Social learning for solving complex problems: a promising solution or wishful thinking? A case study of multi-actor negotiation for the integrated management and sustainable use of the Drentsche Aa area in the Netherlands



Social learning has been championed as a promising approach to address complex resource problems. According to theory, social learning requires several pre-conditions to be met, including (1) a divergence of interests, (2) mutual interdependence and (3) the ability to communicate. This article investigates what happened when social learning was put into practice in a multi-actor negotiation platform in the Dutch Drentsche Aa area. Our findings show that, although the platform aimed for open dialogue and at first sight appeared to meet the conditions, social learning was not achieved and the negotiations stagnated because of disagreement, frustration and distrust. Further analysis shows that the process was characterized from the beginning by unequal power relations, which enabled a dominant coalition to impose its problem definition and limit possible solutions. The article concludes by discussing the implications of our findings for the theory and practice of social learning. Copyright © 2009 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd and ERP Environment.