The research conference on “Water governance: meeting the challenges of global change” in Obergurgl, Austria took place from the 6-10 June, 2011 with funding from the European Science Foundation. The conference brought together about 50 researchers involved in water governance and management, and covered a variety of themes including global governance of water, water and public sector infrastructure, water as a human right, the role of individuals in water policy, water law and the methods for effective comparative research in water governance. A number of participants came from industry and international organizations, ensuring that the conference also represented non-academic voices.
A special panel was organized to discuss the issues of research methods for comparative water governance. The panelists included Elinor Ostrom, Claudia Pahl-Wostl, Benoit Rihoux, S.H.M. Fahkruddin and Aziza Akhmouch. The discussants agreed on a few important issues in relation to the international comparative research in water governance. A vibrant discussion followed after the presentations, which was found to revolve around the three key issues, as follows:
1) Developing the “cumulativeness” of knowledge. The issue of “cumulativeness” in comparative research, that is the preference to follow and improve established frameworks rather than invent new ones for each particular research program, was considered as important by the participants in the process of building knowledge. It was noted that work in the natural sciences typically builds on itself, whereas work in the social sciences is more prone to jumping into new territory and developing new frames of analysis, which can result in excessive fragmentation in research frameworks and methodologies. Hence, the key question: how can building the “cumulativeness” of knowledge be ensured?
2) Working through dilemmas of embeddedness. Researchers are often in close contact, if not directly dependent on funding agencies and the clients of the research, so that preserving scientific independence is recognized as a challenge. In many cases, scientists are activists for particular issues and methods, as frameworks and choices of research objects are rarely, if ever, value-free. Both policy and science relevant frameworks for analysis must be developed; and the use of both qualitative and quantitative methods pursued. Both narratives and numbers can serve a broad range of purposes.
3) Need for translation agents and institutions. There is a need for continuous interaction between science and policy, which can be facilitated by individuals or institutions who act as translation agents or “boundary spanners”. Performing translation activities is important for social learning (i.e. carefully designed cross-country knowledge exchange programmes), for operationalizing scientific understanding (i.e. in water plans and policies), and in order to make scientific studies policy-relevant and readily utilizable.
These points are not specific to comparative research, but rather to developing and using frameworks and methods for social science research in water governance theory and practice.