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Do practitioners of holistic management exhibit systems thinking?

Carolyn Mann, School for Resource and Environmental Studies, Dalhousie University, Halifax
John R. Parkins, Department of Resource Economics and Environmental Sociology, University of Alberta, Edmonton
Marney E. Isaac, Department of Physical and Environmental Sciences and the Centre for Critical Development Studies, University of Toronto Scarborough, Ontario; Department of Geography, University of Toronto
Kate Sherren, School for Resource and Environmental Studies, Dalhousie University, Halifax


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Holistic management (HM) is a decision-making framework, first developed in grazing systems, which combines intensive, rapid rotation of grazing livestock with adaptive and holistic decision making. Holistic management's use of systems thinking concepts may help farmers cope with increasing complexity on their farms. We used Q-methodology, a mixed method approach for identifying discourses, to understand the levels and types of systems thinking employed by farmers and HM trainers along a gradient of HM engagement. With responses from 18 Canadian and American participants, we identified 3 main viewpoints: the Fluent Systems Thinker, with adherence to core systems ideas such as tackling root causes and mimicking nature; the Aspirational Systems Balancer, who appreciates systems thinking ideas but struggles with application; and the Independent Creative Farmer, who adheres to more conventional farming traditions but values creativity and learning. These groups differed in their levels of empowerment, creativity, goal setting, and willingness to learn, all of which can affect capacity to manage complex decisions. All but one participating HM trainer were Fluent Systems Thinkers, suggesting the alignment of HM with systems thinking. All three of our participating females fell under the Aspirational Systems Balancer, suggesting lower levels of empowerment. We concluded that stronger engagement with HM correlates with higher adherence to systems thinking ideas and different types of systems thinking, although more research is needed to explore the direction of causation, the role of gender, and the ultimate effects on farm outcomes.

Key words

adaptive multipaddock grazing (AMP); agroecology; complex systems; holism; holistic management; Q methodology

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Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087