Understanding the Importance of Weak-Tie Networks in Complex Human-Environment Systems: Ecosocial Feedback in Multifunctional Agriculture

In agriculture, multifunctionality refers to production of a range of goods (agricultural commodities) and ecological services (e.g., conservation of biodiversity and water quality). Multifunctional agriculture is attracting considerable interest because it meets a range of social and ecological challenges to sustainability. This project will test a new model in which multifunctional agriculture is understood as a coupled human-environment system driven by ecosocial feedback, weak-tie social networks and multiple biophysical benefits. In this model, critical ecosocial feedback is mediated by weak ties social networks, or those that bridge between groups. Weak tie networks allow the shared perception of biophysical signals as well as communication, resource exchange, and collective action by individuals and groups. Through weak-ties social networks, multifunctional agroecosystems that generate ecological benefits receive resources that increase their spatial extent, better signal these benefits, and increase the size and resource base of social networks. The project will test the hypothesis that this ecosocial feedback is strong enough to overcome systemic barriers to extensive adoption of an important emerging form of multifunctional agriculture, rotational grazing (RG). Work will occur in three states (NY, WI, MN) that differ markedly in development of RG. The project will examine individual and group behavior and social-network development , assess its biophysical effects, and use these findings to create an agent-based model of RG dynamics. Methods include digital mapping and remote sensing of social and ecological phenomena; biophysical research on terrestrial and aquatic systems at farm and landscape scales; social science interviews and structural equation modeling for farmer and network actors; and integrated modeling. Education and outreach for a variety of audiences include use of the model as a post-secondary educational game on ecosocial feedback, and working with grazing organizations to share the empirical results in a wide range of settings including conferences and strategic planning sessions. Better understanding of dynamics of multifunctionality is important to society in several ways. In terms of theoretical advances, this research proposes a new model of feedback among social and ecological systems that could be applied not just to agriculture but also to many different kinds of productive systems that involve humans and the environment. In terms of practical outcomes, this project will help lower barriers to the expansion of grazing, which offers considerable potential for rural economic revitalization in many US regions, while also helping make the increasingly important US bioeconomy more sustainable. The proposed research will help identify both opportunities and barriers affecting development of a sustainable bioeconomy based on multifunctional agriculture. Finally, the project helps a variety of different people learn about multifunctional agriculture in particular and human-environment interactions more broadly.

Lead Investigator: 
Other Investigator(s): 
agent-based model
Temporal Scope: 
Spatial Scope: 
Natural System: 
temperate ecosystem services
Human System: 
agropastoral, social networks