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Discussing the relational paradigm: A review of Prof. Dr. Berta Martín-López inaugural lecture

On Wednesday, the 16th November, Prof. Dr. Berta Martín-López held her inaugural lecture at Leuphana University. The welcoming words by Prof. Dr. Simone Abels, vice president of the graduate school, scientific qualification and teacher education, succinctly summarized Martín-López’ contribution to the SESI and Leuphana University by quoting sincere accounts of her colleagues about her competent, but always caring, kind and joyful approach to science – and their accuracy was proven by Martín-López’ following lecture about her work once again.

Inspired by West et al. (2020), Berta Martín-López introduced the ways by which place-based social-ecological systems research has considered relational paradigms and why these relational paradigms are relevant for global sustainability agendas. If you want to have a look at Martín-López’ lecture, check out her presentation slides at the end of the blog post.

The follow-up discussion of the lecture was initiated by Prof. Dr. Joern Fischer: He recognized the good reputation of epistemological pluralism in sustainability sciences but wanted to examine potential blindspots and downsides when it comes to the relational paradigm. Martín-López first pointed to the lack of understanding of how power relations articulate the relations and processes in contexts of co-producing knowledge and decision-making. Second, she recognized that the main challenge of using context-specific approaches to understand human-nature relations is for generating global assessments and comparisons since the outputs might not fit under universal categories. However, this is precisely the idea of context-specific perspectives: to resist the scientific goal of attaining a universally applicable schema. For many cultures, such as those based on Indigenous and local knowledge, a universally applicable classification is not currently available and may be inappropriate because of cultural incommensurability. For those cases, the context-specific perspective aims to represent the distinctive or unique experiences or relationships that are experienced by different groups of people and recognizes that people have the right to make sense of their relationships with nature in their own ways.

Following up, Erika Angarita asked about the future of relational values in experimental terms: Here, Berta Martín-López stressed that one future research topic will be to stress the nexus of power relations and activation of collective values and highlighted that research members of SESI (i.e. Dr. Miguel Angel Cebrián-Piqueras, Lukas Kuhn, and Konrad Gray) are now examining how power relations shape the way people relate and value nature in a living lab setting. The second research topic she highlighted is the idea of methods as value-articulating institutions, this means that the choice of the method is as important as the output itself because methods do not simply ‘elicit’, but also ‘create’ values. Additionally, as relational values have mainly been approached with qualitative methods like interviews a future pathway to elicit relational values is to create scales that quantitatively measure them, which is a research line led by Dr. Maraja Riechers with other members of SESI. Finally, Berta Martín-López refers back to one of the main points of her lecture: in the western societies, relational values are not recognized, there is a belief among scholars that relational values are only expressed and hold by Indigenous Peoples and local communities. She points to examples of studies conducted by Maraja Riechers and collaborators, Thomas Schmitt and collaborators, where inhabitants of Lower Saxony and Bavaria (Germany), respectively, broadly identified relational values when asked to value nature. Berta Martín-López emphasized how relational values are not only for Indigenous People: “As soon as you care about relationships, you care about relational values. And now tell me how you can live without relationships.”

Next, Prof. Daniel Lang addressed a completely different challenge: While Martín-López illustrated her presentation with mostly nature-human-based pictures (see her lecture slides at the end of the post), Daniel Lang asked for ideas on how to implement the technosphere into relational approaches. Berta Martín-López mentioned the festival on Ecological Restoration that the students of the Minor Sustainability Science are organizing as a final assignment of the programme, together with Prof. Dr. Vicky Temperton. There, visitors can experience an orchard via technology: Different digital pictures represent the visual input, while sounds of the orchard are played simultaneously.

With the next question, Prof. Dr. Jens Newig inquired how to bridge relational values with conventional sustainability indicators as used in the Sustainability Development Goals (SDGs). Berta Martín-López reflected that it might not be the main purpose of relational values, to be translated to SDGs. However, she followed up by indicating that, for example, Noelia Zafra-Calvo and colleagues found that those valuation exercises that in addition to accounting for relational values, they apply transdisciplinary and action-oriented research, were those that deliver sustainable outcomes in ecological terms (SDG15) but also in terms of distributional equity (e.g. SDG5).

The last question of the day was asked by Dr. Cormac Walsh: He asked how Martín-López would reflect on the disciplinary heritage of the social-ecological system perspective, as the relational paradigm shows many parallels with social sciences. To answer this, she recollected the origin of social-ecological system research was mainly from Ecology. Just like Berta Martín-López initially started her career with aquatic micro-vertebrates, and from aquatic macro-invertebrates she moved all the way towards standing today here and discussing about relational paradigms for sustainability. Until very recently, there have been rarely cross-field researchers able to combine Natural Sciences and Humanities. But we came a long way since then: Berta Martín-López is amazed how relational values became one of the protagonists of the last IPBES values assessment.
With this, she claims, her work in science might be technically done. After this inaugural lecture, we beg to differ: We are very excited to see what contributions she has to offer in her new position!


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