American Sociological Association

ASA Footnotes

A publication of the American Sociological AssociationASA News & Events
May/June 2020

Lessons in Finding Consensus (Environmental Sociology)

Jill Richardson,University of Wisconsin-Madison

The work of a non-profit in rural Montana, Blackfoot Challenge (BC), to coordinate a community response to threats posed by carnivores, can provide insight on how to manage the social dynamics of the pandemic. A grizzly bear and a coronavirus are quite different, but collective action is needed to handle both, requiring agreement on the definition of the problem and enough participation in the solutions that they are effective.

Conflicts over wildlife are “embedded in deeper societal tensions” over power relations and conflicting visions of how humans should interact with nature (Skogen 2015; Farrell 2015; Nie 2003). Skogen, Mauz, and Krange (2008) found that conspiracy rumors advocated by opponents of wolf recovery in Europe were a form of cultural resistance in a society that privileges scientific knowledge over lay knowledge. Studies of entrenched conflicts over wildlife show that techno-rational approaches to problem solving do not work, but Blackfoot Challenge provides insight on how to help all sides find a shared path forward to solve problems, perhaps even during a pandemic. 

Here are the steps Blackfoot Challenge took that could be more broadly applied to resolving other polarizing issues that require collective action, like COVID-19:

(1) Prioritize Trust and Relationships: BC’s process begins by allowing people to get to know one another socially. And they have fun! Trusting relationships are the foundation of their work. In interviews, participants spoke about the importance of trust and how hard they worked to establish and protect that trust over time. They expressed empathy for others with opposing interests and willingness to participate in shared sacrifice for the good of the community. 

(2) Show, Don’t Tell: Instead of telling someone what to believe, BC creates opportunities to allow everyone to form conclusions on their own. A prominent local rancher sharing how electric fencing has performed on his or her ranch (with video of the fence deterring carnivores) is preferable to a wildlife biologist from the city advocating electric fences. 

(3) Participatory Decision-Making: BC only takes a position if their board is able to achieve consensus in supporting it. The board is a diverse group of stakeholders and the public is welcome at board meetings. Striving for consensus requires working together, unlike majority rule where polarization can be rewarded because each side needs to build a case for why they are right and their opponents are wrong. Participants report that they like that everyone can be heard. Their transparent, participatory process builds confidence and support among the community because many perceive BC as truly representing the will of the people. 

(4) Proper Pacing: BC plays the long game. They advocate starting work on a potential problem early, before it reaches a crisis. This requires working on multiple issues at once and drawing on trust and relationships already created to address new issues as they arise. In 2019, one BC staff member said, “Some of these electric fences we’re building now are 15, 20 years in the making.”

(5) Don’t Demonize People with Whom You Disagree: Both carnivores and COVID-19 can be polarizing and emotional because lives and livelihoods are at stake. BC approaches disagreement by extending respect and empathy to all. They try to listen and learn from one another to find a solution that is mutually agreeable.

BC understands that the task of preventing wildlife conflict is a social one. In some ways, BC’s process is too little, too late for the coronavirus. We don’t have years to wait while we slowly build trusting relationships—although we can begin work now so we’re better prepared for the next crisis. We also can’t gather in person, limiting the potential to start by getting to know one another socially. And the process only works when all sides are willing to participate in good faith. 

What we can do now is start using our sociological imaginations to understand the diverse range of reactions to the coronavirus. Sociologists should have a place at the table analyzing how and why common threats that require collective action have been addressed successfully, and how to apply those lessons to the coronavirus.