Evaluating diagramming as praxis

Reynolds, Martin (2017). Evaluating diagramming as praxis. In: Oreszczyn, Sue and Lane, Andy eds. Mapping Environmental Sustainability: Reflecting on systemic practices for participatory research. University of Bristol: Policy Press, pp. 207–230.


Researching into systemic failure associated with complex situations of environmental sustainability involves many different interactions amongst many different entities (human and non-human). For example, the trigger of global warming (caused primarily by use of fossil fuels in developed countries) has encouraged the rapid development of biofuel agriculture through grants from rich countries in the global North to Brazil and other tropical countries in the global South. This has generated what Sawyer (2008) calls an eco-social collapse: involving both ecological problems (deforestation, pesticide pollution, etc.) and socio-economic problems (particularly with concentration of land tenure, very poor working conditions for those forced to provide cheap labour for biofuel plantations, and increasing food prices for the population). To what extent might such a situation arise from breakdowns in the quality of communications? Apart from researching the importance of inter-human communication, there might also be important factors associated with the quality of our ‘communication’ with the natural world.

In this chapter I use the metaphor of ‘conversation’ for describing praxis. The chapter weaves together three stories about diagramming as a means of developing sustainability through praxis. The first story provides some context. It is about evaluation in the field of sustainable development, and particularly the conversation between what might be called big ‘E’ evaluation – institutionalised demands for evidence-based guarantors or assurances for successful interventions as expected, for example, by funders of research – and small ‘e’ evaluation – the multitude of practices including visual based tools that may contribute towards developing value in, for example, a funded research project. The story tracks the growing importance of what has been called ‘developmental evaluation’ (Patton, 2011) – a tradition involving research evaluation – as a means of conversing between big ‘E’ and small ‘e’.

The second and third stories track the history of a particular diagram developed by the author; a representation of praxis that has been shaken-up, messed-about with, and adapted for different uses during the past 15 years. The first of these two stories relates to representing the praxis of environmental responsibility (as a core constituent of developing environmental sustainability), and the second relates to making visual representations of developmental evaluation. Both stories narrate the changing form of the diagramming to suit particular needs. The purpose here is to demonstrate how a diagrammatic representation might allow space for ‘conversation’ at different levels of practice, including disciplinary (amongst specialist experts), interdisciplinary (between different experts) and transdisciplinary (between experts and civil society) practices.

Weaving the stories together, a mapping tool – the heuristic of systemic triangulation – is presented as a systems-based influence diagram. The tool can be used for evaluating interventions at different levels, including the intervention of using visual techniques.

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