Institutionalising social learning: towards systemic and adaptive governance

Raymond Leslie Ison, Kevin Collins, Philip James Wallis

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

67 Citations (Scopus)


This paper critically examines how public policy makers limit policy and other institutional design choices by a failure to appreciate (i) how situations may be characterised or framed; (ii) how practices that generate neologisms (invented terms or concepts) or reify (make into a thing) abstract concepts can displace understandings, and (iii) the epistemological bases of governance mechanism choices. An inquiry into the coining of the neologisms wicked and tame problems is reported and the implications for research and policy practice explored. As practices, neologising, reifying, categorising and typologising have unintended consequences - they remove us from the primary experiences and underlying emotions that provided the motivation for formulating these concepts in the first place. The failure to institutionalise the understandings and experiences that sit behind the invention of the terms wicked and tame problems (or similar framing choices such as problematique , messes , lowland real-life swamps , resource dilemmas or complex adaptive systems ) present systemic constraints to institutionalising social learning as an alternative yet complementary governance mechanism within an overall systemic and adaptive governance framework. Ultimately situations usefully framed as wicked , such as water managing and climate change are problems of relationship - of human beings with the biosphere. Re-framings, such as institutions as social technologies and other research and praxis traditions concerned with the breakdown of relationships may offer ways forward in the purposeful designing and crafting of more effective institutions.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)105 - 117
Number of pages13
JournalEnvironmental Science and Policy
Publication statusPublished - 2015

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