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D1) Socio-Political Decision-Making

Professional epistemologies and integration of biodiversity-related knowledge into socio-political decision-making

Michael Pregernig
Doctoral researchers: Ronja Mikoleit (since 2016) & Manuel John (since 2019)

University of Freiburg, Faculty of Environment & Natural Resources, Institute of Environmental Social Sciences & Geography, Chair Group of Sustainability Governance


The disciplinary integration of scientific knowledge and its translation into application systems is often not effective. The reasons for that may range from ineffective communication to incompatible incentives structures in science and practice to the strategic use (and sometimes neglect) of research results by the users. Beyond that, integration and translation problems might be attributable to a mismatch between the professional epistemologies of different fields of biodiversity science and/or different areas of biodiversity policy and management.


Research questions and hypotheses

D1 addresses the overarching question of under which conditions specific stocks of knowledge about effective and efficient retention forestry measures (e.g. habitat tree selection) and other biodiversity-related knowledge are taken up – and occasionally created – in different decision-making contexts. D1 is built on the hypothesis that, both within the field of biodiversity science and the different areas of biodiversity policy and management, there are clearly distinguishable professional epistemologies (Jasanoff 2005) that have an impact on problem definition, agenda setting, as well as the formulation and implementation of problem-solving strategies.


Approach, methods and linkages

D1 uses a qualitative-interpretative approach to investigate the specific "thought styles" (Meyer 2006) of ConFoBi-relevant scientific disciplines as well as those found in different practical decision-making contexts in the broader ConFoBi research area.

By means of document analysis, expert interviews, and participatory observations, the project investigates and compares discipline-specific, inner-scientific practices (incl. theoretical assumptions, canonical methodologies, and forms and hierarchies of evidence) as well as the respective disciplines' recognized practices of interacting with non-scientists (incl. the affinity to transdisciplinary modes of knowledge production, accountability styles, and strategies to demarcate the boundary between science and non-science). It also reconstructs the specific knowledge orders of a number of archetypical decision-making contexts in which conservation-relevant organizations (incl. forest enterprises, public administrations, and conservation organizations) draw on insights from biodiversity research to guide or contextualize their decisions.

D1 cooperates with modules A and B in its effort to derive and reflect on disciplinary thought styles and with C2 in partly shared data collection and analysis.




During Phase I of ConFoBi, subproject D1 started by looking 'downstream' on knowledge cultures in forest management and conservation practice. In her PhD project, Ronja Mikoleit explored various fields of practice in forestry and biodiversity conservation, using the management of public forests in the southern Black Forest region as a specific study context.

The project built on the assumption that any possible future biodiversity-related interventions into forest management and conservation need to be grounded on a good understanding of the foresters' everyday work situations. Thus, D1 applied an ethnographic research strategy, which focused on the foresters' everyday working situations inside and outside the forest based on a practice theory and situational analysis methodology. For that, Ronja Mikoleit conducted participatory observations of daily work, professional meetings, scientific conferences, and professional trainings and she interviewed various professionals in the field.Together with Bettina Joa (C2), Ronja Mikoleit additionally observed different forestry-related professional groups in the context of special tree-selection training sessions called "Marteloscopes". The participatory observation of various Marteloscope exercises and subsequent group discussions brought interesting insights on professional group dynamics and decision-making practices. The analytical focus was, first, on the distinctive argumentation strategies related to decision-making and processes of balancing the trade-offs between forest conservation and use and, second, on the role of affects and material interactions in professional practices.

By studying everyday work practices of foresters in the southern Black Forest region and accompanying Marteloscope exercises, D1 found that action-related knowledge is largely implicit, non-reflexive and therefore enacted through practical doings in complex situations. With that, D1 moved away from a linear knowledge transfer model and understandings of professional decision-making as solely being based on rational thinking to a more grounded understanding of 'practices-as-knowledge'.

While the first PhD project in D1 had directed its analytical gaze 'downstream' by analyzing knowledge cultures of practitioners, the second PhD project strives to look 'upstream' by focusing on professional epistemologies in ConFoBi-relevant scientific disciplines. Manuel John, in his PhD project, understands and studies the work of scientists as being grounded in specific and distinguishable epistemic assumptions. Those are manifested in theoretical frameworks and methods as well as in specific practices of doing science (in writing papers, working in the field or in the lab).

