2023 journal article
A methodology for using a multilevel perspective framework to analyze complex systems
Misalignment between the different levels of complex societal systems (e.g. socio-technical, socio-ecological) are often a barrier to transitioning these systems toward more sustainable behavior. One way to understand alignment is through the Multilevel Perspective Theory of sustainable transitions in sociotechnical systems (MLP) which posits that when a regime (the current “ways of doing” something) exhibits behavior that negatively impacts its surrounding economic, social and environmental landscape, that landscape will exert pressure on the regime to change. This in turn opens the window of opportunity for niche developments such as novel technology adoption or policy changes. Therefore, understanding the relationships between the landscape, the regime and emerging niches can help align these different levels of perspective to facilitate a successful transition toward more sustainable practices. This paper describes a methodology for mapping complex systems such as agricultural systems based on MLP theory, and incorporates a fourth “user” level (e.g. the farm) into this multilevel framework (MLP+ F). The methodology is illustrated with a case study example of North Carolina’s lagoon and sprayfield swine waste management regime. By integrating well-established techniques for data collection and analysis, the case study engages a diverse panel of local experts through a modified Delphi approach to identify the relevant concepts and their cause-effect relationships for the current regime. These concepts and relationships are then categorized and organized into a multilevel, multi-perspective conceptual model using fuzzy cognitive maps. The conceptual model identifies how stakeholder groups align in their perception of the system, and provides a foundation for future qualitative, semi-quantitative, and visual analyses of the system and how it can be changed through alternative scenarios. Although this methodology was initially developed for agricultural applications, it has potential for application to other complex societal issues where understanding stakeholder alignment and the potential for sustainability transitions through change are needed.