Impacts of social learning in transformative research

By Flurina Schneider, Lara M. Lundsgaard-Hansen, Thoumthone Vongvisouk, and Julie G. Zähringer

Flurina Schneider (biography)

How can science truly support sustainability transformations?

In our research projects we often find that the very process of co-producing knowledge with stakeholders has transformative impacts. This requires careful design and implementation. Knowledge co-production in transdisciplinary and other research leads to social learning and can make a difference in the lives of those involved.

Lara M. Lundsgaard-Hansen (biography)

Knowledge co-production is, therefore, not only a cognitive endeavour that will result in new, action-oriented knowledge, but also a broad social learning process that includes relational, normative, and emotional dimensions.

The following three examples from recent research on sustainable land use and poverty alleviation in Laos and Myanmar illustrate how it can work.

Thoumthone Vongvisouk (biography)

Local land users see their environment with new eyes

In both countries, we conducted participatory mapping exercises to investigate land use changes since 2000. Researchers and local land users mapped current and past land uses by bringing together the local land users’ understanding of their surrounding landscapes and the information provided by high-resolution satellite images. Joint field walks were another key part of the method.

Julie G. Zähringer (biography)

During these exercises, several participants expressed their enjoyment as they gained a better understanding of changes in their environment. For example, during a field walk in Laos to a remote forest boundary, two local participants were surprised by the extensive land use changes that had taken place; they had not visited the spot in a long time. In Myanmar, one participant took part in three field walks and learned how to interpret satellite images, which he had never seen before. He was very enthusiastic about this new skill, which led to considerable adjustment in his spatial understanding of the village’s land uses.

Interestingly, Klaus Hubacek and Christina Prell, in their blog post, also noted the value – in a completely different context – of participation by walking the land together.

Women reflect on their well-being and how to achieve it

To examine how land use changes have affected villagers’ well-being, we conducted separate focus groups with men and women. Participants discussed what they consider to be important for their well-being, and how their ability to achieve well-being has changed since 2000.

In both Laos and Myanmar, the women’s groups were particularly active in these discussions. Several women independently expressed their gratitude for the focus groups, as they learned a lot about the requirements for achieving well-being in their village. For example, by reflecting systematically on the well-being situation in their village and what they had already achieved, they began to see more clearly what the priorities for further actions should be.

Emotional relief in post-conflict situations

Our research also involved villages inhabited by ethnic minority groups. In Myanmar, we worked in a village inhabited by Karen people, who, until a few years ago, had been heavily affected by the civil war and military dictatorship. They experienced countless land expropriations and human rights violations, especially between 1995 and 2001.

At the beginning of our research, these villagers were suspicious of getting involved, so we adapted our plans and emphasized trust building. After a few days, the village spokesperson gave a very emotional public speech. He said that he never dreamed it would be possible, after 40 years of isolation and suppression, to sit with foreigners and Myanmar people of other ethnic groups to jointly discuss the problems the Karen had been, and still were, facing in their village. He also said that he trusted our research team because we seemed to believe in human rights, and that our research was being conducted with good intentions, especially that of helping the village to find justice again. He described his emotions as finally feeling much “lighter”.


The three examples illustrate that transdisciplinary research involving knowledge co-production can change the participants’ knowledge, values, relationships, and emotional states. Jane Palmer also describes a way of tapping into these deep issues for stakeholders in her blog post on transdisciplinary research as story-telling ethnography.

From an academic perspective, these transformative impacts might be viewed as minor, or as side-effects of the actual research. However, we believe that these learning processes are immediately tangible for the stakeholders involved and should therefore be regarded as important impacts of transdisciplinary research projects striving for sustainability transformations. To achieve such tangible results, research interactions with stakeholders must be designed as processes that are meaningful not only for the researchers, but also for the stakeholders.

What are your experiences with knowledge co-production and social learning? What methods have you found to be particularly useful? What powerful outcomes have you seen? We look forward to learning about your experiences.

Biography: Flurina Schneider is an integrative geographer and head of the Land Resources Cluster at the Centre for Development and Environment (CDE), University of Bern, Switzerland. Her research focuses on sustainability, justice, and human well-being in relation to land and water resources. She is particularly interested in how science, knowledge co-production and participation can contribute to sustainability transformations.

Biography: Lara Lundsgaard-Hansen is a PhD candidate at the Centre for Development and Environment (CDE) and the Institute of Geography at the University of Bern, Switzerland. She lives and works in Yangon, Myanmar. She is particularly interested in sustainable development in emerging countries, especially how communities can achieve a thriving economy without harming nature and social equity. In her PhD research, she focuses on land governance in rural areas of Southern Myanmar.

Biography: Thoumthone Vongvisouk is a senior researcher at the Faculty of Forest Sciences at the National University of Laos. He has more than ten years of research experience on the interactions between natural resource governance, land use and rural people’s livelihoods in Laos. He is a geographer with a PhD in natural resource management and rural people’s livelihoods from the Faculty of Sciences at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark.

Biography: Julie G. Zähringer is a senior scientist at the Centre for Development and Environment (CDE) at the University of Bern, Switzerland. She is an environmental scientist with a PhD in geography and sustainable development and a strong interest in social-ecological systems in least-developed countries. In her current research, she focuses on the interlinkages between land use changes, ecosystem services, and human well-being in the context of land investments and conservation in East Africa and Southeast Asia.

2 thoughts on “Impacts of social learning in transformative research”

  1. Dear Jessica,
    Thank you for your comment! Indeed, we as the research team also learn on a daily basis. We have even different levels of learning. Our project lasts for 6 years. On the overall project level, Flurina makes a continuous monitoring of our own learning among all PhD researchers in all countries. These insights will be available later. But on the country team level, we do reflection very frequently. For example, within our Myanmar research team, we make biweekly reflection rounds. We discuss over the field experiences, what challenges we face and what positive surprises we encounter. We also include the feedback of villagers in our reflections. Indeed, our perceptions are continuously changing. It is so exciting! If you want to know more about it, just let me know. I can give you some examples of what we learn in our Myanmar team.
    Best, Lara


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