The empirical focus of Manuel John's research has been the scientific field of Retention Forestry. Working within a general framework of Science and Technology Studies (STS), he specifically works on two central hypotheses: First, that Retention Forestry as a field of research has been shaped by the regional and temporal particularities of its development and its further evolution, as well as by the strong link between research and forestry practice. These contextual features codetermine the way research is conducted and what types of applicable pieces of knowledge it produces; and second, that within current Retention Forestry research, there are different disciplinary groundings which lead to distinguishable research approaches and scientific conclusions.

As a first step, Manuel John has mapped the epistemic foundations of Retention Forestry by analyzing central scientific publications from the field. Thereby, one key methodical move consists in reconstructing the 'problematization' (Callon 1984) in key papers, i.e. the way in which the authors frame the general problem (e.g. of biodiversity loss, of specific forest management contexts ...) towards which they position Retention Forestry as a field and their individual scientific contribution to it. Additional expert interviews with some of the leading researchers of the field serve to validate the findings and to provide further context.

In a second step, Manuel John will turn his attention to 'science in action', accompanying present-day research as it is conducted within the field of Retention Forestry. By means of participatory observations and interviews, he will address the question of how both the tradition of Retention Forestry research and the scientists' individual disciplinary 'socializations' shape the biodiversity-related knowledge they produce.



Future projects

Next PhD project (starting 1st July 2022)

While the reconstruction of professional epistemologies in Phases I and II of ConFoBi were still somewhat detached from the specific scientific insights derived from ConFoBi A and B projects (mainly because specific pieces of applicable knowledge were not yet available from A and B projects), D1 strives to bridge this gap with the third PhD project on two levels:

  • Knowledge integration practices: D1 will – together with the A and B projects and in cooperation with practitioners from various organizational backgrounds – identify and analyze as set of concrete forest management and/or conservation work practices for which specific ConFoBi insights promise to be relevant. By analyzing the 'translation work' done in these contexts, D1 strives to show how specific professional epistemologies (in science as well as in practice) mediate the effectiveness of distinct approaches of interdisciplinary integration and knowledge translation.
  • Modelling practices: As part of its final synthesis phase, ConFoBi plans to develop and apply modelling approaches in order to integrate knowledge across disciplines and into management contexts. While the A, B, and C projects are supposed to develop and 'feed' the models, D1 will provide conceptual tools and empirical insights on the question of what is meant with 'modelling' for knowledge integration and which epistemic practices are tied to it. While D2 focuses on the data-related content of models, D1 is interested in the processes underlying the development and application of models. It builds on the hypothesis that modelling implies distinctive needs for harmonization (of research perspectives, priorities, and conceptual frameworks) and standardization (of methodologies, data formats, and research sites); at the same time, it provides possibilities for exchange, coordination and networking across disciplines as well as between research and its application contexts.

With its focus on the science and policy/ practice, D1 fulfils an important bridging function within ConFoBi (especially for its synthesis phase), and it lays the ground for an applied operationalization of the translational approach in conservation science and practice.

Skills required for PhD3 applicants in D1:

Advanced understanding of sociological theories and profound experience in social-scientific research methods; interest in inter- and transdisciplinarity and a high keenness to collaborate with colleagues from the natural sciences and practitioners; fluency in both English and German (at the level of being able to conduct qualitative interviews in German).


 ConFoBi publications by D1

Cosyns, Hannes; Joa, Bettina; Mikoleit, Ronja; Krumm, Frank; Schuck, Andreas & Winkel, Georg et al. (2020). Resolving the trade-off between production and biodiversity conservation in integrated forest management: comparing tree selection practices of foresters and conservationists. Biodivers Conserv, 29, 3717–3737.

Joa, Bettina; Paulus, Anne; Mikoleit, Ronja & Winkel, Georg (2020). Decision Making in Tree Selection – Contemplating Conflicting Goals via Marteloscope Exercises. Rural Landscapes: Society, Environment, History, 7.

Storch, Ilse; Penner, Johannes; Asbeck, Thomas; Basile, Marco; Bauhus, Jürgen & Braunisch, Veronika et al. (2020). Evaluating the effectiveness of retention forestry to enhance biodiversity in production forests of Central Europe using an interdisciplinary, multi-scale approach. Ecology and evolution, 10, 1489–1509.