Putting Society Back Into The Nexus

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1 July 2015 | Rachael Taylor

‘Nexus’ is a buzzword in academia and development at the moment. It essentially just means interconnectedness. The most common nexus discussed at the moment is the food-energy-water nexus. Sometimes different groups or disciplines will add environment, land, or climate change into this nexus. I would like to argue that in fact what most requires practical action, research, and raised awareness is how societies are interconnected with food, water, and energy systems, as well as the environment/land. I think the issue is one of the food-water-energy-society nexus.

Earlier this week I attended The Nexus Network‘s 2-day workshop on transdisciplinary methods. The Nexus Network is an ESRC-funded initiative addressing issues of the food-energy-water-environment nexus. The workshop this week was intended to discuss what capabilities are required for appropriately and effectively using transdisciplinary methods in nexus issues. Most of those who attended the workshop were from various disciplines within academia. While I found the discussion during the workshop to be very interesting and, hopefully, productive, at times I also found it very frustrating.

Academics have a talent for not effectively engaging and communicating with non-academics. In fact, it is remarkably difficult to even get different disciplines within academia to communicate. Thus the need for the discussions had during The Nexus Network workshop this week.

A Society-Food-Energy-Water Nexus

Every living organism on Earth needs a source of energy to survive, whether from food, water, or energy from the sun in terms of photosynthesis. The species Homo sapiens requires a source of food, water, and energy throughout their lifetime to survive. To hypothesise for a moment, if we lived in a parallel universe where humans did not require food, water, or energy to survive, then there would quite simply be absolutely no need to research the food-energy-water nexus. In fact, the concept of a food-energy-water nexus wouldn’t even exist. What we term as ‘food’ is entirely a social construct which is why diets vary around the world. Furthermore, any form of harvesting or using energy and water is entirely done by humans for human use. Take humans, i.e. society, out of the equation and there is no food-energy-water nexus.

Why, then, is civil society so consistently excluded from discussion and research about nexus issues? I’m generalising, but typically not only are stakeholders from civil society not included in the discussions and research process, but their perspectives and opinions are rarely considered in determining research priorities either.

Discussions during The Nexus Network transdisciplinary methods workshop this week were largely about how to support, accommodate, and actually do transdisciplinary research within academia. As someone who has worked in and/or studied so many diverse disciplines (arts, health and social care, various natural sciences, and various social sciences), I appreciate how this can be challenging. But, although academia is not always readily accepting of multi/inter/cross/trans-disciplinary research, from my experience this isn’t the biggest challenge within academia for doing productive, useful research.

In my opinion, for research outputs to be useful in practice I think academia needs to engage with and collaborate with non-academia much, much more than is done at the moment, and much more effectively. I get a sense that when community groups are consulted in research it is as a token gesture in order to tick the ‘community engagement’ or ‘participation’ box. So, not only do academics need to work more closely with non-academics but the whole sensitivity to why society is so important needs to adjust. Humans, societies, are central to what research is for and why. After all, academics themselves are part of a society.

The Nexus is Complex and Social

I have had quite a response from the blog I shared a few days ago on rethinking the theory of change as complex and social. This post argued that society is central to driving change within development interventions. Change can work this way because society is complex and interacts in diverse, non-linear ways. From the response I’ve had to this blog it is clear that I am not the only person seeing complexity and society within a theory of change.

The food-energy-water nexus is also complex, but perhaps by placing complex society back in the centre of the issue could help us as a society to effectively understand the priorities and realities for tackling nexus issues and to drive the necessary change for social justice and equal access to resources. What is needed is an understanding of the society-food-energy-water nexus.

This blog was originally posted on Down the Earth. To read the original blog, click here.