Enacting boundaries or building bridges? Language and engagement in food-energy-water systems science

Valoree S. Gagnon, Chelsea Schelly, William Lytle, Andrew Kliskey, Virginia H. Dale, Anna Maria Marshall, Luis F. Rodriguez, Paula Williams, Michael Waasegiizhig Price, Elizabeth A. Redd, Margaret A. Noodin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Scientific study of issues at the nexus of food–energy–water systems (FEWS) requires grappling with multifaceted, “wicked” problems. FEWS involve interactions occurring directly and indirectly across complex and overlapping spatial and temporal scales; they are also imbued with diverse and sometimes conflicting meanings for the human and more-than-human beings that live within them. In this paper, we consider the role of language in the dynamics of boundary work, recognizing that the language often used in stakeholder and community engagement intended to address FEWS science and decision-making constructs boundaries and limits diverse and inclusive participation. In contrast, some language systems provide opportunities to build bridges rather than boundaries in engagement. Based on our experiences with engagement in FEWS science and with Indigenous knowledges and languages, we consider examples of the role of language in reflecting worldviews, values, practices, and interactions in FEWS science and engagement. We particularly focus on Indigenous knowledges from Anishinaabe and the language of Anishinaabemowin, contrasting languages of boundaries and bridges through concrete examples. These examples are used to unpack the argument of this work, which is that scientific research aiming to engage FEWS issues in working landscapes requires grappling with embedded, practical understandings. This perspective demonstrates the importance of grappling with the role of language in creating boundaries or bridges, while recognizing that training in engagement may not critically reflect on the role of language in limiting diversity and inclusivity in engagement efforts. Leaving this reflexive consideration of language unexamined may unknowingly perpetuate boundaries rather than building bridges, thus limiting the effectiveness of engagement that is intended to address wicked problems in working landscapes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)131-148
Number of pages18
JournalSocio-Ecological Practice Research
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 2022


  • Anishinaabe language
  • Community engagement
  • FEWS science
  • Indigenous knowledges
  • Stakeholder engagement

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Nature and Landscape Conservation
  • Urban Studies


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