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What is the Problem? Usefulness, the cultural turn, and social research for natural resource management

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One strand of criticism of the ‘cultural turn' in geography and other disciplines is that it produces research that is of limited ‘usefulness' and has disarmed academics. This paper argues that elements of the critique of the cultural turn are overstated. It then argues that criticism of the ‘usefulness' of cultural research rests on simplistic assumptions concerning the relationship of the social research to users such as policy makers. The problem is depicted as largely related to the nature of the information flowing to ‘users'. Such assumptions are critiqued through discussing the concept of ‘use', influences on the use of research, and models of relationships between ‘users' and researchers. Finally, the paper argues that a key issue in the relationship between policy making and social sciences is the users' expectations. A recent example from research in natural resource management (NRM) policy making shows that ‘users' of social science research can have a questionable foundation from which to assess social research. This example also points to clear roles for cultural research in NRM. The problem of connecting with policy makers is multidimensional. It is one for social researchers as a whole and it includes the norms and practices regarding nature and natural resources of potential ‘users'.
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Keywords: Cultural geography; environmental policy; humanities; knowledge utilisation; relevance; research–policy gap

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: University of Wollongong, Australia

Publication date: March 1, 2006

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