were powerful in the sense that they acted as gatekeepers of information flow, tended to believe that scientists should play a key role in policy formation, this belief was not shared by the group as a whole.  Both of these factors were likely to compromise two-way contact between “experts” and “non-experts” and reduce the chance that scientific information was fully considered.  The advantage of this type of quantitative network analysis is its ability to identify exactly  where power asymmetries in partnerships lie, and the underlying beliefs (e.g., those regarding the role of science) that can lead to conflict. 

Reference:  Muñoz-Erickson, T.A., Cutts, B.B., Larson, E.K., Darby, K.J.,  Neff, M., Wutich, A. & Bolin, B.   2010.  Spanning boundaries in an Arizona watershed partnership: information networks as tools for entrenchment or ties for collaboration?   Ecology and Society 15(3),  22.

Posted in: groundwater, social