Wall Scholar Q&A: Rika Preiser

March 25, 2022

In 2021 PWIAS expanded the Wall Scholars program to include scholars from outside UBC. For the first time in the program’s history we welcomed Wall Scholars from Toronto, South Africa, and Spain.

About 2021 Wall Scholar Rika Preiser

Rika Preiser is an Associate Professor at the Centre for Sustainability Transitions, Stellenbosch University, South Africa. Her research explores the conceptual development of complexity and how the study of the features and dynamics of Complex Adaptive Systems inform novel ways for thinking and anticipating more equitable social-ecological futures. She is co-editor of The Routledge Handbook on Research Methods for Social-Ecological Systems (2021). This volume represents the first serious effort to introduce complexity-based research methods for studying social-ecological systems.

Q1. How would you describe your research to someone with limited knowledge of your field? What do you find most interesting/makes you passionate about your field of research?

My pathway to being interested in complex systems is a very unconventional one. Usually, complexity scientists are trained in Physics, Mathematics or Computer Science, since the discoveries in complex systems have originated in these disciplines during the last 60 years. My interest has always been in how the theories and discoveries made about the features and behaviours of complex systems, could be applied to the humanities and social sciences as my academic background is in Anthropology and Philosophy. I am interested in the qualitative study and lived experiences of complexity and how the often abstract and analytical insights of complex systems research from the natural sciences, can be translated to inform inter- and transdisciplinary engagements with complexity.

The study of complex systems reveals that the nature of reality is organic, dynamic and everchanging. This means that when dealing with complex living systems (humans and nature), problems are seldomly well-defined, cause and effect interactions are not directly traceable and therefore it becomes really difficult to make detailed predictions of how such systems will behave as they change and unfold over time. For me, this recognition of complexity introduces a new worldview in how we understand the nature of reality and I am really interested in what this means for how we can re-imagine what it means to be human in an ever-changing world.

Being one of a few complexity researchers based in Africa, my work is also focussed on how the insights in this field can inform new frameworks and interventions for fostering social-ecological sustainability and just transitions in development contexts.

Q2. How are you approaching this year’s theme: Complex Systems?

I have been interested in the notion of complexity since I started post-graduate research in 2001. My initial interest in how cultural or contextual expressions of lived experiences of being in the world soon led me to discover that the biggest challenge we deal with when thinking about how individual and social or collective sensemaking happens, is always marked by paradoxes, tensions and uncertainty.

This realisation led me to the discovery of complexity theory which essentially is the scientific engagement with fundamental uncertainty, change and indeterminism. My interest is really in how the philosophical foundations of complex systems research could be translated into more accessible terms and languages so that scholars and communities of practice from a wide range of disciplines and societal domains, can access and use the ideas, methods and implications of complex systems research.

Q3. “Relationality” is a concept you’re working with while at PWIAS. Can you speak on that a bit?

Absolutely. What we learn when we engage with complex systems research, is that phenomena are intrinsically more linked and intertwined with each other than what might be apparent at first. The interconnected relational nature of all reality sits at the very centre of a more holistic worldview that can inform new modes of thinking, being and worldmaking.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us that what happens locally cannot be disconnected or isolated from what happens globally. I am interested in how we can re-think this radical inter-connectedness when we think about human-nature relations in our endeavours of transitioning towards more just and sustainable futures.

I am also exploring how the idea of relationality is embedded in the deep wisdom and philosophies of non-Western knowledge systems. For example, in African cosmologies and languages relationality is expressed in the Xhosa notion of “ubuntu” or the Shona notion of “ukama”.  These ancient and indigenous notions of being relationally constituted can inform our practices and policies in creative ways when dealing with issues of diversity, equality, change and social-ecological transformation.

Through a collaboration with fellow Wall Scholar, Hanne de Jaegher, we will host a workshop in April at PWIAS, to explore how these ideas can be applied in practical situations to discover how more awareness of how we relate to ourselves and other can foster greater understanding for how to interact across diversity.

Q4. Describe an encounter/person/paper/etc. that made you look differently at your research/work.

The last few years I have been deeply engaged in project-based and solution-driven sustainability research in Southern Africa where we partner with decision-makers, communities, NGOs and para-statal organisations. Our research in South Africa really has to be contextually relevant and after having arrived at PWIAS, I was challenged by the very different context in which scholars and researchers here have to address issues of social and environmental justice, sustainability and decoloniality.

For a while I could not un-see the scope and nature of the challenges we face in Africa when it comes to tackling poverty alleviation, health care, sustainability and the transition to more just and equal societies and the challenges here in Canada felt vastly different in scale and urgency. I realise that I could not fully connect to what my fellow PWIAS scholars were studying, and it took me a while to land into a deeper understanding and appreciation of the local context.

The conversations and deep work that have been done here at PWIAS and by my fellow Wall Scholars with Indigenous communities on decolonial futures, health care, biodiversity loss and climate change, food security, immigration, anti-racism, environmental justice, systems-based conflict resolution, human interaction, labour law and mathematical modelling have been a real eye opener for me. I realise that in South Africa we essentialize the challenges we need to address and often lose sight of what is being done elsewhere and that we need to forge much wider collaborations and exchanges.

South Africa often serves as fertile ground for launching case studies for partners from the “Global North” (as dictated by granting agencies). I realize that we need more exchanges where we can learn from the contextualities and lived experiences of our partners in other parts of the world if we are to re-imagine new modes of thinking, being and world-making. At the same time, we need to develop ways in which to translate our own findings and methods more succinctly to our partners so that our insights and results become more relevant and impactful in the global knowledge landscape.