Transdisciplinary perspectives on soils are crucial for sustainability

As I have mentioned on this blog before, 2015 is the International Year of Soils. Soils are important, but despite this are poorly understood. And I don’t just mean their physical, chemical or biological properties, but soils are also social, political and economic resources.

In order to understand soils properly, we need a transdisciplinary perspective that broadens out our analysis and opens up debates about what soils are for and for whom. Such an approach is central to the conceptual and methodological underpinnings of the ‘pathways approach’ developed by the ESRC STEPS Centre at Sussex.

In a recent paper for Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability (vol 15), I explored this in relation to soils, and with examples from earlier work in Ethiopia. It is as relevant to any setting, and it is the wider plea for a transdisciplinary approach that is most important. Without such an approach, achieving sustainable solutions to soil health will be impossible. You can read the short article here (until 23 October) and here.

This is from the abstract:

“Soils must be understood from a transdisciplinary perspective, integrating biophysical, social, economic and political understandings. This requires new combinations of methods. This paper introduces the STEPS ‘pathways approach’, which emphasises the importance of ‘framing’ of different options.

Through a case study from Ethiopia, the possibilities of a transdisciplinary analysis of soils are explored. This highlights the importance of investigating the spatial patterning of nutrients in farm landscapes, and the social processes that influence why soils have different levels of fertility, as well as how local dynamics are influenced by wider policy framings.

A set of participatory methods, including farm mapping, landscape level transect walks and biographical analysis of people and places, is discussed. These help broaden out analysis and open up debate, exposing alternative pathways to sustainability”.

You may remember that earlier in the year, I did a set of posts on soils. Here they are if you missed them:

Soils for life: Some cautionary tales for the International Year of Soils

Homefields and outfields: different sites, different response to soil management

Why an integrated approach to soil management is essential

Policy options for African soils: learning lessons for future action

Soil management in Africa: ways forward

This post was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland

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