What is Social Learning?

Submitted by Ben Smith 23rd July 2011 11:31

'Social' learning is thought to occur through the sharing of knowledge between individuals, groups and organisations in society through interactions, particularly in novel environments and situations where new opportunities and spaces of possibility can be explored. New possibilities in any system emerge not solely from the individual parts or nodes of the network but rather from the connections among them.

This way of thinking is supported by Pelling & High (2005) who explore how social learning can be enhanced to promote adaptive capacity for climate change. Although informal systems (found in cultural norms and values) have traditionally been considered too hard to work with (because they are considered too intractable, there are concerns about lack of transparency or because the activities involved are illegal) they suggest that it is in the more flexible informal sphere that much of the capacity to adapt can be found.

Pelling & High (2005) (drawing on Griffin et al, 1999) describe the desirable or ideal state for optimum social learning to be the 'edge of chaos' which they describe as the boundary between the stability and regularity of the practices of formal (and informal) institutions and informal institutions that give legitimacy to alternative behaviour (perceived to be unstable and random). This, they claim, is where innovation can occur. If you try to formalise the processes they become rigid and lose the creative and innovative benefits.

The importance of networks, associations and communities of practice 'banding together around a common purpose' in enabling learning to occur in societies has been explored in a number of contexts (Pelling & High, Boyd (2005), MacQueen et al, (2005)). The benefits from becoming part of associations in Cuba include addressing insecurity and powerlessness, inequitable social relationships, drudgery, lack of identity. Boyd (2005) working in Brazil observed that such organisations tend to be successful when the financial transactions are small, trust is high and there are shared social and environmental aims e.g. education for children or developing new livelihood strategies. Although some associations may be empty shells, created to benefit from credit programmes, the horizontal, egalitarian relationships that they facilitate can result in transformative learning in a way which would not occur through more rigid, formal mechanisms. Peer-peer learning is observed to be faster and deeper compared to instruction. Reasons include the possibility of seeing results through visits, rather than simply hearing about the results, the possibility of asking questions from someone in a similar position who uses similar language and who has learnt through hands-on experience.

Social learning is said to occur through the linking of these communities of practice and place which is facilitated through people or structures that bridge more than one community. Evans (1996) states that all societies have a minimum stock of social capital (through family and kinship ties). What differentiates societies in terms of wellbeing is their ability to scale up the stock of social capital and create external ties and vertical networks. These are important because they give access to resources (information and political power) through engagement with state, market and other civil actors.

It is important that we can promote the development of divers social relationships and open informal spaces to experiment, communicate, learn and reflect. Pelling and High (2005) believe that building adaptive capacity within organisations can be enhanced by recognising and working with the informal system made up of personal relationships and held together by cultural norms that cut across formal organisational structures and official rules of conduct. This has long been recognised as an intangible but important aspect of organisational life that enables innovation, information transfer and learning. This could be enabled through supporting social development within organisations. But is there a conflict between the need for this and the need for transparency and vertical accountability within such formal organisations?

Social learning could thus be strengthened by promoting the importance of people who can act to bridge between different networks and communities to facilitate communication, share thinking and cross-fertilise the different arenas with new ideas.

Social learning could also be enhanced by rethinking how organisations themselves operate and engage with others. What are their priorities? How are staff expected to spend their time? What is valued and rewarded by the organisation? The stated desires of an organisation, or a piece of work being undertaken by that organisation, is not always in tune with the way it expects its staff to operate and this can be a cause of tension e.g. if staff are expected to make good links with the community but are not given time to do so. It should also be noted that social networks and associations always exclude some so it cannot be considered as a panacea for all and, given the time it takes, cannot be seen as appropriate in all situations.

Pelling and High (2005) propose that adaptive capacity for climatic change arises out of social learning embedded in social relationships. Others have framed adaptive capacity in relation to structures (social, political and economic) and how they operate, with power being perceived to be embedded within the structures, and power relations and access to information for decision-making, controlling who has the ability to adapt effectively.

By framing adaptive capacity in relation to social learning it becomes important to step back from identifying the appropriate actions or activities to adapt to impacts of climate change to thinking about how adaptive capacity is evolved and promoted.