My interdisciplinary research program is used to explore the question: ‘why and how do people and societies make decisions about water supply and use?’
I am specifically interested in understanding the ways that individuals make decisions about water – at multiple scales from residential to municipal programs to large scale infrastructure – and not necessarily within the confines of rules, processes and policies. I use ideas and methods drawn from environmental and social psychology, cognitive science, geography and sociology build my research program as outlined below.
My doctoral research (2004 – 2007) focused on the individual-within-their-community. I examined the use of social networks and knowledge management within existing networks in Canadian and southern African water efficiency communities-of-practice. In this work, I tried to reconcile endogenous and exogenous influences on individuals’ acquisition, transmission and use of knowledge within the structure of their social networks. By the end of this project, I recognized that my interests – and greatest research potential – were the endogenous drivers of identity, gender, memory and emotion influencing individuals.
During my post-doctoral research (2008-2011), my focus shifted to the individual-as-an-agent. At this scale, I was able to assess the mobilisation of social capital within communities; the influence of education norms and private sector initiatives related to water efficiency; and the expectations and challenges embedded in the career trajectories of female water researchers and policymakers across all career stages. This research uncovered the often-contradictory forces driving individuals’ motivation around water decisions. Based on the results from these studies, I began to investigate the influence of ‘cognitive-affective’ drivers – how the brain generates emotion signals that influence perceptions of rationality and decision-making. If you are a student, feel free to contact me about funded research opportunities.
My current (2012 – ongoing) research program is focused more tightly on how individuals’ cognitive processing and emotions affects their perceptions, definitions and prioritisation of water issues. I am particularly interested in how emotions – joy, fear, anger – scale up to group or societal decisions about water management. I ask questions such as the following:
- How are people influenced by their experiences of water scarcity over time and place?
- How does experiential learning influence students’ understanding of complex water problems and decision-making processes?
- How do emotions influence our ‘rational’ decision processes and how do individuals and groups negotiate emotion-laden decisions?
Water scholars frequently say a key factor in actors’ decision-making is that they have “insufficient information”. This lack of information generates uncertainty and, therefore, we perpetually need more research on aspects of political will, economic incentives and policies/regulations.
Yet, while these types of inquiries are necessary, but I argue that they are insufficient; something critical is missing in our understanding of water decisions. In a sharp departure from mainstream water research, my research is starting to show that an overlooked, yet critical, factor lies deep in the human condition: the conscious and unconscious emotional defenses arising from people’s fear of death. Perceived threats, including water problems such as scarcity, pollution, and/or water-borne disease, act as mortality reminders. Our efforts to repress that awareness of unavoidable mortality triggers predictable defense mechanisms that powerfully influences our behaviours. I plan to continue this rich line of inquiry into the future (foreseeably, five to seven years).
By including these additional psychosocial aspects in water decision-making, it becomes possible to examine the core assumptions underpinning the water community’s explanations for why particular outcomes do, or do not, occur. Insights from my research program will help those engaged in participatory, collaborative water governance processes, at multiple levels, to recognize and grapple with the increased diversity of norms, beliefs and values included in water research and policy discussions. Inclusion of these psychosocial aspects will enable more nuanced and proactive interventions in water decision-making.
Thanks to the University of Waterloo’s International Research Partnership Grant (2013) and the SSHRC Connection Grant for funding the preliminary stages of this research.