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  • The Space in Between:Where Multiple Ways of Knowing in Water Management Meet
  • Marcela Brugnach (bio)

Aligning what we know with what we do is one of the major challenges of contemporary water governance. Solving current water problems transcends the decision-making power and resources of any single actor and requires coordinated actions among a diversity of actors from different organizational levels and sectors. In these decision contexts of water issues and the networks of actors concerned with them, there are many ways of knowing (WoKs). In her scholarly work, Helen Ingram has often stated that effective problem solving in a democracy requires the integration of different ways of knowing. This implies enlarging and connecting existing WoKs in such a way that they reflect common collective goals and mutually acceptable solutions. But, she also recognizes that doing so is challenging, since problem definitions and solutions are often ambiguous and enmeshed in different networks of actors and institutional arrangements, where power differentials, conflicting interests, and different access to resources exist. She notes that all too often, this diversity in ways of knowing is arbitrated by appealing to a single perspective (where a technical one is preferred), resulting in solutions to water problems that do not fit the contexts in which they are implemented. Here, I have examined what it means to embrace ambiguity from the perspective of WoKs theory, paying particular attention to the relational aspects underlying the generation of knowledge for action, and proposed knowledge co-production processes that support collaboration and connection among multiple WoKs. I illustrate these ideas with examples of groundwater management from two case studies in Spain and Italy, in which I have been involved. [End Page 34]

I. Introduction

Many voices have claimed that addressing water management problems needs new ways of organizing governance and producing knowledge, relying on ecosystem management and collaborative decision making rather than the more conventional technical approaches of problem solving supported by disciplinary knowledge (Ingram 2006; Pahl-Wostl et al. 2011; Gleick 2000; Cortner and Moote 1994). These claims recognized that there is a human dimension to water problems, and that people are knowing, acting social individuals whose actions are based on their own repertoire of behaviors, built from their common-sense understanding and tacit professional and experiential knowledge, and bound to the roles, relations, and identities they hold (Long 2001; Pahl-Wostl 2007; Brugnach and Ingram 2012). While these ideas have led to the conceptualization of more inclusive and adaptive ways of managing water resources (e.g., integrated or adaptive managing approaches), practices and capacities to effectively integrate adaptive regimes are lagging behind (Pahl-Wostl et al. 2011). Operative models and modes of knowledge production that, in addition to technical and physical science knowledge, take into account the relevant facts and values that grow out of interactions among different people are still in the making.

Ingram argues that for solutions to be implemented successfully it is necessary to have the will and active engagement of those who are to put them in practice (Ingram 2013), claiming that this can only occur when solutions are designed and adjusted to the context in which they are performed. From this standpoint, she suggests mixed strategies that appeal to different ways of knowing are more likely to be effective (Ingram 2008). But she also recognizes that doing so is challenging. Within decision contexts for water issues and networks of actors concerned with them, WoKs are multiple, and often exclusive, rendering problem definitions and solutions ambiguous (e.g., Lejano and Ingram 2009; Brugnach and Ingram 2012). When ambiguity is present, what counts as significant (e.g., what the problem or issue of concern is) and what constitutes a sound solution to a water problem depend on how, and by whom, differences among WoKs are established and valued.

Ingram notes that all too often differences in WoKs are erased by solutions that are standardized and appealing to a single perspective, with technical ones being preferred. This is certainly the case with water management, where there is still a general tendency to design policies [End Page 35] that focus on the technical and economic aspects of solutions, by, for example, promoting innovative technologies (e.g...


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