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Negotiating credibility and legitimacy in the shadow of an authoritative data source

Amanda E. Cravens, Gould Center for Conflict Resolution, Stanford Law School, Stanford, CA, USA
Nicole M. Ardoin, Graduate School of Education & Woods Institute for the Environment, Stanford University, Stanford, CA, USA


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Environmental agencies designate certain datasets as “authoritative,” or official datasets for use in decision making. Although this is a common administrative term, the notion of certain sources being authoritative has received minimal attention in the social science literature. Science translates into environmental decisions when it is perceived as being salient, credible, and legitimate. But the actual process by which data come to be viewed as credible and legitimate has received little attention. Drawing on 58 semistructured interviews, we examine the mutual negotiation and social learning that occurred during the course of a planning process focused on the development of new marine protected areas in California, under the auspices of the Marine Life Protection Act Initiative. A geospatial decision support tool, MarineMap, was viewed by scientists and state agency staff as an authoritative data source. Stakeholder acceptance of certain data, however, required extended dialogue and trust building over time. Acceptance of the data and tool influenced participant views of the planning process as a whole. This case reveals that the ways in which conversations about ambiguous or missing data are conducted influence stakeholders’ trust in scientific analysis, as well as their belief in the legitimacy of decision making.

Key words

best available science; boundary object; decision support tool, MarineMap; marine protected areas; social learning

Copyright © 2016 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article is under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. You may share and adapt the work for noncommercial purposes provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087