An Ecological Metaphor for Policymaking


While I would like to claim that my concept of an ecological metaphor applied to education is wholly new, the reality is that many have come before me. Behold, for example, a 2008 Educational Researcher article by Marcus Weaver-Hightower (he also blogs about school food!), in which he argues for the application of an ecological metaphor to policy analysis. Entitled An Ecology Metaphor for Educational Policy Analysis: A Call to Complexity, his analysis makes many points that are echoed here on this blog. Weaver-Hightower is focused mainly upon a policy context, however, while I apply the metaphor mostly to school environments. I think the metaphor extends equally well in both directions–both within the classroom in terms of pedagogy and curriculum, and without the classroom in the form of policy-making, public discourse, and other societal relationships.

Weaver-Hightower’s analysis presents many insights that I’d like to adopt. Let’s examine some salient passages from his paper:

Some might recoil from grand metaphors, but such metaphors can help us to conceptualize our subjects in revealing ways. . . . The ecology metaphor helps us to conceptualize policy processes as complex, interdependent, and intensely political. It models policy processes on concepts from the natural sciences, bringing new understandings and attention to often overlooked aspects of policy creation and implementation. (Bold added)

I will second all the above!

In the life and physical sciences, ecology refers to a system of relationships among organisms and between organisms and their environments. . . Each factor and organism has influence on the others, and many complex interrelationships among them are required to sustain the system. A policy ecology works in similar ways; as with any metaphor, however, there are divergences (not all biological processes correspond to human social processes, and vice versa).

Every contextual factor and person contributing to or influenced by a policy in any capacity, both before and after its creation and implementation, is part of a complex ecology.

In general, the characteristics that a policy analyst might examine in any ecology can be broken down into four categories derived from literature on both social and natural ecologies: actors, relationships, environments and structures, and processes (summarized in the appendix). (Bold added)

The delineation of these four categories is instructive. The category of “actors” is fairly self-explanatory, but I think it will be useful to briefly summarize each of the categories that Weaver-Hightower fleshes out, as he provides much worthy of exploration.

  • Actors – refers to the various stakeholders involved in or affected by the ecology of a policy, such as parents, teachers, politicians, and so on, all of whom can assume multiple roles, and hold varying degrees of power
  • Relationships – relationships in an ecology can be defined by competition, cooperation, predation, and symbiosis
  • Environments and Structuresboundaries demarcate ecologies, and within an ecology, “actors face extant conditions,” as well as pressures towards change. Ecological environments/structures are furthermore defined by inputs, consumption, and niches and roles (what Tom Bently termed “specialization). Weaver-Hightower also makes the point that ecologies don’t have a central locus of control, and thus are defined by an adaptive decentralization (Bently termed this “self-organization”), which allows for agency — the ability for actors to “change the ecological system to their benefit.”
  • Processes – Given the constant change occurring within an ecology, they can be created anew through the process of emergence, or collapse in disorder, termed entropy. In response to entropy, an ecology may be undergo adaptation, conversion, fragmentation, or succession. To avoid entropy, an ecology can be stabilized through conservation, prevented through anticipation, or countered through redundancy.
Weaver-Hightower also cautions against the limits of an ecological metaphor, a warning that I have similarly echoed here in my post “We Are Not Hippies“, as well as in “No Climax, Perhaps: Ecosystems Must Be Intensively Managed“:

Like all metaphors, however, the ecology metaphor is not without dangers and blind spots. In particular, analysts should be wary of extrapolating from an ecological view that policy is somehow “natural” or that it should be seen as an organic, inevitable outgrowth of human needs for social regulation. The policy process, rather, is created and constructed, and it is always already manipulated by those with the greatest social, political, cultural, and economic resources. . .  I mean the ecology metaphor to represent complexity and interdependence. It does not imply a “natural” and therefore inevitable or acceptable adaptation of political structures to their environs. (Bold added)

Weaver-Hightower notes that the power in looking at policy through an ecological lens lies in its ability to address complex contexts:

. . . conceptualizing policy as an ecology can be powerful for the analyst. It requires that the analyst look at the history and culture of a place, its many actors, their relationships, and the larger national and international dynamics involved. Traditional or functional analyses would be less well equipped to uncover the full range of underpinnings for the shaping of a policy or, as in the case under discussion, the lack of official policy amid the profusion of de facto policy. Traditional policy analysis focuses on accomplished policy (often rightly). It also privileges inputs and outputs, looks primarily to the actors most in the public eye, and often makes invisible the historical, cultural, social, and mediated contexts that delimit or catalyze policy. A policy ecology metaphor, on the other hand, provides a framework for asking broader questions about the many contexts and influences swirling around a policy process. Who are the necessary and influential actors? What relationships exist among actors? Within what environments and structures do they all operate? What processes are they dealing with, reacting to, or creating? (Bold added)

Finally, Weaver-Hightower provides a critique of the idea that we can focus only on policies that target specific parts of a problem. I forwarded a similar critique in my dialogue with Sara Mead, in which I noted that education reform should be messy:

To strategize in a system that one conceptualizes in this way—to be more successful because one has such a perspective—means intervening in the policy process at many points rather than agitating at one particular stage of a circuit. As Banathy (1996) argued, policies are too often aimed at breaking a problem into manageable parts and fixing each part individually. However, “getting rid of what is not wanted does not give you what is desired” (p. 82); fixing things that go wrong at one stage of a policy, in other words, does not guarantee that the whole policy will be fixed. Conceptualizing policy as an interdependent ecology resists such fragmented strategy. (Bold added)

There is much more worth exploring in this paper, so I would encourage you to check it out if you are interested. Weaver-Hightower’s discussion of a policy as both a text and a discourse was interesting, and he provides a demonstration of the applicability of his metaphor by exploring (the lack of) boys’ education policy in the US.

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