Effective natural resource management (NRM) often depends on collaboration through formal and informal relationships. Social network analysis (SNA) provides a framework for studying social relationships and is becoming a common tool for conservation practitioners. Simply put, social network analysis is a way of mapping who collaborates and for what, so that the patterns of collaborations can be described and analyzed.

Examples of applied SNA research in conservation include: identifying stakeholders who can coordinate management actions at different scales; diffusing knowledge across the network; identifying well-connected stakeholders to engage with; and informing ‘network weaving’ (i.e. catalyzing new networks or building on existing ones through the creation of new connections) to develop or strengthen links among stakeholders. But the missing link, that can be critical for these applications, is a deeper understanding of the relationships that are mapped in these networks.

By integrating multiple analytical methods, including SNA, evidence ratings, and perception matrices, we were able to investigate the nature of relationships in NRM collaboration networks across five service types (e.g., technical advice, on-ground support) in our case study region, Daly River catchment, Australia (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Daly River catchment, Northern Territory, Australia

We explored two aspects of the nature of relationships: 1) the extent to which organizations had a choice in engaging in those relationships, and 2) the perceived characteristics of the organizations within the network.  Only one service type was rated as highly associated with free choice in establishing relationships: technical advice/knowledge (Figure 2). Beneficial characteristics of NRM organizations, such as collaborative and transparent, were associated with the presence of freely chosen relationships between organizations.

Figure 2. Social network for technical advice and knowledge. Nodes are sized based on out-degree centrality (organizations with more connections out are larger).

Our approach provides a deeper understanding of the nature of relationships and allows for clearer conclusions to be drawn about whether organizations are choosing to collaborate because of perceived beneficial characteristics of organizations or out of necessity. The assumption that agency underlies collaborative ties does not hold true across all five of our networks.

Our results suggest a need to improve our understanding of organizational roles and characteristics, in particular for use in applied NRM contexts, such as network weaving or disseminating information.

The paper describing the study is freely available in Society and Natural Resources.

The work presented in the paper is a component of a larger ongoing project across three catchments in northern Australia, which aims to improve our understanding of collaboration networks in northern Australia. Our results can be useful to planners to identify key actors to facilitate engagement with diverse stakeholder groups, identify missing actors, and find ways to enable collaboration.

Watch this space as we post updates on our project across the north!

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